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