11 July 2013

UK Trident at a Sovereign Faslane?

Posts here last year speculated as to whether the Trident base at Faslane in Scotland might be relocated to the South West of England and how much such a transfer might cost. The first post touched on one way the issue could be avoided:
So, if the SNP secured a majority for independence and entered into negotiations, they might at least offer some form of transitional period for Whitehall to make other arrangements. But the RN remaining permanently would require the SNP to offer HMNB Clyde a status akin to the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas … and the question arises as to whether an independent Scotland might one day change its mind and renege on an agreement made back in 2015. Such a prospect might lead Whitehall to conclude that a new Trident base within 10 years was an unavoidable consequence of Scottish independence.
Not having come across anything about Sovereign Base Areas since, today’s Guardian lead story by their chief political correspondent, Nicholas Watt, MoD fears for Trident base if Scotland says yes to independence Whitehall looking at plan to designate home of nuclear fleet as sovereign United Kingdom territory, came as a surprise:
The British government is examining plans to designate the Scottish military base that houses the Trident nuclear deterrent as sovereign United Kingdom territory if the people of Scotland vote for independence in next year's referendum. In a move that sparked an angry reaction from the SNP, which vowed to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible after a yes vote, the government is looking at ensuring that the Faslane base on Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute could have the same status as the British sovereign military bases in Cyprus.  
… The Ministry of Defence is officially working on only one option for the Faslane base ahead of next year's Scottish independence referendum – a defeat for the SNP, thereby guaranteeing the survival of the base that has housed the nuclear deterrent since the Polaris era in the 1960s. An MoD spokesperson said: "We are confident that the Scottish people will vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom." But MoD officials are starting to examine a two-stage process to ensure that Britain could continue to station the Vanguard submarines at the deep-water Faslane base and store the nuclear warheads at the nearby Coulport base on Loch Long.  
The British government would first tell the Scottish government after a yes vote that it would cost tens of billions of pounds over many years to decommission the Faslane base and to establish a new base in England or Wales to house the nuclear fleet. These costs would have to be factored into severance payments negotiated with the Scottish government before full independence is declared around two years after the referendum.
Watt has since run a follow-up story on the Guardian website, No 10: MoD sovereign territory plans for Trident base not credible MoD proposal to designate Faslane as UK sovereign military base if Scots vote for independence sparks Whitehall row:
Downing Street has dismissed as not "credible or sensible" a proposal to designate the Faslane base, which hosts Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent, as sovereign United Kingdom territory if the people of Scotland vote for independence in next year's referendum. No 10's dismissal of the idea followed an overnight row in Whitehall after the Guardian reported that the government was examining plans to ensure that the Faslane base on Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute could have the same status as the British sovereign military bases in Cyprus in the event of a yes vote.
The likelihood of a Whitehall row being substantiated by:
… a defence source said that the idea of designating Faslane as sovereign UK territory in the event of an SNP victory was being taken seriously. The source said: "It would cost a huge amount of money, running into tens of billions of pounds, to decommission Faslane. Those costs would be factored into any negotiations on an independence settlement. The sovereign base area is an option. It is an interesting idea because the costs of moving out of Faslane are eyewateringly high." A version of this was emailed to the BBC, which ran a story on its website overnight with the headline: "Faslane Trident base could be in UK after Scottish independence". The MoD emailed the BBC to say: "The sovereign base area is an option. It is an interesting idea."
As far as the cost of relocation is concerned, the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor has a companion piece, The uncomfortable costs of moving Trident Relocating the Trident base to another port could cost at least £20bn and take 20 years to build:
Whitehall planners and independent thinktanks alike have contemplated the prospect of having to move the Trident base to Devonport in Plymouth, or Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. However, moving the base to another port could cost at least £20bn, Professor Trevor Taylor, of the Royal United Services Institute, recently told the defence committee.
Rather higher than Admiral West’s £2.5 billion figure which I thought reasonable. Here is the relevant part of the evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Committee, chaired by James Arbuthnot, MP on 18 June:
Q228 Mr Holloway: …. Clearly, they [the SNP] plan to get rid of Faslane and Coulport. What would the costs be, apart from the obvious ones? Aren’t there some enormous costs regarding concrete cradles and things? Can you tell us a bit more about that?  
Professor Taylor: I haven’t been to Coulport-it’s too sensitive for me. However, from what I understand about what goes on there, the cost of moving those nuclear installations to a new site would be very extensive. It is the weapons storage and then the submarine docking. There is some evidence on what the docks at Devonport for the Trident submarine cost to build.  
Chair: I was in charge. It was horrendous.  
Mr Holloway: Is that because they have to be able to withstand an earthquake or something?  
Chair: Yes.  
Professor Taylor: And accidents of various descriptions. And obviously the weapons storage-  
Mr Brazier: What of various descriptions?  
Professor Taylor: Accidents of various descriptions-leaks. The safety arrangements-the Chairman could speak better on those than me. I find it difficult; if I were to give you a rough figure, I would say the starting figure would be £20 billion, but that is really just an absolute guess. It would be that order of amount that we would have to find, I think. There are various efforts under way. I don’t think anybody has come up with a satisfactory answer about precisely where you might move the facilities to. I don’t have an answer on that- ...
Anyway, £20 billion sounds like a very good figure for negotiations with a Scottish government.


Nicholas Watt has taken his Guardian story a stage further today with an account (Trident submarine base: No 10 disowns MoD's Faslane sovereignty proposal Whitehall row and SNP anger ignites over report of plans to make naval base UK territory if Scots vote for independence) of argy-bargy between the MoD, Number 10 and Alistair Darling, who heads the anti-independence Better Together campaign.
It is understood that a senior official from Darling's Better Together campaign telephoned the No 10 Scottish referendum unit late on Wednesday night to express deep alarm about the Faslane plan. The group was assured that the No 10 unit was equally appalled that the private thinking of the MoD on such a sensitive matter had entered the public domain.
An interesting exchange on Twitter between Watt and a Scottish former defence minister:

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