MPs highlight air defence fears for independent Scotland

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A UK parliamentary committee has raised serious questions about the ability of an independent Scotland to finance and field a sufficient number of advanced fighter aircraft to provide “credible” air defence for the nation.

In its report, The implications of a potentially independent Scotland, the House of Commons Defence Committee notes evidence from Keith Brown MSP that the Eurofighter Typhoons operated by the Royal Air Force “would be beyond the requirements of an independent Scotland”.

“Obviously we have significantly contributed to their cost but there may be more suitable ways for us to provide air cover,” he says.

Retired Air Marshall Iain McNicoll, an aerospace and defence consultant, was asked by the committee how many combat jets would be required “in order to function effectively”. He suggests around 15-30 aircraft would be sufficient and cites the suitability of the Saab Grippen and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for the role.

“However, he cautioned that the purchase of these aircraft would not be possible with an annual budget of under £400 million [$645 million] per annum,” the committee says.

It estimates that a fleet of fighter aircraft similar to that proposed by AM McNicoll would cost between $1.2 billion and $2.6 billion to acquire.

However, in his evidence, Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute proposes a co-operative model for Scottish air defence, noting that it was “hard to imagine” an independent Scotland taking “sole responsibility for patrolling its own airspace”.

The Scottish government has yet to detail its defence spending plans, but previously indicated an annual defence budget of £2.5 billion.

It has also suggested that two air bases – Leuchars and Lossiemouth – would be retained. However, Keith Brown told the committee that a solitary base would suffice.

The committee says it has serious reservations about Scotland’s defence strategy. “In view of the costs associated with acquiring different air defence aircraft from those the UK currently operates, we do not understand how the Scottish government expects, within the available budget, to mount a credible air defence – let alone provide the additional transport, rotary-wing and other support aircraft an air force would need,” it concludes.

The Scottish government will publish its defence White Paper at a later date. A referendum on independence will be held in 2014.