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Defence Committee - Minutes of Evidence HC 198

Back to Report

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Defence Committee

on Tuesday 11 June 2013

Members present:

Mr James Arbuthnot (Chair)

Thomas Docherty

Mr Dai Havard

Mrs Madeleine Moon

Penny Mordaunt

Bob Stewart

Ms Gisela Stuart

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rear Admiral MartinAlabaster CBE andAir Marshal(Retd) IainMcNicoll CB CBEgave evidence.

Q109 Chair: Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you very much for coming to give evidence to our inquiry into the defence implications of Scottish independence. Would you please introduce yourselves? Air Marshal, would you like to begin?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I was deferring to the senior service.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Good afternoon. I am Martin Alabaster. I finished a 35-year career in the Royal Navy approximately 18 months ago. My final post, for my last three years, was as Flag Officer Scotland, Northern England, Northern Ireland, Flag Officer Reserves and Flag Officer Regional Forces-possibly the longest job title in the Navy. Before that I did the typical range of jobs in the Navy: in training, in acquisition, at sea and so on.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I am Iain McNicoll, a Scot born and bred, and educated. I joined the Air Force in 1975 and, like Martin, served a 35-year career. I retired in 2010. My last appointment was as Deputy Commander-in-Chief Operations, effectively running the front line of the Royal Air Force. I also served in a number of Ministry of Defence policy jobs, including doctrine and concepts, and force development. Since I retired, I have become an airspace, defence and security consultant.

Q110 Chair: Thank you. Because of other commitments that members of the Committee have, we may have to finish this by around 4 o’clock, so we will try to ask smart and speedy questions, and smart and speedy answers would be most welcome.

The Minister for the Armed Forces has said: "The Ministry of Defence is not planning or preparing contingency arrangements for the event of Scottish independence". Would you expect the Government to be making contingency arrangements for that possibility?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I would expect the Department to be giving it some thought, but whether or not it makes detailed plans is up to the Department. I do not have a particular view, and actually I am not aware of what work, if any, is going on.

Air Marshal McNicoll: From my perspective, as a former military man, I would have preferred contingency planning to be well under way, but I also recognise that the political situation is such that that is almost impossible-it would set too many hares running, I am sure. I am not aware if there are discussions going on at the moment in the Ministry of Defence-as I said, I retired three years ago-but to my knowledge, there are not detailed contingency plans.

Q111 Chair: The Scottish National party has complained that the UK Ministry of Defence will not engage with it on this. Do you think that the Government of the United Kingdom would be in a position to form contingency plans if there were not a dialogue between them and the Scottish Government?

Air Marshal McNicoll: That is quite a conditional question, isn’t it?

Chair: Well, there is no dialogue at the moment on it.

Air Marshal McNicoll: It is a matter for the Government whether they wish to start a dialogue or not; I can see the reasons why they would choose not to.

By the way, the point that neither myself nor Martin made at the start, which may colour your perception of our views, is that we are bothpro-union. I do not know whether that is relevant for the Committee.

Chair: I see. Thank you.

Q112 Mr Havard: What is your opinion on the strategic significance and tactical importance-for example, in terms of the air defence region, C2 radar coverage and so on; and, in a naval context, with protection and training capacity-of having Scotland-based forces and an area of operation in Scotland? If independence goes ahead, that will be denied.

Air Marshal McNicoll: Perhaps if I start on the air defence side, the first point to make is that, for air policing, NATO is responsible for the air defence of the UK. The national part comes in terms of counter-terrorism response. The national command and control chain operates for that, but otherwise it is a NATO function.

The question for air defence really is: would Scotland be part of NATO? The SNP changed its policy on that last autumn, but there is a decision for NATO to make in that respect as well. If it was still part of NATO, I can see no reason why the networks that exist at the moment would not be able to continue pretty much as they are.

That said, there are two remote radar heads in Scotland-I believe that they are in Benbecula and in Buchan-but the two control and reporting centres that feed into the NATO chain are at Boulmer in Northumberland and at Scampton in Lincolnshire. The connection from there is to a combined air operations centre in Germany at Uedem. So, if Scotland were separate and not part of NATO, it would end up without the ability to command and control, unless it set that up from scratch.

Q113 Mr Havard: So quite a significant change.

Air Marshal McNicoll: It could be quite significant, but it would be dependent on whether it was part of NATO or not.

Q114 Mr Havard: But not necessarily of great significance, if it does not really matter whether we have aeroplanes in Scotland or not.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I was just talking about the air defence command and control network there. If you look at where the assets are based, at the moment there are quick reaction alert aircraft at Leuchars and Coningsby. The Leuchars aircraft are due to move to Lossiemouth. Of the air policing task that NATO undertakes, most of the interceptions used to be-as far as I am aware, they still are-to the north of Scotland, so there would be an impact if the remainder of the UK only had bases south of the border.

Q115 Mr Havard: What about the naval implications?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It is well known that the reasons for locating the submarine-based nuclear deterrent on the Clyde when the programme was first started was because of easy access to the north Atlantic, the deep water access there, the availability of the land and the availability of the skilled work force. Those factors are still relevant and make the west coast of Scotland important to the Navy. It has to be said, however, that the emphasis on the north Atlantic for other operations was very great during the cold war when an awful lot of our naval thinking was about protecting convoys reinforcing the northern flank in Norway. That is not as high in our defence thinking today as it was then, but it remains true that Scotland is strategically placed between Iceland and the rest of Europe.

