Relocating the Trident base to another port could cost at least £20bn and take 20 years to build
The position of the British government, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, told the Commons defence committee last week, is that it did not expect a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum on independence and therefore was not making any “specific contingency plans” about what to do with Britain’s sole nuclear weapons base – Faslane, north of the Clyde.
But there is a Whitehall saying that military planners at the Ministry of Defence have contingency plans for every eventuality, even a US attack on the UK.
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. It could take 20 years to build a new nuclear weapons base in England or Wales, experts told the Commons Scottish affairs committee last year. Hammond has said it could take 10 years if it was treated as an absolute priority.
The sheer cost of the exercise, and the time it would take, has forced military planners, officials and ministers to contemplate the possibility of establishing a UK sovereign base area around Faslane – linked to the weapons storage facility at nearby Coulport – along the lines of the British bases in Akrotiri and Dhekelia on Cyprus.
William Walker, professor of international relations at St Andrews University, told MPs a sovereign base would be “unusual” in the modern era but would be “one of the options available”.
Unilateral nuclear disarmers, including those among the senior ranks of the Scottish Nationalist Party, went out of their way to emphasise what they said were the prohibitive costs involved. Scottish independence, they argued, would advance the cause of ridding the whole of Britain of nuclear weapons.
The cost of relocating Trident might even persuade the British government to wonder whether it was worth keeping a nuclear deterrent, a programme which even Tony Blair described as of no military use.
Then Scottish politicians, like the defence officials in Westminster, began to soften their approach – not least, as far as the SNP was concerned, because of the implications for jobs.
What is now worrying officials and military chiefs in the MoD is that if they are seen to be accommodating about the status of the Trident base, their most powerful argument against Scottish independence – ie, that it would mean the end of Britain’s nuclear deterrence – will have evaporated.