The Scottish Parliament, restored in 1999 after almost 300 years of direct government from Westminster, has now been with us for 13 years. During this time it has grown and matured, and in parallel, Scotland’s only major party promoting Scottish independence, the SNP, has changed similarly, from opposition in the first two sessions of Parliament, to minority government in the third, and finally to majority government in the fourth.
Hardly surprisingly, the SNP’s political raison d’etre, independence for Scotland, has moved to the very forefront of political debate in Scotland, and to much greater prominence as a whole, over the same period. The return of an SNP government in Scotland at the May 2011 Parliamentary elections brought with it a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within the five years of the 2011-16 Parliamentary session.
Let us assume that Scotland votes for full independence in the referendum and that negotiations will start immediately to determine when and how Scotland will remove itself politically from the rest of the UK. By plumping for full independence rather than some halfway house of increased devolution, the country has become responsible for all the trappings of state, including its own armed services. These, the Scottish Defence Forces (SDF), are likely to be organised along conventional lines into a Scottish Navy, Scottish Army and Scottish Air Force (SAF). It is the latter, the SAF, that concerns us here.
In suggesting exactly how the SAF might be organised, equipped and deployed one has to ultimately resort to a combination of informed hypothesis and comparison with other similar nations and states. There is, understandably, no blueprint or precedent to follow. Scotland was last independent many centuries before powered flight and air power became a reality. However, we can assume that control of airspace, the protection of population and strategic assets from attack or disruption from the air, and the ability to project power regionally, and if need be, internationally are some of the major tasks which the SAF might be asked to do. In addition, one of the main lessons of modern warfare is that denying an enemy use of the air is a prerequisite for successful operations on land and sea. Scotland might well need to call on an air force capable of all these functions. Part of this requirement might be found from existing RAF assets in Scotland, and an examination of those is a useful starting point when considering the SAF.
The RAF presence in Scotland has decreased significantly in recent years, with further cuts currently in hand. Whilst until recently there were three main RAF stations in Scotland – Leuchars, Kinloss and Lossiemouth – the UK government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will effectively reduce this to one, RAF Lossiemouth, by 2020. The review deemed the maritime surveillance Nimrod MRA4 too expensive to bring into service and scrapped the programme, thereby making RAF Kinloss redundant for air force purposes. The airfield closed in 2011 and is due to close as an RAF station in 2013. It is likely to house some of the army units returning from Germany under the SDSR. Likewise RAF Leuchars, currently home to one of the RAF’s Typhoon FGR4 Squadrons, will close in due course and become an army base at some point before 2020. Its fighter aircraft may well relocate to Lossiemouth, which under current plans is to remain the only operational RAF airfield in Scotland. Here are currently located three operational squadrons of Tornado GR4s, the Tornado GR4 Operational Conversion Unit, a Sea King Search and Rescue Flight, an RAF Regiment Field Squadron and an RAF Regiment Auxiliary Squadron, as well as an extensive range of operational, logistic and administrative support functions. On top of all this there are various minor units and facilities elsewhere, including radar stations at Benbecula and Saxa Vord and the RAF bombing range at Tain.
Effectively, Scotland would only have one operational SAF station on independence, although no doubt Leuchars could be revived and may be required to retain a functioning air capability if one of the UK’s multi role brigades (MRBs) is based there in due course, as mooted. There are, however, obvious dangers in putting all the SAF’s eggs in one basket, so reliance on one airbase is to be avoided. That said, if Leuchars were to be too far gone for revival then Scotland could take a leaf from other nations’ books and look to use civilian airports for military purposes. Again, with some investment, one or two of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen or Inverness airports might be suitable SAF alternative bases.
The real problem is with aircraft. Virtually none of the aircraft the SAF might want are stationed in Scotland post SDSR and yet there would be a requirement for airframes for all capability areas. For air defence and strike attack, the Typhoon and ageing Tornados are probably too sophisticated and too expensive for Scotland to maintain. Even the smaller nations’ aircraft of choice, the American F16, might be beyond the SAF’s realistic aspirations and, in any case, would have to be purchased from elsewhere. Scotland’s relatively modest needs in both roles might be filled, however, by the BAE Hawk aircraft currently in the RAF inventory. These are essentially advanced training aircraft with an operational capability which could well suit the SAF purposes in the early years of independence at least. None are currently stationed in Scotland, but with 118 in the RAF inventory Scotland should be able to negotiate its ‘share,’ possibly as many as 18 to form one, or possibly two, squadrons.
Maritime reconnaissance is obviously high on the priority list, and with the demise of the Nimrod MRA4 programme and closure of RAF Kinloss, Scotland has been left naked with no capability. A suitable aircraft would have to be purchased from elsewhere, possibly the Lockheed P-3 Orion or a similar type, with perhaps three or four aircraft giving a limited but important capability. In addition, or alternatively perhaps, unmanned aerial vehicles might be used in this role. There is a similar dearth of transport aircraft. These are a definite requirement, not only for the multifarious SAF tasks they might be required for but also to allow limited deployment of army units without reliance on other states and nations. The Hercules C130 series aircraft would be the obvious choice for the fixed wing requirement; the RAF has approximately 50 of these, and a negotiated share of between six and eight of these might fit the SAF bill. Transport helicopters are slightly more awkward. The obvious choice for heavy lift is the Chinook helicopter, of which the RAF has some 40. The SAF might claim six of these at a pinch, but likely fewer. Scotland might also want to claim some of the Sea King helicopter fleet, say half a dozen or so, possibly including the search and rescue aircraft at Lossiemouth.
These sorts of aircraft types in the numbers suggested might make up the bulk of the SAF, to which should be added the dozen or so aircraft operated by the University Air Squadrons and assorted other liaison and specialist aircraft which might be required. The SAF might therefore hold about 60 aircraft all told, organised perhaps into six operational squadrons. Assuming that an appropriate share of the RAF inventory could be negotiated, plus some judicious purchasing of types needed from elsewhere effected, it would appear that the resources and infrastructure for the SAF could be organised successfully. And, with a historical 14 per cent of the RAF recruited from Scotland on average, there would not appear to be any real problems with personnel either, provided of course that Scots serving with the RAF would be persuaded to join the SAF on independence. However, the SAF might have to train its personnel elsewhere, particularly with reference to officer and basic pilot training, until indigenous training facilities are established. This is unlikely to present major problems, for many nations are only too happy to assist as part of their diplomatic and foreign policy procedures.
An independent Scotland’s air force requirements are likely, therefore, to be modest, but also to form an important part of the SDF. There would appear to be few problems with bases for the SAF, but there is a dearth of the appropriate aircraft to serve the SAF’s likely tasks and needs. A combination of clever negotiation for Scotland’s ‘share’ of UK assets, combined with judicious purchase of the obvious gaps in the inventory, should allow an appropriate air force for a small nation of just over five million people. But much depends on cost, and that, of course, is a political, not a military, decision.