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U.K. Lawmakers Eye Basing Submarines at U.S. Port, if Expelled by Scots
WASHINGTON -- A new report issued by a British parliamentary panel suggests that the United Kingdom might consider temporarily basing its nuclear-armed submarines at a U.S. military seaport if Scotland achieves independence and refuses to continue hosting the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, located in southeast Georgia, has been identified as a potential option for absorbing one or more U.K. Vanguard-class vessels; maritime facilities in France are another possible alternative, according to the panel of British legislators.
“Any agreement whether to relocate the U.K. nuclear deterrent outside the British Isles, possibly in France or the USA, would be a decision for the U.K. in discussion with its allies,” states the Oct. 25 report, authored by the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.
Four days earlier, Alex Salmond -- the first minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party -- said he thought London might do well to arrange basing for the Trident D-5 missile-carrying submarines elsewhere in the United Kingdom or even abroad.
The British government "could either relocate Trident to another facility in the rest of the U.K. or, alternatively, they could use the nuclear facilities in America, or in France for that matter,” Salmond said on a BBC news show. “Trident is effectively an American weapon.”
The parliamentary assessment warns, though, that it “would be very difficult, both logistically and politically,” to base the U.K. nuclear force abroad. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond last week said his government is “confident that the Scottish people will choose to remain part of the United Kingdom” and “we have no plans to move the nuclear deterrent from there.”
Yet, with the matter as-yet unresolved, the question of how Scottish independence might affect London’s deterrence force is beginning to loom. Lawmaker Nick Harvey, a former armed forces minister, said it was “hard to think of any single item that would be larger in [British-Scottish] negotiation.”
All four U.K. ballistic missile-armed submarines currently use Faslane on the River Clyde’s Gareloch as their home port, while warheads are stored and mated with the missiles at Coulport, eight miles away on Loch Long. The nation maintains one Vanguard submarine on patrol at all times.
Future basing has been thrown into doubt in the run-up to a 2014 Scottish referendum on independence. Salmond has said his organization’s long-sought expulsion of nuclear arms from an independent Scotland could be formalized in a new constitution. Earlier this month, the party said an SNP government would “negotiate the speediest safe transition of the nuclear fleet from Faslane.”
There are no clear alternative naval facilities in the United Kingdom that offer both deep-water access for military submarines and secure areas for warhead-marrying operations, which must be located a safe distance from industry and population centers, according to some experts.
If secession proceeds, it might be possible for the U.K. government to negotiate a transition plan under which the nuclear-armed submarines could remain stationed temporarily in Scotland. However, it is far from clear if this option would prove politically viable.
“Nuclear weapons in Scotland could be disarmed within days and removed within months,” and the submarines that carry them could be banished within two years, according to the parliamentary report.
Salmond last week indicated some interest in imposing on an estranged United Kingdom “curtains for Trident,” using the separation as a means of effectively denuclearizing London, possibly for decades.
“We recognize that such speedy action would inevitably create the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament being imposed upon the Royal Navy and U.K., since the construction of facilities elsewhere could take upwards of 20 years,” stated the committee, comprising seven Scottish and four English members of Parliament. “It is not clear how quickly the U.K. could restore continuous at-sea deterrence.”
Committee Chairman Ian Davidson is a Labor Party lawmaker representing southwest Glasgow; his multipartisan panel includes just one member of the Scottish National Party.
The top British defense official last week said his government would never allow such a forced denuclearization to occur.
“Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security,” Hammond said in response to the parliamentary report. “We have made a clear commitment to maintain that deterrent and there is absolutely no question that the U.K. will unilaterally disarm.”
“The U.K.’s preferred option is for nothing to change,” according to the committee’s 30-page document. “Failing that, the next best option would be securing an agreement that enabled the submarines to operate out of Faslane until an alternative base was found elsewhere.”
If Scotland were to drive out the Trident-carrying submarines, one domestic British option might be to store warheads and mate them to missiles at upgraded nuclear facilities in Berkshire, about 50 miles west of London, the document states. Under this scenario, the submarines could be based at Devonport on England’s southwest coast, where they now go for routine maintenance, the analysis states.
Francis Tusa, editor of the U.K. monthly Defense Analysis, told legislators that although it would not be an ideal setup, “it does not mean you cannot do it,” the report states.
Norman Polmar, a naval expert who has advised several top U.S. Navy civilians and brass, agreed, saying of the Devonport option: “Why not? Just expand the port.”
Interviewed on Tuesday, he played down the safety risks of attempting to duplicate Coulport functions proximate to a population center, saying similar activities typically take place near large U.S. cities.
The Scottish Affairs Committee said it could not estimate relocation costs, but experts said the price tag would probably reach billions of dollars. The question of who would foot the costs to develop new Vanguard basing likely would be a major focus of any Scotland secession negotiations.
