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Trident Removal From Scotland May Take a Decade: U.K. Defense Chief

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond on Tuesday testified to lawmakers that it would take 10 years or more to remove the country's ballistic missile submarine fleet from their home base in Scotland, should the U.K. territory decide to expel it following a potential referendum for independence next year, the London Guardian reported.

The locally governing Scottish National Party has pledged itself to the goal of seeing a free Scotland rid of all U.K. Vanguard-class SSBNs and their nuclear-armed Trident missiles. A British parliamentary committee in a 2012 report found that nuclear weapons in Scotland "could be disarmed within days and removed within months."

"If removing the nuclear deterrent was the No. 1 priority (of an independent Scottish government) we are talking of the order of a decade," Hammond said. It was not immediately clear if the defense leader was referring to the exit of nuclear warheads, missiles that carry them or the submarines that launch them; the parliamentary report said the vessels themselves could take two decades or more to relocate.

London's ruling Conservative Party, which includes Hammond, is staunchly opposed to Scottish independence and the removal of nuclear arms from the territory.

The expense of retiring and disassembling the fleet of four SSBNs would be astronomical and would be a problem that the entire nation would have to bear, Hammond said.

The Defense Ministry has not developed "specific contingency plans" for the future basing of the nuclear force should Scottish voters approve independence in 2014 as London does not expect the referendum to pass, the defense chief said.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats -- the junior party in the coalition government -- might adopt a platform urging the United Kingdom starting around 2016 to no longer have at least one nuclear-armed submarine deployed at all times, the Press Association reported.

The call is expected to be contained in the party's recently completed assessment of options for renewing the United Kingdom's nuclear arsenal. Adoption of the report's recommendations is expected to be voted on at the Liberal Democrats' yearly membership meeting in September.

Continuous-at-sea deterrence has been the country's nuclear posture for decades. Opponents of the policy argue it no longer makes sense in a post-Cold War world. Defense specialists say it takes a minimum of four ballistic missile submarines to ensure around-the-clock, sea-based deterrence. Were the policy to be thrown out, it could open the door to the United Kingdom moving to a smaller fleet of SSBNs.

A commentary published on Monday in the Guardian argues it would be "a grave mistake" to relinquish continuous at-sea deterrence, a move that could prove destabilizing by jettisoning Britain's assured retaliatory capability and creating incentives for a nuclear first strike.

"A submarine tied up alongside HM Naval Base Clyde ... is not a deterrent – it's a 'target,'" wrote David Blagden, a research fellow in international politics at Darwin College at the University of Cambridge. "A potential aggressor contemplating an attack on Britain would face powerful incentives to destroy it before it left port."

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