Home » Budget Industry » Royal Navy Faced With Tough Sub Choices If Scotland Leaves U.K.

Royal Navy Faced With Tough Sub Choices If Scotland Leaves U.K.

HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde following a nuclear deterrence patrol. U.K. Royal Navy Photo

HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde following a nuclear deterrence patrol. U.K. Royal Navy Photo

The heart of the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine enterprise could be cut out if Scotland leaves the U.K. in Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence, British leaders have warned repeatedly over the last several months.

Scots voting “Yes” for independence say they’re happy to see the subs go.

At issue are the Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBN) and their payloads stationed at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, tucked into a narrow bay in Scotland’s Southwest.

For more than 40 years, the Royal Navy has used Scotland to homeport its nuclear deterrent fleet and nuclear attack submarines (SSNs).

However — if the Sept. 18 secession referendum passes — an independent Scotland will almost certainly evict the Royal Navy’s boomers and their submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) from an independent Scotland.

“We believe that nuclear weapons have no place in Scotland,” read a 2013 policy paper published by the Scottish Government.
“We will therefore advocate that a written constitution should include a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland.”

Separatists would consent to let the base remain until 2020, leaving precious little time for the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) to find new homes for the aging Vanguards and the warheads for their Trident-II D5 SLBMs.

Military officials have warned the separation of Scotland from the rest of the U.K. would especially hurt the Royal Navy.

“The U.K. is deeply respected for its maritime contribution to NATO, with its maritime deterrent through its ships and submarines and marines, and that whole piece is part of NATO’s contribution to security,” wrote Adm. Sir George Zambellas — First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy — in April according to an U.K. Press Association report.
“Taking that apart would give us a much weaker result. The two components would not add up to the sum of the whole.”

Scots for independence argue that the U.K.’s reliance on its nuclear deterrent for protection has left Scotland unprepared for conventional conflict.

“The U.K.’s wasting money on Trident has left Scotland with totally unsuitable conventional defense capabilities – particularly maritime protection,” wrote Keith Brown, Scottish Government minister for veterans and former Royal Marine in a Sunday opinion piece.
“With independence we can invest in defense and security forces which reflect our needs in the 21st Century.”

HMNB Clyde — and the about 160 nuclear warheads stored there — has been the target of several protests and is a major political sore spot with the Scots long predating the independence push.

View Moving the Vanguards in a larger map

The Faslane base was stood up in the mid-1960s as a homeport for the Royal Navy’s four Resolution-class submarines — 8,500-ton boomers fielding 16 Polaris A-3 missiles. The nearby Naval Armaments Depot at nearby Coulport stores the warheads.

Since the Polaris era, Royal Navy has made significant investments in HMNB Clyde to accommodate the Vanguards and the missiles and warheads.

Any accommodation for the Vanguards in Britain’s existing naval bases will be expensive and the logistics of basing the boomers in France or the U.S. are complex — not to mention the politically challenging.

“Several options exist as a replacement base but none appear to be as good as the current facilities in Scotland,” Eric Wertheim, author of the Naval Institutes Combat Fleets of the World, told USNI News on Friday.
“Some are considered too close to population centers while others raise sovereignty issues or require very extensive financial investment and modification.”

U.K. Basing

If the U.K.’s sole nuclear deterrent leaves Scotland, the Royal Navy will have to replace not one but two facilities — the operational base for the Vanguards at Faslane and the warhead storage and loading facility at Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport.

There are some U.K. options, but none are ideal from the Royal Navy’s perspective.

View Southern Options in a larger map

When the Royal Navy was searching for a base for the quartet of Resolutions in the 1960s, it created a shortlist of ten locations, according to the 2002 paper published in The Nonproliferation Review, titled: The United Kingdom, Nuclear Weapons and the Scottish Question.

Of those original locations, two — one in Wales and one in Southern England — might be suitable for Vanguard basing, according to authors Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker. Chalmers was one of the original architects of basing the U.K. boomers at Clyde.

The most obvious choice is in England — HMNB Devonport.

The largest naval base in Western Europe, the site already conducts the nuclear refueling and refits for the Vanguard boats.

The few of HMS Vigilant in 2012 shortly before returning to service after a refit at HMNB Devonport. Royal Navy Photo

The few of HMS Vigilant in 2012 shortly before returning to service after a refit at HMNB Devonport. Royal Navy Photo

But space at the installation is already at a premium and it might be impossible to maintain prescribed minimum safety distances between a replacement for the Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport, other ships at the installation and nearby housing developments.

“The main issues with Devonport did not relate to recreating the facilities of Faslane, but of Coulport, and without Coulport, there is no deterrent,” read a 2012 report from the U.K. Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee.

Milford Haven in Wales is a deep-water port and could easily accommodate the comings and goings of the boomers. It’s also far from population centers. However, there’s a large oil refinery near by and military leaders in the 1960s scrapped the plan due to safety concerns.

