ANALYSIS: What Scottish independence would mean for UK aerospace and defence

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If the Scottish electorate votes ‘Yes’ in September’s referendum on whether to seek independence from the United Kingdom, it will not only be aircraft of the Russian Navy that will be emblazoned with a St Andrew’s cross.

Admittedly, the colours will be reversed (the Russian naval ensign has a white field and blue saltire) but a ‘Yes’ vote would see Eurofighter Typhoons, Lockheed Martin C-130Js and sundry other types carrying the ancient Scottish emblem on their fins.

How likely is a ‘Yes’ vote? At the time of writing, opinion polls indicated that those opposed to separation were in the majority, but that the gap between them and the pro-independence camp had narrowed.

A vote for independence would have ramifications not only for the UK Royal Air Force.

Several major players in Britain’s aerospace industry have made public their anxieties at the possible break-up of the UK. Companies hate uncertainty and the forthcoming vote has forced them to prepare a range of contingency plans. Some have gone public expressing their preference for the status quo.

Aerospace, defence, security and space trade organisation, ADS Group, has expressed concerns about the uncertainties and risks associated with the outcome of the referendum on the global competitiveness of companies across the UK.

“ADS members in the UK aerospace, defence, security and space industries benefit from the stability, strength and scale of the whole of the UK,” comments ADS CEO Paul Everitt.

“There is genuine uncertainty about the impact of independence on the UK’s – and Scotland’s – international influence, export opportunities and inward investment. Companies are concerned about the costs and consequences that negotiation and transition arrangements might have on procurement budgets, mature supply chains and highly-skilled workforces.”

BAE Systems, whose interests north of the border include its Regional Aircraft business at Prestwick that provides engineering and support services, notes that while “at this stage, we have no reason to believe our commercial business would be impacted if Scotland voted to become independent… it is clear that the continued union offers greater certainty and stability for our business.”

Raytheon UK, which has a major plant at Glenrothes producing advanced electrical systems for power management that find their way into a range of missiles, also has concerns: “Uncertainty around important topics within the Scottish referendum debate poses risks and challenges. Foreign export market access, technology transfer and licensing, currency, taxation, pensions and employment law are amongst the key issues that continue to require significant consideration.”

On the defence side of the coin, the military capabilities of an independent nation were set out in Scotland’s Future, the proposal for legislative change, in November 2013.

A fledgling Scottish air force would initially use equipment from a negotiated share of current UK assets to “secure core tasks, principally the ability to police Scotland’s airspace, within NATO”.

This would include:

• an air force HQ function;

• a Quick Reaction Alert squadron initially comprising 12 Eurofighter Typhoons, based at Lossiemouth;

• a tactical transport squadron of around six Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules;

• and a helicopter squadron (equipment unspecified).

Flying training would take place “through joint arrangements with allies”.

Five years after independence, the document continued, Typhoon numbers would have increased “potentially up to 16, which would enable Scotland to contribute to alliance operations overseas”. Acquiring around four maritime patrol aircraft would be a priority.

To provide adequate basing, flying at Leuchars (due to cease later this year as part of UK defence cuts) would be reinstated.

The White Paper added that joint procurement with the rest of the UK would be in the interests of all parties.

The document’s proposals are feasible, but only if a Scottish government is prepared to accept external assistance, believes Prof Malcolm Chalmers, director (UK defence policy) at the Royal United Services Institute defence think-tank.

The structure of the proposed Scottish air force would be “not dissimilar” to that of Denmark, says Chalmers. The biggest problem, at least initially, would be lifting operational squadrons out of the UK Royal Air Force. “That isn’t, I think, practical, because they are part of an integrated UK force.”

Assuming this problem could be solved through negotiations, the next issue would be keeping the aircraft operational: “If you want to operate a Typhoon squadron, you would be reliant on logistics, support and maintenance from the UK, or other Typhoon operators.

“In the short to medium term, the more Scotland tries to operate high-end, sophisticated squadrons, the more it would need the UK. The more Scotland tried to shake itself free from such dependence, the more expensive it would be."

For transport aircraft, Chalmers has doubts over taking on part of the UK’s C-130J fleet. “What is their role? Why would Scotland want that? The UK has invested a lot in transport because of their long-range commitments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Scotland is not going to do that. It might want to do what Denmark or Estonia do and just hitch a ride [on transport aircraft] with somebody else, like most of the small NATO states.”

The problem facing an independent Scotland – at least initially – is that it would be driven by the current UK military structure. It would be more sensible to sit down and acquire equipment after setting out the country’s military objectives in a new security policy, says Chalmers.

When it comes to training military aircrew, the rump UK would naturally want to prioritise its own forces and would therefore probably want to charge Scotland a full market rate for simulator use or basic and advanced flying training. “But that would still be a lot cheaper than Scotland trying to replicate it on a smaller scale.”

In terms of bases, the UK might want to maintain an interest north of the border (for intercepting Russian aircraft coming round the North Cape, for example), which could lead to Leuchars being designated a joint Scottish/UK base.

Would that arrangement lead to problems if Edinburgh and London took differing foreign policy positions on some future issue? “There are so many uncertainties involved in this,” admits Chalmers. “So much depends on the broader outcome of negotiations between the two countries.”

In a statement to Flight, a Scottish government spokeswoman accepted that much of the detail of a future Scottish air arm would be subject to negotiation.

“A priority in the period between the referendum and independence day would include the establishment of a military staff to advise the Scottish government in the transition and development of appropriate defence capabilities.

“A further priority would be negotiation with the rest of the UK of a first tranche of defence assets to transfer to Scottish defence forces.

“That would then form the basis for further detailed decision-making about the development of defence capabilities, including numbers, types and specific locations of capabilities.”

The Scottish government is committed to an annual ‘defence and security’ budget of £2.5 billion.

“This will give Scotland the opportunity to develop specific defence capabilities that better meet Scotland's needs and circumstances. In the event of a vote for independence, Scotland would inherit a share of existing UK defence assets, providing most of the equipment needed to establish Scotland's defence forces in the immediate post-independence period.”

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Although Scotland and England have been united de facto since the 1603 Union of the Crowns, when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England, and formally since the 1707 Act of Union, Scotland has had, particularly in modern times, a significant degree of autonomy. This takes into account its differing legal, educational and religious systems.

In 1999, a policy of devolution saw a Scottish parliament set up in Edinburgh, responsible for most aspects of Scottish governance. In 2011 the Scottish National Party, whose aim is an independent Scotland, won a majority of seats in the Edinburgh parliament and immediately demanded a referendum on independence.