Defending an Independent Scotland Post-Brexit

Stuart Crawford and Richard Marsh | 17 September 2018

Mariusz Prusaczyk · Unsplash

Designing defence

The main focus of the Sustainable Growth Commission report is, unsurprisingly, Scotland’s economy. But it does contain a couple of paragraphs on defence in what others have called the ‘if we were independent pitch’.

The commission report suggests that in an independent Scotland defence spending would account for a lower share of the economy (1.6%) than the UK, but would be not far off the NATO spending target of 2%. The proposed spending is in line with other smaller European countries and similar to the £2.5 billion mooted in the 2014 white paper Scotland’s Future.

None of these approaches are how a country should design armed forces or set a defence budget. There are three very simple steps to do this: decide the purpose of the armed forces, work out the number of service personnel and equipment needed, and finally calculate the cost.

If the cost is unaffordable then start again, prioritise, rationalise and compromise. This process needs to be repeated until a configuration is reached that is acceptable and affordable.

A’ the Blue Bonnets

In October 2012, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published our report, A’ the Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland. Using the approach described above, a costed model was showed how an independent Scotland might organise and equip its armed forces.

The RUSI paper suggested that a possible model for an independent Scottish Defence Force (SDF) might comprise:

  • A navy of up to twenty-five vessels and 1500 – 2000 personnel;
  • An army with 10000 – 12500 personnel;
  • An air force of around sixty airframes and 1750 – 2250 personnel.

The cost of defending an independent Scotland was estimated to be between £1.5 and £1.8 billion per annum. There have been major developments in both the geopolitical and defence spheres which require a new, updated model for defending an independent Scotland.

A new model for defending Scotland

The UK voted to leave the EU by March 2019, with a transition period of around two years thereafter, and is trying to extricate itself from any EU military commitments in which it has become involved, whether by design or by default.

In NATO, the United States has signalled its dissatisfaction with current levels of defence spending by its allies. China is emerging as a serious contender in the military balance, North Korea has been sabre-rattling with its nuclear arsenal and Russia has become much more militarily aggressive.

Britain has recommitted itself to a global military strategy. This is indicated by the construction of two major aircraft carriers, adherence to the Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) nuclear posture, and the re-establishment of the Royal Navy base in Bahrain, HMS Jufair.

The UK is now clearly struggling to match its defence aspirations to its defence budget, and the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) will be published shortly.

The principles of the 2012 RUSI report remain sound, with an independent Scotland likely to have a regional, rather than global, focus for its foreign and defence policies. Accordingly, military specialisation and niche capability are needed.

Membership of NATO and the emerging EU defence capability would be sought. Article 5 of NATO ensures collective defence – the best insurance policy a fledgling independent state could hope for alongside membership of an emerging European defence body.

An independent Scotland would now shift its defence and military emphasis away from the army-focused model we proposed in 2012. Most, if not all, of the defence inventory would still come from Scotland’s inherited share of the UK current assets.

This would be subject to negotiation, as there are many items which independent Scotland would either not want or not be able to afford. There would be no utility for high-end weaponry, and aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks, army attack helicopters, heavy artillery and fast jet attack aircraft can be discounted. And, of course, no nuclear weapons.

In general terms, a Scottish Defence Force would now comprise a navy of some 20 hulls, including two frigates, Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMVs) and Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and some support and training vessels and approximately 2500 personnel.

An independent Scotland would require an army able to produce one deployable brigade (with details of units and equipment to be the subject of further study) of some 6000 personnel, and an air force with approximately 50 aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with some 2000 personnel.

With an allowance for HQ and support staff, this gives a total of 11000 personnel, about a third less than the 2012 RUSI report. A ratio of 70:30 in terms of regular and reserve personnel might be appropriate, subject to further examination.

Cost and coalitions

Providing infantry troops is no longer Scotland’s strongest suit. An independent Scotland would need to provide specialist expertise to coalition operations and this would be particularly welcomed by Europe.

For example, Scotland could for specialise in medical services, logistics or military police, all of which can contribute to international conflict resolution and humanitarian operations with coalition partners.

Updating the calculations from our 2012 RUSI report, the cost for defending an independent Scotland has now fallen to between £1.1 billion and £1.3 billion per annum. The Sustainable Growth Commission’s target of defence spending accounting for 1.6% implies a defence budget of around £2.7 billion.

This suggests that defending an independent Scotland could realise savings of up to £2.1 billion each year compared to defence spending allocation to Scotland in the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS report), and £1.6 billion each year compared to the assumptions set out in the growth commission’s report

This would fall short of the NATO spending target. However, Scotland’s strategic location and military assets could be also offered, including the development of a NATO or European base at Lossiemouth or leasing Faslane.


Geopolitical developments over the past six years require an update to the model for how an independent Scotland might defend itself. A full spectrum military capability is neither necessary nor easily affordable, and specialisation and exploitation of potential military alliances to cover capability gaps, particularly with European partners, are the way forward.

The updated model summarised here shows a possible Scottish Defence Force model which is smaller by a third and considerably less costly than our previous one. It is also approximately half the costings identified for defence in the Growth Commission Report.

Stuart CrawfordStuart Crawford

Independent Commentator

Stuart Crawford is a former army officer and current defence analyst and commentator. He is co-author with Richard Marsh of A’ The Blue Bonnets: Defending an independent Scotland (Royal United Services Institute, 2012).

Richard MarshRichard Marsh | Twitter


Richard Marsh is an economist and Director of 4-consulting based in Scotland. He is a member of the Scottish Government’s expert group advising on economic accounting, impact modelling and economic statistics.