A possibility not on the original Resolution list is Barrow-in-Furness, home of the U.K.’s BAE Systems submarine manufacturing base in Northwest England. The Royal Navy would have difficulty creating an operational base due to the lack of a reliable deep-water approach to the facility.

“That would restrict submarine access to convenient monthly tides without significant dredging, and the size of the dock which would not, at present, have room for more than two Vanguard-class submarines,” read the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee.
“Coulport is not just a storage site, but also possesses the huge floating dock where the warheads are placed inside the missiles.”

Any of the U.K. sites would require an expensive and intensive construction program that could take up to a decade to complete. At least one U.K. think thank said the cost for a new facility could be almost $5 billion.

Some Scottish leaders have said they want the warheads and the Vanguards gone by 2020.

U.S. and France

View Foreign Options in a larger map

Two sites that could more easily accommodate the Vanguards and the nuclear warheads are on foreign soil — France and the U.S.

The likeliest foreign home for the Vanguards and the payload would be Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga.

Begun as a military ocean terminal in the 1950s, the base began converting to a homeport for the U.S. boomer fleet starting in 1976.

The base is already integral to the U.K.’s ballistic missile submarine organization.

A total of about 58 Trident missiles were bought by the U.K. and are considered “mingled assets” with U.S. Tridents, according to Combat Fleets.

“The missiles are randomly selected from the U.S.-U.K. stockpile at Kings Bay, Ga. and loaded onto submarines. The British submarines then sail for the Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport,” reads the entry in Combat Fleets.

HMS Vanguard Launching a Trident II D5 missile in 2005.

HMS Vanguard Launching a Trident II D5 missile in 2005.

With the U.S. converting four Ohio-class submarines to guided missile carriers in the last two decades, there would likely be room to accommodate the warheads and the Vanguards.

“We must decide how important, in the short term, the word independence is in terms of our nuclear deterrent. After all, we rely on the U.S. for our missiles and for an awful lot of intelligence,” said Air Commodore Andrew Lambert with the U.K. National Defence Association — a group that advises U.K. should increase defense spending — in a Saturday speech quoted in the U.K.’s Sunday Express.
“We could easily run Trident from the US for ten years, and prepare the rest of the U.K. for whatever the follow on might be.”

The U.S. Navy would not comment on any proposal to relocate Vanguards and warheads to Kings Bay when contacted by USNI News.

The French Navy has kept the submarines of its Force océanique stratégique (FOST) at Île Longue nuclear submarine base since the 1970s.

Currently, its four Triomphant-class SSBNs operate from the Brittany peninsula.

Île Longue might have become more politically palatable for the British in recent years. France and the U.K. have two bilateral defense agreements ongoing — including operating both British and French aircraft from the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91).

Though closer than Kings Bay, space maybe tight in the facility and it might not be able to accommodate all four Vanguards.

Next Steps

Pro Independence Campaign Poster. Yes Scotland Image

Pro Independence Campaign Poster. Yes Scotland Image

If Scotland votes for independence on Thursday, it is unclear what the U.K.’s next steps will be with regard to its nuclear deterrent.

The U.K.’s sole nuclear deterrent are the ongoing Vanguard patrols following a late 1990s retirement of their nuclear bomber force.

In an era of shirking U.K. defense budgets, preserving the boomers and the U.K. nuclear deterrent could be financially unreasonable given the extra cost of developing permanent basing those submarines elsewhere in the U.K.

The split could also make the U.K.’s SSBN Successor SSBN program more difficult to fund.

English politicians, as well as Scots, have been critical of the cost of the so-called 100 billion pound Successor program.

“Nuclear deterrence is aimed at states, because it doesn’t work against terrorists,” said Tory Member of Parliament James Arbuthnot in 2013.
“You can only aim a nuclear weapon at rational states not already deterred by the U.S. nuclear deterrent, so there is only a small set of targets.”

Much of the Yes vote literature breaks out the cost of the Trident program and compares it to domestic spending for social services — and the message is appearing to resonate.

According to the most recent public opinion polls — the split between a Yes and No vote is still too close to call — a dramatic shift toward Scottish independence in only the last few weeks.

Recently, U.K. leadership has undertaken a mad scramble to shore up support to keep the British Isles together.

“If the British nuclear deterrent is forced out of Scotland, one of the alternative options will have to be chosen,” Wertheim said.
“But that will likely have a significant and negative impact reverberating from the Royal Navy to the national economy, and eventually could be felt by all 28 members of the NATO alliance.”

  • tim

    What a victory for Putin that’ll be. 4 SSBNs off the western balance, while at the same time Russia is playing to have 10 Borei’s by 2020.

    • Jiesheng Li

      and you think Putin will suddenly fire them at Scotland or rUK? He took Crimea with a vote!

    • Matthew

      With Russia’s build record those 10 Borei’s are more likely to be around 2030 then 2020. Takes forever to build a ship in Russia.

    • Secundius

      @ tim.

      That’s Russia’s new Submarine design. A class that was first introduced into the Soviet Union’s Navy, back in the ’80’s. How hard the mighty has fallen.