It is also true that for UK defence purposes, as things are currently, there is quite a lot of importance in the waters around Scotland. The offshore tapestry of oil and gas, fish and so on all require a degree of policing, naval activity and counter-terrorist capability. Of course, Scotland, with its coastline, is well placed to handle those things that come with Scotland as well. There are other issues in terms of Scotland’s importance to the naval part of defence, particularly as at the moment we are tending to buy ships and other equipment from the Scottish defence industry, which is an important part of Scottish business.

Q116 Ms Stuart: May I slightly rephrase the question? If you were to look at the defence of UK plc, what is in Scotland by necessity, and what is in Scotland by choice?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: The obvious thing that is in Scotland by necessity, because of where it currently is, is the nuclear deterrent. One cannot avoid the fact that the nation’s strategic deterrent is based on the Clyde at Faslane and Coulport. That was a choice at the time. Because it is now there, it is quite difficult to imagine doing it anywhere else.

Q117 Ms Stuart: Could you be more explicit about that? Is it because the particular configuration of the coastline makes it suitable and that there may be no other part of the British isles’ coastline that would be suitable?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: The more important factors in considering another site would be the cost of recreating those facilities and the technical difficulty with a less favourable site-and, of course, simple planning issues.

Chair: We will come back to the nuclear deterrent in a few moments.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I thought you probably would.

Q118 Ms Stuart: Can we just be clear? You say that the rest of what UK plc spends on defence and locates in Scotland it could just as well locate and spend in England, so it does not have to be in Scotland.

Thomas Docherty: Or in Wales.

Ms Stuart: I am terribly sorry-or in Wales or Northern Ireland.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: There is another feature that neither of us has touched upon: it is at the moment a most important training area. The Joint Warrior exercises that happen every year are tri-service, but are predominantly maritime and air exercises. They are the largest of their kind in Europe. They are based in Scotland and use many facilities, ranges and the coastline, particularly off the west of Scotland. The training facility is something that could be recreated somewhere else, of course, but it is particularly good in Scotland. We also have a number of technical ranges, particularly in the naval sphere, to do acoustic measurements of ships and submarines, and the like. A lot of those facilities-mostly now run by QinetiQ on behalf of the Ministry of Defence-are mostly in Scotland as well, some of them using deep-water lochs, so clearly there is a geographical significance to that.

Air Marshal McNicoll: From the RAF perspective, the necessity is probably less than that which has just been outlined. The assets of the bases could certainly be based elsewhere, although it would be inconvenient operationally, but to cover the same training aspect, a large amount of air space is used for training purposes. There are weapons ranges-there is one at Tain in the MorayFirthand one atGarvieisland close to Cape Wrath. There is also a test and evaluation range at West Freugh in the south-west of Scotland. There would be some difficulty replicating that range of facilities elsewhere in the UK for training purposes, but I think "necessity" would be too strong a description of that.

Q119 Mrs Moon: I would like to ask about the impact that Scottish independence would have on the UK nuclear deterrent. What do you think that impact would be?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It is quite hard to know, because everything that I have read so far has used rather general terms such as "banish nuclear weapons from Scottish soil"-that is the sort of phrase that is quite widely used by the SNP. I cannot answer your question exactly as you have asked it. What I can say, however, is that it would be very difficult-in fact, I would almost use the word "inconceivable"-to recreate the facilities necessary to mount the strategic deterrent, without the use of Faslane and Coulport, somewhere else in the UK.

Q120 Mrs Moon: What do you think would happen to them if we did have to move them? What use would they be? What would happen to Faslane and Coulport if we had to move our strategic fleet?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I need to make sure that I have understood the question. You are saying that if the nuclear deterrent and the Vanguard submarines were removed, what use would Faslane be? Faslane would still be a perfectly serviceable naval base for submarines and nuclear-powered submarines, and potentially for other units, although it does have shortcomings, because it is all designed around the highly justified, safety-critical nuclear facilities. That means that many of its facilities are much more expensive and highly engineered than you would need to support a force of surface ships, for example.

Q121 Mrs Moon: So you would have two highly technical sites specifically built to enable nuclear deterrence, but that could not be used for nuclear deterrence. What would be the cost to the rest of the UK of establishing an alternative base elsewhere, if we could find such a site?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I have no idea; it would be many billions.

Q122 Mrs Moon: What if Scotland decided that it wanted us to restore Faslane and Coulport so that they could be used for alternative measures? Do you have any idea of the cost of decommissioning them?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I think "decommissioning" is a term laden with some nuclear implications. I do not think that there would be a particularly heavy nuclear decommissioning load, but you have a very large engineering facility spread over two huge sites. Simply demolishing or making safe structures-even if we are just talking about concrete and steel-would be a substantial job, but it would not be of the same order of magnitude as the cost of recreating it somewhere else.

Q123 Chair: Is there any suggestion that there is nuclear contamination at Coulport?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: No.

Q124 Chair: None at all?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I am not an expert, but it is not a facility that is used to store nuclear fuel or waste of any sort. It would be wrong of me to say that there is no contamination, because any industrial activity brings with it some contamination, but I do not think that it would be a particularly difficult problem to solve.

Q125 Mrs Moon: NATO is a nuclear alliance. What are the implications for Scotland if it refused to host nuclear weapons for its membership?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I do not know.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think it is reasonable to point out that other members of NATO do not accept nuclear weapons. It is possible, at least in theory anyway, for Scotland not to accept nuclear weapons.

Q126 Mrs Moon: If an independent Scotland was not a member of NATO, what would be the implications for the size and make-up of the defence force that it would need outside NATO membership?

