Vote in Scotland could banish Britain’s nuclear submarines

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HELENSBURGH, Scot­land — For de­cades, Brit­ain’s con­tri­bu­tion to the threat of global Ar­ma­ged­don has found a home on the tran­quil shores of Gare Loch, where soar­ing green moun­tains plunge into murky gray wa­ters plied by sporty kay­ak­ers, week­end yachts­men — and nu­clear-armed sub­ma­rines.

The subs slip past this gar­ri­son town as qui­etly as sea mon­sters. Their dark hulls breach the wa­ter’s sur­face on their way from base out to the deep­est oceans, where Brit­ish na­val crews spend months poised to un­leash the dooms­day pay­load.

But if Scot­land votes “yes” in an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum next month, the sub­ma­rines could be­come nu­clear-armed no­mads, with­out a port to call home. Wash­ing­ton’s clos­est and most im­por­tant ally could, in turn, be left with­out the ul­ti­mate de­ter­rent, even as Europe’s bor­ders are be­ing rat­tled anew by a re­sur­gent Rus­sia.

Former NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­eral George Rob­ert­son, a Scots­man, said in a speech in Wash­ing­ton this year that a vote for in­de­pen­dence would be “cat­a­clys­mic” for Western se­cu­rity, and that eject­ing the nu­clear sub­ma­rines from Scot­land would amount to “dis­arm­ing the re­main­der of the United King­dom.”

The pro-in­de­pen­dence cam­paign promptly ac­cused Mr. Rob­ert­son of hy­per­bolic scare­mon­ger­ing. But the pos­si­bil­ity that Brit­ain could be­come the only per­ma­nent mem­ber of the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil with­out a nu­clear de­ter­rent un­der­scores just how much is at stake far be­yond these si­lent bays and ver­dant ridge­lines when Scot­land’s 5 mil­lion res­i­dents go to the polls Sept. 18.

“The loss of Scot­land would be a mas­sive thing for the U.K. — far big­ger than the 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion that Scot­land rep­resents,” said Phil­lips O’Brien, who di­rects the Scot­tish Center for War Studies at the Univer­sity of Glas­gow. “It would have a pro­found ef­fect on both the ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal view of what the U.K. rep­resents. And the nukes are a big part of that.”

Lead­ers of Scot­land’s se­ces­sion­ist move­ment say their in­de­pen­dent na­tion would be a nu­clear-free zone within four years of break­ing off from Great Brit­ain. The vow is a pop­u­lar one among the move­ment’s left-lean­ing vot­ers, and the cam­paign has dis­trib­uted fli­ers with in­struc­tions for “how to dis­arm a nu­clear bomb” that be­gin and end with vot­ing for in­de­pen­dence.

That ar­gu­ment is los­ing out to those who ad­vo­cate stick­ing with the United King­dom — and with nu­clear weap­ons. Polls show an ap­prox­i­mate 10-point ad­van­tage for the union­ist camp. But with a sub­stan­tial share of vot­ers un­de­cided, U.K. of­fi­cials re­main ner­vous that Scot­land could bolt — and that the nu­clear pro­gram could be a ca­su­alty. The pos­si­bil­ity pro­vides an un­com­fort­able back­drop for the NATO sum­mit that Brit­ain will host in Wales on Sept. 4 and 5.

With Brit­ain’s 58 Tri­dent mis­siles based in Scot­land, a “yes” vote would leave the rem­nants of the United King­dom to find a new home for the weap­ons and the four Van­guard-class sub­ma­rines that can be used to launch them.

But no such home ex­ists. Build­ing suit­able bases to house the mis­siles and dock the subs in En­gland would take at least a de­cade, ex­perts say, and cost bil­lions of dol­lars that the gov­ern­ment doesn’t have. Mr. O’Brien said it’s likely that Brit­ain would de­cide to scrap its nu­clear pro­gram rather than make pain­ful cuts else­where.

Even with­out the chal­lenge of re­lo­cating Tri­dent, there are plans to slash 30,000 troops from Brit­ain’s armed forces by 2020, and for­mer U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates ear­lier this year ques­tioned whether Brit­ain could be “a full part­ner” to Wash­ing­ton given the scale of the cuts.

Those doubts were re­in­forced this month when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama an­nounced air­strikes on Islamic State mil­i­tants in Iraq, and Brit­ain de­clined to join.

But as much as Brit­ain may be re­ced­ing mil­i­tar­ily, the pro­cess would prob­a­bly be ac­cel­er­ated if the United King­dom is torn in two, three cen­tu­ries af­ter Scot­land and En­gland joined forces.

An in­de­pen­dence vote would be fol­lowed by years of ne­go­ti­a­tion and tran­si­tion in which bases, hard­ware and per­son­nel would be di­vided, said Mal­colm Chalm­ers, re­search di­rec­tor at the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute, a think tank. Scot­land would have to build au­ton­o­mous de­fense forces, while Brit­ain would be “dis­tracted” by tough choices over what it can af­ford to do with­out. “The U.K. might be ab­sent from ac­tion for a sig­nifi­cant num­ber of years,” Mr. Chalm­ers said.

If Brit­ish of­fi­cials did de­cide to keep Tri­dent, he said, it would be be­cause they wouldn’t want “the ad­di­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing forced to dis­arm” af­ter los­ing a third of the U.K. land mass.

Brit­ain is not the first nu­clear power to face frag­men­ta­tion. When the So­viet Union tore apart in 1991, nu­clear weap­ons were spread across the re­pub­lics. But Rus­sia had its share and didn’t need to re­lo­cate fa­cil­i­ties to re­tain its de­ter­rence.

england - Europe - Barack Obama - Western Europe - United Kingdom - United Kingdom government - Scotland - North Atlantic Treaty Organization - Robert Gates - British armed forces


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