  • The UK government has said that it won’t build warships in a foreign country, so the yards on the Clyde will be out of business and the “bribe” given to Scotland in the shape of exclusive warship-building capability (and the closure of the yard at Portsmouth) will have to be reviewed. By the same token, I don’t see how the government could justify basing our missile submarines in a foreign country, even if it were France or the US.

    I hope someone in government remembers the huge and hasty error made before WW2 in giving up the rights to use ports in the Irish Republic, with the severe consequences for the Battle of the Atlantic. If we give up anything in Scotland, it must only be in a timeframe which suits rUK strategic interests. I hope Scotland votes “no” and stays with us, but if they don’t we’ll bas the subs in Barrow I expect

    The economic arguments the SNP make against nuclear weapons are specious, and not just because of the “black hole” which would be left in the Scottish economy loss of rUK bases and the inevitable flight of defence industry jobs. Funding of the nuclear deterrent has always been done “off the books”, and is not done at the expense of other forms of government spending. If we didn’t have a nuclear fleet, that money wouldn’t suddenly become available for spending on other things – that money just wouldn’t be spent at all. It doesn’t solve the SNP’s fundamental lack of credibility when it talks about defence.

    • Icepilot

      I note that Northern Ireland has a seaport named Bangor. 😉

  • Rob C.

    I don’t know how Scottish separatist will fund their government, never mind a defense they feel will protect the country invasion at adequate levels. This all about power play and ego on the separatist parts. English government has had its issues too, but not enough to justifying ruining of economy between both nations. I hope England will be able to sort things out, since they won’t have economic backbone they used without Scotland balancing things.

  • James Bowen

    The U.K., along with any other nuclear power, would be crazy to give up its nuclear deterrent.

    • El_Sid

      There’s a fair chance it will happen anyway for budget and political reasons – the UK has the same problem as the US in the new SSBNs putting a lot of pressure on a tight shipbuilding budget around 2020 when F-35B and the new frigates are being procured. The politics aren’t looking great either at the moment – the LibDems and SNP could well end up holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament next year, both of whom are stridently anti-nuclear.

      • James Bowen

        I hope not. The F-35 is an overpriced piece of junk, and a submarine-based nuclear deterrent is far, far more important.

  • Sam Riddle

    Holy Loch Scotland has been a US Nuclear Submarine Base for decades did they shut it down with the end of the Polaris Program or are we still using it for Tridents? No ones talking about our US Navy presence in Scotland…

    • El_Sid

      Holy Loch closed down after the Cold War, so over 20 years ago. They call in on Faslane from time to time.

  • Secundius

    It seems to me. It would be, in Scotland’s best interest to keep those bases open and available to the UK. For Revenue, Jobs and Security. Because, unless Scotland intends to build and man their own Navy. The only Navy protecting them will be the UK’s Navy.

    • El_Sid

      Would never happen – it was a totemic issue for the nationalists even though the wider public were more equivocal (roughly 40:40 for/against). Faslane is about 25 miles upwind of Scotland’s biggest city (and one of the most pro-independence). Imagine if the US boomers were based in Raritan Bay or Malibu, the people of New York/LA might be keen to see them moved.

      Getting Coulport moved at least would have been one of the red lines in independence negotiations, although they may have been prepared to be a bit more flexible about the subs themselves not moving until Successor arrives in 2028.

      • Secundius

        @ El_Sid.

        As far as I know, there’s a SSBN Naval Base near San Diego, CA. And another of the East Coast, either in Norfolk, VA. or Conn.

        • El_Sid

          Nope – the missile boats are in Puget Sound & King’s Bay, on the GA/FL border – well away from the biggest cities. The Glasgow conurbation is over 2 million people, much bigger than Seattle or Jacksonville – and more relevantly it is almost half the entire population of Scotland, and hence of the electorate in the referendum. Somewhere like San Diego is different, it’s a Navy town with a lot of surface ships based there, whereas this is just a submarine base with a few thousand jobs on the outskirts of a conurbation of millions.

          You also have to consider the politics – the UK as a whole has always been more ambivalent about nuclear weapons than the US, and Glasgow is arguably the most left-wing city in the country, not for nothing was it known as Red Clydeside. The Nats also spun a good tale about the Navy preventing development of oil deposits in the Clyde, so people could feel good about opposing the submarines because it would lead to lots of new oil jobs. Of course, the Clyde oil is little more than a story, similar areas have not been a high priority for exploration, but large numbers of Scots believe Clyde oil to be a fact and just another example of London’s harsh treatment of Scotland.

  • Waldez

    Very well written article Mr. LaGrone, loaded with facts and good graphics. I think it answered many of the questions I had on my mind as I read the headline. Glad you didn’t take the route of bashing pro Independence Scots.


    Well, thank goodness that problem has gone away, for a while. However, the desire for POWER in the seperatists is too evident for it to recede for very long, even getting 16 year old the vote. We had better prepare for alternatives.