Air Marshal McNicoll: That is a very good question, because it hinges on something that I have not yet seen beyond broad assertion and sweeping generalities: a proper foreign and security policy that is translated into defence needs identified, and then working out how these might be met. I do not believe that those who propose separation have got as far as doing any of the considerable amount of work that would be needed to define exactly what might be required. You could make reasonable suppositions about some aspects-I could certainly do so in the air environment and make suggestions-but it would be entirely dependent on what foreign and security policy the Scottish Government had, in that circumstance, adopted.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I would also like to emphasise the point that when trying to assess what kind of defence force an independent Scotland would need or want, you really have to start from the basis of what the foreign and security policy is. What is it that you want that defence force to do? We have touched in this discussion so far on the defence of Scotland, as it exists as a geographical entity, but we have armed forces for much wider reasons: the protection of Scottish interests worldwide, which might be to do with contributing to collaborative counter-terrorist activities or a wider range of activities; the spreading of Scottish influence through the building of partnerships, so the defence diplomacy that the UK does so well; the potential for giving services such as protection and evacuation to Scottish nationals elsewhere in the world; and finally, and perhaps most importantly these days, the decision on to what extent Scotland wishes to be a force for good in the world and to use its defence forces to that end. As far as I can see, none of those things has yet been made clear, and only when those needs are made clear can you start to scale a putative defence force to deliver them.

Air Marshal McNicoll: The SNP has, however, started at the wrong end of the telescope. It has come up with a proposed budget of £2.5 billion. It has come up with an army of a size of 15,000 and 5,000 reserves. I am not sure what it will do apart from territorial defence, aid to the civil powers and support for the international community, deployable in UN operations. All that ignores the start-up and transition costs. It has been suggested that Scotland might be comparable with Scandinavian countries. I think Sweden and Norway are in a slightly different category-either in population size or in budget-but it has been said that Finland and Denmark might serve as examples. Finland, of course, has universal male conscription, and I do not believe that the SNP is looking in that direction. Denmark is, I think, a reasonable comparator. It has a budget of about the same sort of size and sustains a force but, again critically, it is the answer that is coming before the correct question, which is what you need it for.

Q127 Chair: So, you would suggest, moving on to one of our other inquiries, that for the creation of a strategic defence and security review, you should first work out what the threat is and then what the cost of meeting that threat should be.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I-

Chair: We would like it if you said yes.

Air Marshal McNicoll: The strategic defence review of 1997-98 might serve as a good template for the amount of time and the amount of effort that it would take to do that sort of job properly. The so-called strategic defence and security review done three years ago did not fall into that category.

Chair: That is music to our ears.

Q128 Bob Stewart: Air Marshal McNicoll has largely answered the question, how would Scotland co-operate militarily with other nations? I think that you verged into it and almost answered that question in your last comment. The answer in truth, to paraphrase, is, "We’re not quite sure, but they may wish to be a force for good and co-operate in that sort of way, and have exercises." Would you agree with that?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think I would, but I would also say that there is a critical question of how they would co-operate with their biggest neighbour, south of the border. Scotland has 8.4% of the total UK population and about a 12th of the assets, but there are questions about training, logistic support, procurement, all the operational support in the air environment,whichmight be electronic warfare, intelligence. There is a whole range of activities which, at the moment, are not headquarter-based or mainly done in Scotland, and they might seek-I think the SNP has said that it would seek-some sort of joint procurement with the remainder of the UK. It is not quite clear how that might be undertaken. But I think relations with their biggest neighbour would be the most critical aspect.

Q129 Penny Mordaunt: Just following on from that, one of the issues that we wanted to bring up was about an independent Scotland being able to maintain the same degree of security access, thinking about intelligence sources, for example, to allow it to deliver military projects with the remainder of the UK. I was wondering whether you could elaborate a bit more on that, out of your list that you just gave us, particularly about security and intelligence.

Air Marshal McNicoll: Of course, the UK benefits enormously from being part of the Five Eyes community, with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and there would be a question whether Scotland would be part of that community or not. If they were, then intelligence co-operation would be relatively simple. If they were not-perhaps that would be more likely-they would struggle.

Q130 Penny Mordaunt: What makes you say it is more likely that they would not be part of that?

Air Marshal McNicoll: Why would they be? The question would not be one purely for the remainder of the UK; it would be one for the other allies in that alliance to decide whether the contribution that Scotland was going to make to it was worth being part of that community or not.

Q131 Penny Mordaunt: Did you wish to comment on that?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: No, I think I broadly support what my colleague said.

Penny Mordaunt: Thank you.

Q132 Bob Stewart: What do you think the priorities would be for a Scottish defence force? What do you think it would seek to achieve? Again, you have already half answered this question.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: For me, what I have read suggests that they have been concentrating on that part of the requirement that is really the defence of Scotland, and there I think we have already touched upon the complex coastline, the maritime tapestry offshore, their growing renewable energy sector-all of these things-so I think it is likely that initial concentration would be on the protection of that. Beyond that, it is hard for me to be sure what those who are hoping to form the first independent Scottish Government would wish to concentrate on-whether they would be giving effort to, for example, more strategic thinking and influence with partners around the world and exactly how big a role they would want to play in, say, NATO. I do not think I understand enough of what they are thinking yet.

Q133 Bob Stewart: Chairman, may I just ask a slight question to the Rear Admiral, which has not come up and which he may not be able to answer, for security reasons? Will there be any implications with regard to our intelligence assets that are underwater that identify who might be travelling through various parts of thenorth Atlantic?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I don’t know.

Q134 Bob Stewart: Air Marshal, you might know if you are a maritime fellow.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think it is a question for the Ministry of Defence.