The lawmakers called the storage and loading of warheads outside the British Isles a possible “temporary measure,” noting that two deep-water ports with submarine-servicing capacity being mulled are “French facilities in Brittany or the U.S. facilities in Georgia.”
Kings Bay is currently home to six of the U.S. Navy’s 14 U.S. Ohio-class nuclear-armed “SSBN” vessels, as well as two conventionally armed “SSGN” submarines, according to base spokesman Scott Bassett.
The facility likely could accommodate additional submarines from the United Kingdom in the near term, some experts said. More space will be freed up as the U.S. Navy reduces its Trident ballistic missile-carrying fleet to 12 vessels by 2028, and to just 10 vessels between 2032 and 2040, according to these sources.
The British government intends to replace its Vanguard-class boats with Successor submarines beginning in 2028, though there remains heated debate within the leadership coalition over whether results of an analysis of alternatives expected early next year might alter those plans.
With most federal offices in the Washington area closed on Monday and Tuesday because of Hurricane Sandy, a U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman did not respond by press time to a reporter’s query regarding basing prospects or any bilateral discussions on the issue.
Washington and London have long had a close relationship in nuclear-weapons matters, to include significant cooperation in submarine and ballistic missile operations.
Among the joint activities today is a leasing arrangement under which the Royal Navy operates with Trident D-5 missiles from the U.S. arsenal, which are assembled, stored and maintained at Kings Bay, Bassett said. Missile loading onto British Vanguard-class submarines -- each of which can carry 16 D-5s -- also takes place at Kings Bay, Bassett said.
Since 2010, U.K. policy has been to carry no more than 40 warheads on each vessel, though the Trident missile has a capacity of up to 12 warheads.
Polmar said the logistics of basing British submarines at Kings Bay would be so challenging as to rule out the option entirely.
“Absolutely not,” in part “because of the support facilities involved,” he said, noting that the Vanguard submarines and nuclear reactors “are all different from ours.”
However, another nuclear-arms expert did not find the notion to be altogether far-fetched.
“There is infrastructure there” for Trident-armed submarines at Kings Bay, said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “The only question is whether they can squeeze in more.”
Polmar also cited two additional factors why such an arrangement would be “totally impossible”: cost and transit time to U.K. patrol areas.
Kristensen agreed the long steaming distances could be an obstacle, saying, “That burns up a lot of core fuel.”
“Setting up a base two to three thousand miles away is ludicrous,” Polmar said. “It would be easier and cheaper to buy the city of Faslane.”
Even if logistics were determined to be feasible, U.S. basing might prove politically unworkable, according to experts.
Home-porting the submarines overseas could “raise questions about how independent the U.K.’s deterrent was,” the parliamentary panel said.
When Trident was first procured, the idea of mating warheads to missiles in the United States was explored but “was seen as just a step too far to being perceived as not having an independent deterrent,” Malcolm Chalmers, a defense policy expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told the panel. That view prevailed, leading to the use of Coulport for this sensitive task.
Nor would sending the submarines to French naval facilities be an easy fix, in the view of some.
“The idea of dumping off the boats there for a few years while we sort out a long-term solution would be a little tricky to manage,” British legislator Peter Luff, a defense equipment minister at the time who has since lost his post, told the committee in June.
The notion of a “sovereign base” located in a newly independent Scotland -- or perhaps sovereign or jointly run facilities in the United States or France -- might be explored as a means of preserving independent nuclear control, the parliamentary report suggests.
As things stand, some Kings Bay military commands, including the Strategic Weapons Facility-Atlantic, fly both the U.S. flag and the Union Jack to reflect the ongoing Trident partnership, Bassett said.
Given the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, basing the Vanguard vessels at a U.S. port would not be such a stretch, one former U.S. nuclear officer said last week.
“We probably won’t go to nuclear war without them,” said the former officer, who asked not to be named in discussing sensitive military and diplomatic matters. “So what difference does it make where you’re stationed?”
“We rely on Diego Garcia,” a British territory in the Indian Ocean, for staging bomber operations, said the ex-officer. “We station our nuclear bombs in Europe on foreign soil. I don’t see it as that big of an issue.”
In London, though, indications are mounting that the U.K. government and Royal Navy actually would see basing abroad as a huge issue, given that the entirety of the nation’s nuclear arsenal is in question, rather than logistics for a select few assets.
Still, there remain many bridges yet to be crossed, not the least of which is the 2014 referendum vote that might, in the end, dispense with the notion of Scottish independence -- an outcome that many in the British capital are hoping for.
For the time being, “we were told that the Ministry of Defense was not making contingency plans for the event of Scotland becoming a separate country,” according to the parliamentary report.
The ministry, legislators learned, “had not been approached or had discussions with the Scottish government about defense matters” should independence be formally embraced, the report states.
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