Trident could be forced overseas or halted if Scotland gains independence

Continuing UK’s nuclear deterrent would probably require help of an allied country, defence expert says

Trident could be forced to the US or possibly France if Scotland became independent because there is no alternative port immediately available elsewhere in the UK, according to a retired admiral responsible for Britain’s nuclear policy.

Unless Scotland were to agree to lease back the Faslane submarine base to the rest of the UK, continuing Trident would probably require the help of an allied country or the nuclear deterrent would have to be halted completely, the expert said.

The conclusions are contained in a European Leadership Network paper written by John Gower, a rear admiral at the time of the 2014 independence referendum, as Scotland prepares for the Holyrood elections, where the anti-nuclear SNP could win an overall majority.

“A Scottish secession would therefore generate fundamental operational and fiscal issues for the UK’s nuclear deterrent,” Gower wrote, because Faslane base, the warhead loading site at Coulport, and nearby testing ranges are all based in Scotland or Scottish waters.

The lack of options for basing Trident outside Scotland is well known in defence and policy circles but has become relevant as the SNP presses for a second independence referendum as part of its Holyrood election campaign. Far ahead in the polls, Nicola Sturgeon’s party, has long been against the retention of Trident.

It means the most likely outcome – if Scotland were to vote for independence in the future – could entail some sort of lease arrangement allowing for Trident submarines to have “uninterrupted and continuously permissioned” access to Scottish territorial waters, which could be politically controversial.

Alternative sites considered at the time Faslane was chosen, such as Milford Haven in Wales and Falmouth in Cornwall, are now industrialised in the case of the former or have a larger population; while Devonport, where the submarines are refitted, would require significant engineering work and is close to the city of Plymouth.

Any new site would take many years to develop, amid what is likely to be intense local opposition wherever is chosen. “It is therefore a reasonable assumption that achievement of the necessary planning permissions would be testing or impossible,” Gower said.

An alternative would be to try to base Trident at King’s Bay in Georgia, in the US, where Britain’s nuclear submarines go to pick up missiles from a common pool, or possibly with the French nuclear fleet at Ile Longue, in Brittany. Such ideas are, however, “highly speculative” and would be controversial and legally fraught.

“There appear to be no prima facie absolute blocks to an overseas basing” of Trident, Gower wrote, “although the concept is insufficiently understood by experts.” It would be “virgin territory” for national and international regulators “as well as the provisions of the NPT [nuclear non-proliferation treaty]”.

British government officials were banned from doing any work on what to do with Trident if Scotland had voted to secede from the UK in September 2014, Gower said, because to do so was deemed by politicians to be an admission of defeat. The former admiral, now an independent analyst, left Whitehall at the end of the year.

At the time, some of the most comprehensive analysis was put together by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It said: “If an independent Scotland insisted that Trident must be removed then this would probably result in there being no nuclear weapons in Britain.”

There would also be implications for Scotland’s future membership of Nato, Gower said, because the UK has said since 1962 its nuclear weapons are a contribution to the overall security of the western military alliance.

Four years ago, Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Scotland would have to reapply to join if it left the UK. Gower said: “Joining the nuclear alliance Nato on a political non-nuclear platform would be at best exceedingly difficult.”

A government spokesperson said the UK was committed to maintaining the nuclear deterrent.

“The UK’s nuclear deterrent contributes to Scotland’s security, bringing with it economic benefits and jobs. There are no plans to move the nuclear deterrent from HMNB Clyde.”

The SNP has been approached for comment.

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Dan Sabbagh

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