Q135 Bob Stewart: I think that that is probably a good answer to leave it at.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I can go back to answer some of the rest of what you were asking about. What might Scotland need? At the risk of repeating myself, you would need to start with a policy, but there is a spectrum of possibilities in there. They, I would have thought, would certainly need to be capable of doing air defence of their own air space. I think it certainly needs maritimepatrolto look after the considerable assets, whether they are fisheries or energy resources.

Q136 Chair: When you say maritimepatrol, do you mean a maritime patrol aircraft or several of them?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I do not necessarily mean an aircraft, but you would have to achieve the effect of being able to keep a reasonable surveillance of the waters around Scotland in some fashion. It might be an unmanned aircraft. There may be other means by which you could achieve the same effect, but it might well be a maritime patrol aircraft, which is a notable gap in the UK’s arsenal at the moment.

Q137 Bob Stewart: On that point-Chairman, I will be very quick-currently the United Kingdom is responsible out to 1,400 nautical miles into thenorth Atlantic. If Scotland were to become independent, presumably Scotland may well actually have either a segment of that 1,400 nautical miles or all of it-I do not know-because we would be shielded by Ireland.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think you are referring to search and rescue responsibilities.

Q138 Bob Stewart: I am indeed-oversight and overlooking.

Air Marshal McNicoll: Yes. You actually only have responsibility for territorial waters-I mean out to 12 miles.

Q139 Bob Stewart: Sorry, I am talking about the internationally agreed oversight responsibilities we have.

Air Marshal McNicoll: Yes, there would be a search and rescue requirement, which in all probability Scotland would inherit.

Q140 Chair: Would you accept, though, that it might be a bit rich for the United Kingdom to insist on Scotland having a maritime patrol capability which the United Kingdom itself does not have?

Air Marshal McNicoll: It might need it for different reasons. I would suggest that the UK at the moment needs it principally to look after the deterrent. Scotland might need much less a capability to look after its offshore interests.

Chair: Yes. Mind you, this Committee has said that the maritime patrol aircraft gap is the largest single gap within the strategic defence and security review.

Q141 Ms Stuart: Would the Norwegian model be suitable for the Scottish arrangements?

Air Marshal McNicoll: It is interesting. I have the figures for Norway. Its population is very similar to Scotland’s-4.9 million compared with Scotland’s 5.3 million. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute figures for their budget in 2012 suggested that it was £4.6 billion. I converted that myself from US dollars at 2010 prices, but that is rather getting too much into the detail. The point is that because Norway has such a high GDP, they spend considerably more on defence than the SNP is planning to. That is why I suggested in an earlier answer that I do not actually think that the Norwegian model would necessarily apply to Scotland.

Q142 Ms Stuart: It is just that the SNP specifically talks about the Norwegian arrangements. Combining the military with civil duties suits them. Would that be suitable for Scotland?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I am not sure exactly what you are getting at. I am sorry.

Q143 Ms Stuart: You are helping me now, because I could not work out what they were getting at. That is what they were articulating, so that is very useful. Thank you.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: May I have a go as well? One of the things about Norway is that they rely on their reserves a lot more. There is no reason why that should not be a good model for Scotland. It is quite interesting to draw the comparison. Norway’s coastline is probably longer than Scotland’s, though to be honest, "How long is a coastline?" is a question that is impossible to answer. They operate five frigates, six conventional submarines, 14 patrol craft, nine minesweepers and a number of other smaller vessels, so they have quite a sizeable navy.

Q144 Mrs Moon: It might be helpful if I added that what they also have is that the border patrol is not technically part of the Ministry of Defence, nor is the coast guard, but they utilise those as "civil" within the military capability. That is what they are referring to.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I see. I do not think I particularly have any problem with a different way of partitioning responsibility for activities between coast guards, navies, gendarmeries and armies, and so on, if it works.

Q145 Chair: Can we move on to the different question of the location of the Scottish joint forces headquarters? Although an independent Scotland does not necessarily imply an SNP Government, their proposal is that the joint forces headquarters should be at Faslane. What do you see as the logic of that, if you do?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: There is an existing headquarters at Faslane that is used as the joint forces headquarters to run the large Joint Warrior exercise, so communications desks and computer terminals are available there, but it is not, for example, a hardened facility as we might have elsewhere in the UK. Faslane is an obvious choice because it already exists, but I cannot think of any particular reason why it would be particularly hard to do it somewhere else, if that were suitable.

Q146 Chair: Is there any alternative that you would consider to be better?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Nothing that jumps out at me for building one afresh. You are mainly talking about fibre-optic communications and computers.

Q147 Chair: So its distance from Edinburgh is not of itself a killer point?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: No, I do not think so.

Q148 Chair: Air Marshal, have you anything to add to that?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I have no strong views on the topic, other than to say that, if there was no requirement for it to be hardened against attack, there is no reason why an office block would not suffice.

Chair: Yes. We now move on to the Scottish navy.

Q149 Thomas Docherty: Let me set the context so that we are quite clear about what we are talking about here, because different people have different assessments of what the SNP is proposing for the Scottish navy. On the basis of what the SNP seem to have said, they are looking at a couple of Type 23s, Type 45s, one or two offshore patrol vessels and a couple of Sandown-class minehunters inherited from the Royal Navy as their share, based on the 8% or 9% to which the Air Marshal has alluded. Others have said that it is 20 or 25 vessels strong, perhaps with conventional, diesel-powered submarines. Do you think either of those models is the most realistic, or is there a third model?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I think I would go back to the answer that we both gave a while ago. It all depends on your foreign and security policies and what you want to be able to do. Simply saying, "Two Type 23s and two Type 45s because that is what is currently there," doesn’t have much intellectual rigour and brings with it huge challenges in terms of the support and operation, in the case of the Type 45, of a hugely complex platform designed for a range of activities, including fighting at the highest level of intensity, which does not appear to be what Scotland is likely to be aiming to do.

