The Scottish Government’s November 2013 White Paper, Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, outlined its defence priorities and posture in detail.

Ahead of a renewed drive for a further independence referendum in 2023, the Scottish Government is publishing a specific defence paper, as part of a series for an updated prospectus for an independent Scotland.

In lieu of the latter document, analysis on the future requirements of Scotland’s defence force must rely heavily on the 2013 forecast for its composition and cost to defend its “important strategic position in the North Atlantic”. 

However, that strategic position has evolved since 2014 and, in a more contested international environment, the force structure outlined in 2013 would likely be an absolute bare minimum for the defence of Scotland and its aspirational international obligations.

The shifting geopolitical environment


Euro-Atlantic security is rapidly changing in response to the war in Ukraine and renewed Russian aggression, which makes Scotland’s geostrategic position in the North Atlantic critical for the security of the UK and for Nato.  

Russia has been remilitarising the Arctic for several years, following a reduction in priority following the Cold War, driving Nato, and the UK, to provide more focus to the region alongside the European Arctic or “High North”.

The UK Government published its first “Arctic Policy Framework” in 2013 (revised 2018  and 2022) and a specific defence paper for the High North in 2022  which emphasise their centrality to the security of the UK.

However, an independent Scotland would supplant the rest of the UK as the Arctic’s “nearest neighbour” and inherit the requirement for surveillance and monitoring of growing Russian submarine and aircraft activity, the revitalisation of its “Bastion defence strategy” (Russia’s naval security zone which reaches south to the Shetland Islands), and the guarding of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GUIK) gap which Russian submarines must navigate to access the North Atlantic.

The politics of separation


Tensions within the political relationship between Scotland and Westminster have also risen since the last independence referendum and the political fallout from Brexit, ensuring arrangements are “taken forward in an orderly and secure manner” more difficult. 

Therefore, the status and composition of an independent Scotland’s military would, to a large extent, be impacted by the overall post-independence negotiation and settlement and heavily influenced by Westminster despite independence.

 Indeed, the 2013 White Paper includes the caveat to each description of its anticipated air, land and sea component stating “equipped initially from a negotiated share of current UK assets”.

The political conditions that this exact division of assets and liabilities will need to be negotiated will very closely shape their outcome. The experience of Brexit has demonstrated to both Edinburgh and London how difficult this process could be across a broad array of non-defence policy areas. 

Moreover, disagreement over the exact nature of a potential referendum in 2023 will likely further strain this relationship. In this instance, defence negotiations will be dominated bilaterally by the status of basing and the UK’s nuclear deterrent at Faslane and Coulport, with the backdrop of external negotiations with Nato and the EU on prospective membership, to secure Scotland’s security needs.

Scotland’s conventional forces


The 2013 White Paper committed to progressively building a total force of 20,000 personnel (15,000 regular and 5,000 reserves) within 10 years following independence and committed to  £2.5 billion spending on defence and security.

 In terms of comparative size and geographic areas of operation, both Norway (23,000 active personnel and £5.8bn defence budget) and Denmark (16,000 active personnel and a £4.3bn defence budget) provide a useful model for assessing Scotland’s own defence needs. 

While it is difficult to precisely assess the exact cost of conventional forces, as budget forecasts integrate security and defence, it is likely that actual defence costs will be significantly higher than 2013 forecasts.

Moreover, it is ‘almost impossible’ to calculate the current, and forecast, UK Ministry of Defence spend in Scotland.  Scotland’s position in the North Atlantic as a “maritime nation”’ gives priority to sea and air-based patrolling to protect Scotland’s coast, maritime assets, and to contribute to collective security in the North Atlantic.  

For airpower, maintaining the current capabilities at RAF Lossiemouth, the RAF’s main operating base in Scotland which provides strategic oversight of northern UK airspace to protect UK and Nato airspace from incursions, is critical.  The base currently hosts four Typhoon combat aircraft squadrons, two Poseidon P-8A Maritime Patrol squadrons (nine airframes at a £3bn total cost over a decade), and, in 2023, it is due to add three new E-7 Wedgetail surveillance aircraft (£2.1bn total cost ).  

These specialist capabilities are expensive to buy, operate and maintain and would quickly stretch the defence budget, especially in the early years of independence.

Therefore, if acquisition is not realistic, then an agreement must be reached, either for the UK to continue operating P8s and E7s from Lossiemouth, or with other operators, such as the US or Norway, to maintain seamless coverage.

Naval forces, alongside maritime patrolling, would also need to contribute to intelligence collection, situational awareness, search and rescue and exercises, and as such would need to have high levels of interoperability with the Royal Navy.

The extant plan seems to rely heavily on acquiring ships and boats from the Royal Navy’s current fleet to maintain capability and then to procure new Scottish naval vessels.  

The naval domain is perhaps the most critical in maintaining continuity of capabilities during the transition towards an independent Scotland given the growing Russian threat and a mix of frigates, offshore patrol vessels, counter mine vessels and support ships will be required. 

Scotland’s land forces would likely be formed around a deployable brigade (3,500 regular and 1,200 reserve) initially from a negotiated share of current UK assets and incrementally upgraded and strengthened to (4,700 regular and 1,110 reserve).

The deployablity of these land forces will be important for Scotland to be an active contributor to UN peacekeeping and peace-making operations, and potential future Nato or EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions.

Alliances and partnerships


An independent Scotland has the ambition to join both Nato and the EU. Therefore, its defence requirements are partly set by the aspiration to join both organisations.

For Nato, this would require spending a minimum of two per cent of GDP on defence. In response to the war in Ukraine, European defence budgets have increased, and Nato has announced significant increases in its Euro-Atlantic military posture which will have significant costs associated.

Therefore, it would be difficult for Scotland, especially in its early years, to contribute significantly less than 2%. However, Scotland, due to its geostrategic position, can be valuable to the UK, Nato and the EU, in other ways, such as a willingness to contribute to international missions and to provide sites for UK bases and training establishments.

This balancing will rely on the negotiating skill of the Scottish administration that may secure independence in the future.