Q150 Thomas Docherty: So, Rear Admiral, if we were to assume that it is two Type 23s, for example-if two out of 19 is their approximate share-and another 15 to 20 smaller vessels, OPVs, a couple ofminehunters and fast boats to get out to the oil rigs, would it be sufficient work to sustain Rosyth? More broadly, would it be enough work to sustain the Scottish shipbuilding industry on the Clyde?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Do you mean the support of those ships?

Thomas Docherty: This the problem, I accept, but if you assume that they are inheriting from the Royal Navy two Type 23s, a couple of minehunters and a couple of OPVs and then they have to procure a handful of fast boats for going out to the rigs-that is the Scottish navy-would it sustain Rosyth dockyard on the industrial side? In order to sustain shipbuilding on the Clyde, how much would they have to be procuring?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It is very hard for me to give a sense of the answer to that question, but in terms of shipbuilding, as you will be well aware, Rosyth is assembling both the aircraft carriers, and large sections of both the aircraft carriers are being built on the Clyde, as, under current plans, will be the UK’s complete set of the new Type 26 frigate. I do not know what the current plans are-how many of those are likely to be ordered-but on current plans all of the UK’s frigates will be built on the Clyde. Clearly building two frigates for a Scottish navy from time to time is not going to be anything like that work load.

Q151 Thomas Docherty: And in terms of maintenance?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I do not have the figures as to what the refitting and repair load has been at Rosyth but I am fairly confident that the repair load historically for the UK-for the Royal Navy-has been substantially higher than it would be for the sort of Scottish navy that you described.

Q152 Thomas Docherty: What vessels do you think they would have to source from outside Scotland? Submarines?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Given the world-class shipbuilding industry, particularly on the Clyde, I would have thought all the surface ships required could be procured from within Scotland. If a future Scottish navy were to have conventional submarines I think it would be unlikely to be cost-effective for them to create a conventional submarine building facility in Scotland; it would be more cost-effective to look elsewhere, either to the UK or indeed to some of the other European nations that currently build conventional submarines successfully.

Q153 Thomas Docherty: On the personnel side, for that footprint that I outlined of a couple of frigates, a couple of OPVs and some minehunters, would I be wrong to assume that the scale is about 1,500 to 2,000 personnel to crew that?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I have seen those numbers. I have not worked through them myself. I have no reason to believe that they are wildly inaccurate.

Q154 Thomas Docherty: That would be a significant decrease, would it, at Faslane-if you assume Faslane is the Scottish naval base?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Yes. We currently have about 3,500 Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel based in Scotland.

Q155 Thomas Docherty: And that is before all the Astutes move? Or is that after?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: That is correct. That will increase as Faslane becomes the UK’s sole submarine operating base.

Q156 Thomas Docherty: So from your former role, can you remember what the figure would be for Faslane approximately?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I am really not sure. The move of all of the submarines has been announced and is happening. There is an aspiration to make Faslane the submarine centre of excellence for the UK, so moving some elements of submarine training and so on. That could be as many as another 2,000.

Q157 Thomas Docherty: Back to the procuring of submarines: there are some countries that have diesel conventional submarines.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Yes.

Thomas Docherty: I think, Chair, you saw the Canadians’ submarines.

Chair: It is so long ago now I can’t remember any of it.

Q158 Thomas Docherty: Which countries are using conventional subs and what would be the cost of procuring? I would imagine they would have to procure more than one: you can’t have a submarine, so you would have go out and buy some subs. What would the cost be?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: To have one of anything tends to be very expensive because of the non-recurring support costs. It also means, of course, that you don’t have one available at all times, so you just have to hope that it is available when you need it. Having one is rarely a sensible strategy.

Q159 Thomas Docherty: Three or four, perhaps, might be a sensible, all-year-round figure?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Absolutely.

Q160 Thomas Docherty: And so approximately what is the kind of figure?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I honestly do not know what the UPC of an off-the-shelf conventional submarine is, but it would not be difficult to find out and get an estimate. Many of the northern European navies operate such submarines-the Norwegians, the Swedes to name a couple.

Q161 Thomas Docherty: What would you use them for?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Of course, they are extremely useful if you believe that you have a submarine threat to your waters and installations. It is the best way in which to track another submarine. They have many other uses, of course: intelligence gathering, the insertion of special forces and all those activities.

Q162 Thomas Docherty: So this is the Russians. The reason why the Scandinavians got them isn’t to keep an eye on the French but to keep an eye on the Russians.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I could not possibly comment. But yes, of course. We will all remember the "Whiskey on the rocks", the Russian submarine that ran aground inside one of either Norway’s or Sweden’sharbours. Such incursions have gone on. Maybe that is just a sign of my age, Maybe not everybody remembers "Whiskey on the rocks".

Bob Stewart: Some of us are old enough to remember "Whisky Galore!".

Rear Admiral Alabaster: There were a number of quite famous examples of Russian incursions into Scandinavian territorial waters right up to the coastline in the middle of 1980s.

Q163 Thomas Docherty: My final question. Would you advise the Scottish Government that they should procure three or four submarines?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I think it pretty unlikely that they would ask my advice. It is a conclusion that I would expect them to come to, only if they had thought through everything else and, in particular, their relationship with the UK. We talked earlier about intelligence sharing and all the help that they might be able to get from others within NATO in terms of screening their own shores but, if they were on their own without help from others, then yes, I would expect them to do so.

Q164 Chair: Going back for a moment to Faslane, it would be a major naval base as well as the joint forces headquarters under the SNP proposals, as I understand. Do you envisage that it would cost a lot or that it would take a long time to create a major naval base, or could they just use it as it is?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It would need a substantial amount of work. At the moment, almost everything at Faslane is geared around the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines, with all of the security, engineering and safety thinking that that implies. The jetties and the shiplift for lifting submarines out of the water are all extraordinary pieces of kit but they are built to be super-strong and super-safe.

There is no dry dock at Faslane. The existing shiplift, built to lift a 16,000 tonnes nuclear-armed submarine out of the water safely, would be a very, very expensive way of lifting an offshore patrol vessel out of the water, if you needed to do some routine maintenance. They would have to do a substantial amount of work and, I suggest, build some new and more cost-effective facilities for a conventional naval base.

Q165 Chair: Why would it be expensive if it were already there?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Because of the cost of maintaining such a complex safety-justified structure.

Q166 Chair: Do you think there would be a need for additional facilities for the Scottish navy elsewhere in Scotland?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: In terms of the security policy and what they wanted to do, one can envisage some kind of facility on the east coast, but perhaps based on Rosyth-not operating at the moment as a naval base, but it clearly still has jetties and docks.

Q167 Chair: Might that be a better choice for the headquarters of the Scottish navy?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It would depend upon the sums. You would have to do the sums quite carefully. The facilities at Faslane are better, but they are the wrong facilities. They are expensive. It would need some very detailed work to look at the options, but building a new facility at Rosyth would certainly be one worth looking at.

Q168 Chair: You said just now that a lot would depend on what defence NATO was able to provide for Scotland. What would Scotland contribute to NATO?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: That is a very good question. It could, for example, contribute training grounds and ranges, which currently are used heavily by NATO, by other allies. At a typical Joint Warrior exercise you might have a dozen different nations taking part.

Q169 Thomas Docherty: The SNP has talked about a budget of £650 million a year for the Scottish navy. If I use, first of all, what they are inheriting-a personnel of 2,000 or so-does that figure sound right to you?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I really have not seen a breakdown of the figure, which covers the stuff that in my experience is difficult to do, and expensive to do-particularly the material support; so I cannot comment on whether those are sensible figures or not.

Q170 Thomas Docherty: If you had to procure three or four submarines-if you had to procure additional vessels-from the Clyde or Portsmouth or elsewhere, would you be nervous about balancing your navy budget on £650 million?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: Yes.

Q171 Thomas Docherty: You would be.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I think this Committee would be aware of the approximate real cost of buying a Type 45, albeit a very complex warship: many hundreds of millions for one ship, and that was when we built a class of six.

Q172 Penny Mordaunt: It was a billion per ship.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I think-in terms of rules of thumb. The last Type 23 frigates we built, we paid, I think-don’t quote me-perhaps £150 million, or of that sort of order, for a ship that was the last of a run of 14 or 18 ships, and so something we had become very good at building. That was at prices of some 20 years ago.

Q173 Thomas Docherty: Would you expect a separate Scottish navy to buy Type 26s?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: No, sorry-that was a Type 23 frigate.

Q174 Thomas Docherty: Yes, but looking ahead, would you expect, knowing about Type 26s-because obviously you were involved there-and given what it is supposed to be doing, do you expect the Scottish navy to have a business need for it?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It would certainly be an option. If you can be part of a larger run of shipbuilding, then it is likely to be cost-effective, so it is an option I would expect.

Q175 Thomas Docherty: But if you weren’t buying for the UK-if you were buying for Scotland-would you buy Type 26s, and how many would you buy?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I would certainly consider the Type 26. I would need to compare it very closely with the roles which it was expected to play on the basis of the foreign policy, which of course we don’t have; but it would seem it would be-I think some people would agree-very sensible to look at.

Q176 Thomas Docherty: And how many would the Scottish navy-

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I have no idea. It depends what you want to do. If you want, for example, to use them for defence diplomacy and to contribute to collaborative operations, perhaps counter-piracy off Somalia, then you might feel-

Q177 Thomas Docherty: If you were not doing that; if what you were doing was going back to the civil defence-what they simply have said, which is protecting the Scottish waters-would you buy the T26? If so, approximately-I don’t need the exact number, but two, four, six?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I would certainly consider the Type 26, of course, because it is available and perhaps, who knows, it could still be being built on the Clyde; but I don’t know how many of them, and I am not going to name a figure.

Q178 Chair: When you say, "Don’t quote me", I am afraid it is one of the consequences ofHansard.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I do understand it, but I have very little confidence in my memory on the cost of that ship, some 15 or 20 years ago.

Chair: Moving on from the navy to the Scottish air force.

Q179 Mrs Moon: Air Marshal McNicoll, these questions are obviously mainly for you. It has been suggested that the Scottish air force would spend about £370 million a year. It would have around 2,000 personnel, 60 aircraft; it would have MPA; it would have C-130, helicopters-

Chair: MPA?

Mrs Moon: Maritime patrol aircraft. It would use Hawk for, mainly, defence. Do you think that an independent Scotland would have the industrial, financial, intellectual and personnel capabilities to run and operate such an air force?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I have two separate sorts of comment on that. First, the probably rather messy divorcing of the assets and personnel would be extremely difficult. Obviously, if there were enough people who chose to join a Scottish air force, they might well have expertise across the board. On the other hand, they might not if insufficient people wanted to do it. On the question of whether that sort of budget would run that sort of force, I do not think that I am qualified to comment without having looked at the sums very carefully. However, the general point to be made is that the cost of transition is liable to be enormous.

If it got to the stage of trying to separate out a12thof the UK’s armedforces, that would be one part of the broader debate about the separation of assets, and clearly there could be the scope for trading. But a12thdoes not go conveniently into a lot of the things that the Royal Air Force currently has. It certainly would not work for C-17s, for example, if they decided that they wanted transport aircraft, because there are only eight at the moment. If they wanted C-130Js, a12thwould effectively add up to two of them.

On the air defence side and the suggestion that Hawk might be able to fulfil the need, my personal view is that it could not possibly. The Hawk is a great training aircraft-a fantastic aircraft in many ways-but the idea that it could cope with the defence of what would be the Scottish air defence region is, I think, completely unrealistic. It does not have the radar capability to do so, nor would it have the speed to catch up with something that was travelling quickly. So I do not see that as a starter.

If you were going to look at a proper air defence aircraft, the money probably would not stretch.

Q180 Mrs Moon: I have to say that that was a very full reply, and you have answered quite a few of my questions. What sort of aircraft would be most suitable for a Scottish air force?

Air Marshal McNicoll: If you were dividing up the current UK Armed Forces, clearly a proportion of the Typhoon force would be available, and that is an outstanding air defence aircraft. Presumably they could inherit that. If they were prepared to be part of a wider virtual-if you like-fleet of aircraft, they could also cope with the support aspects as well. Other choices might be looked at-I believe that Denmark are looking again at what they might have as the successor to their F-16. They are looking at an F-35, the joint strike fighter; they are looking at Typhoon, of course. I think that Gripen is another choice that they are looking at; there may be others-they are probably looking at the F-18 Super Hornet as well. So there would be other possibilities, but if you are going to buy them from scratch, the budget that you mentioned certainly would not cope.

Q181 Mrs Moon: Thank you; again, you have pre-empted my next question, which was about whether that would be manageable with a £370 million budget. Clearly not.

Air Marshal McNicoll: No.

Q182 Thomas Docherty: I did some work based on some answers from Peter Luff when he was the Minister. I broke it down, and the inheritance on the 8.4% figure that you used would mean that they would inherit seven Typhoons from the UK. Is that a sufficient size? Is that a critical mass of Typhoons, or would they need to go and buy something?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think that those sums may well be correct-I have not done the sums for the Typhoon force.

Q183 Thomas Docherty: As of January 2012, there were 86 Typhoons declared by the Ministry of Defence-I am assuming that you were not hiding any-and 8.4% of 86 is 7.2.

Air Marshal McNicoll: There are, of course, more on order at the moment. The straight answer is no, seven aircraft would not be sufficient.

Q184 Thomas Docherty: Approximately, what kind of critical mass would you require of the Typhoon or equivalent-I take your point that there other options that could be bought-in order to do those core defence tasks?

Air Marshal McNicoll: You could discuss at great length whether one squadron or two squadrons might be sufficient, but you would be heading towards 15 to 30 aircraft perhaps; that sort of nature. That is total fleet size, of course. Some of them would have to be held in reserve-as attrition reserve-and some would be undergoing depth maintenance, so the total number of aircraft you have is not necessarily the total number that you have available on the front line to fly day to day. If you were to keep people current but also maintain a quick reaction alert, a squadron would be pushed to cope with that.

Q185 Thomas Docherty: You mentioned the Strike Fighter. I will not get into the merits of the Strike Fighter as a procurement asset, but planes such as the Strike Fighter are, by their very nature, primarily about ground strike rather than air supremacy, are they not?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think it will be able to do quite a lot of things very well indeed, but the Typhoon is the current air defence fighter that we are talking about. I cannot imagine that an independent Scotland would be in the F-35 market.

Q186 Chair: Can we get into a bit more detail about why the Hawk would be inadequate as an air defence asset? You say it does not have enough radar or enough speed. Can you be more explicit about that?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I do not have all the details of the Hawk at my fingertips, but I am sure they could be readily found. Any third, fourth or fifth-generation fighter up against a Hawk-there is no point in coming second and a Hawk would come second.

Q187 Chair: What does Ireland have as its air defence system?

Air Marshal McNicoll: It has virtually no ability to defend itself, which would clearly be an option for Scotland if they assessed in their foreign and security policy review that they did not perceive a threat.

Q188 Thomas Docherty: The SNP policy on the infrastructure for the Royal Air Force says that it would maintain two RAF bases-Lossiemouth and Leuchars. Given what they would inherit, or given that they might procure, say, to be charitable, 15 rather than 30 fast jets, would that be sufficient to maintain two RAF bases at Lossiemouth and at Leuchars?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think two bases would be more than sufficient.

Q189 Thomas Docherty: Let me rephrase that question. Would that number of air frames require two air bases, or is one more realistic?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I do not know the answer to that.

Q190 Thomas Docherty: Okay. But two air bases would certainly be kind of comfortable for the RAF, in that there would be lots of room?

Air Marshal McNicoll: Again, this is in the nature of speculation as to what Scotland might choose to have as its defence policy, but to my mind I could not see that they would need more than two bases.

Q191 Chair: The implications of what you are saying are that they will rely fairly heavily on others for the defence that they might consider to be necessary. Would that be a fair conclusion to draw from all you are saying about air defence?

Air Marshal McNicoll: Well, they might choose to do so.

Q192 Chair: They might wish to do so. What do you think are the prospects for co-operation between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the United Kingdom on defence issues in general?

Air Marshal McNicoll: That is much more a political question than a military question, and I think it would depend entirely on the political climate.

Q193 Chair: Okay. Let us suppose the political climate was favourable. Would it be possible in your view to pursue joint procurement?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I think it would be possible, but there is a question in my mind about how independent Scotland would then be when it had-let us say for the sake of argument-a 12th of the procurement arrangement, because if you have a 12th of the say that does not give you a casting vote. So I think it would be quite difficult to see how they could pursue an independent line when they were dependent.

Q194 Chair: What about joint logistics arrangements?

Air Marshal McNicoll: That would probably be easier to arrange, because I do not think that the same sorts of difficult decisions would be presented. If you had a fleet of aircraft that was common between the two countries and the political climate was favourable, there is no reason why that could not be treated jointly.

Q195 Chair: Have you heard of the concept of shared conventional basing?

Air Marshal McNicoll: I have heard the term used. I do not completely understand what it means, but if it means that you could base the remainder of the UK assets in Scottish bases, or share a base and have Scottish and the remainder of the UK assets at it, clearly that would be an option.

Q196 Chair:RearAdmiral Alabaster, is there anything you want to say about that?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: No; I think the same principles apply. There is another question about Scots serving in the UK armed forces, for example, and possibly vice versa, which is something that presumably might be considered as part of this co-operation and might cast things into a different light. I cannot see any reason why it would be difficult to co-operate and share basing facilities for surface ships, for example.

Q197 Chair: How would you expect the division to take place on the issue of where someone serves? If an individual from the remainder of the United Kingdom wished to serve in the Scottish armed forces, or vice versa, how would you expect that division to take place?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I do not know, but obviously we have for many years allowed Irish to serve in our armed forces, and there are other special arrangements. I do not know what the technicalities would be, but it would seem to me to be one of the subjects that the two nations would wish to discuss and consider.

Q198 Chair: In the event of independence, what other discussions do you believe should take place between the two now-independent countries? What concessions, if you like, do you think should be asked of one country by the other, whichever way around it may be?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I think those discussions would most helpfully cover the full spectrum of military capability, of support arrangements, of manning arrangements and so on. Almost everything that definesthe defence force of the two countries could offer something where consideration could be given for co-operation.

Air Marshal McNicoll: I would just like to add something on the personnel side, because I think that is one of the most difficult aspects. Setting aside training and other aspects, almost all of which would be conducted from the basic level upwards in what would then be the remainder of the UK, I think the point of division would be enormously difficult. It would, presumably, be voluntary. We have a volunteer force; there would not be a compulsion on people to join one force or the other, although one can envisage a range of outcomes that would result in having too many or too few on either side of the border, particularly in specialist areas, for example. I just do not see how that could possibly be handled by negotiation. The countries would be at the mercy of people’s individual choices and whether they chose to continue to serve for them.

Q199 Chair: These things have happened before, have they not? Between, for example, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

Air Marshal McNicoll: The Czech and Slovak Republics actually seemed to do it with remarkably few difficulties; I might be overstating that. From a personal perspective, however, I was very proud to serve Queen and country, but the country I was serving was the UK. I do not think I would have been satisfied with a career in an air force of the likely size of the Scottish one but, equally, I am not sure that I would have served in a remainder of the UK air force.

Q200 Chair: So do you envisage, as a result of what you have just said, that there would be a greater drop in the number of individuals who would be interested in serving in the Scottish armed forces than the proportionate size of the country would suggest, because it would seem to be less of a career?

Air Marshal McNicoll: It is a simplistic argument to use, but if you think that the proportion of Scots in the UK armed forces is approximately in balance with the relative population sizes-slightly more for the Army, but it is about the same, I believe, for the Air Force and the Navy-and if you think that the current polls, if they are to be believed, would suggest that a fair proportion would not want independence, there would very likely be a good proportion who would not wish to serve in the Scottish armed forces, out of the 8.4 % of people who are Scottish. I think Scotland, most likely, would be short of people.

Rear Admiral Alabaster: I agree. I think that this is a particularly complex area. I reflect, for example, on the large number of Scots currently serving in the Royal Navy, many of whom are, for example, nuclear submarine specialists. That poses two questions: what jobs would they do in a Scottish defence force if that were non-nuclear, and, if there was some kind of co-operation, would they still be allowed to serve in those nuclear-armed submarines in the future? There are lots and lots of questions to be thought about. We have a lot of Scots in all sorts of specialist areas of the Navy that would not necessarily be replicated in a Scottish navy.

Q201 Thomas Docherty: Regarding the training of personnel, would you envisage a McDartmouth and a McCranwell-particularly, Air Marshal, on the Scottish air force side, if we are talking about a pretty small fast jet pool-for both services?

Rear Admiral Alabaster: It would be yet another question for discussion. I was lucky enough to command Dartmouth for two years. Dartmouth does train officers from a number of other navies around the world. Clearly that would not be impossible.

Q202 Thomas Docherty: No, but given 1,500 to 2,000 Scottish royal naval regulars and-I am not quite sure what the number would be-if you have 15 to 20 fast jets and a couple of Hercs, would there be a critical mass for a McDartmouth or a McCranwell?

Air Marshal McNicoll: Smaller countries dothisin various ways. Some try to run their own establishments. Others contract out their training elsewhere. The other point to make would be that it could be claimed that a 12th of Cranwell and Dartmouth is Scottish and how would you separate that out.

Chair: If there are no further questions, may I say, gentlemen, thank you very much indeed? We are most grateful-very interesting evidence. We will continue our inquiry.



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