A Scottish vote to leave the United Kingdom on Thursday could ultimately lead to the end of the country’s nuclear arsenal, which consists of 225 warheads.
The UK’s nuclear deterrent is currently housed in western Scotland — and if the newly independent Scots decide to banish the UK’s major nuclear base London could decide that the weapons are simply too expensive and impractical to retain.
Britain was the third country in the world to develop a nuclear capability. In the 61 years since its first nuclear test, the United Kingdom has lost almost all of its once-sprawling empire, which included places like Sudan, Belize, and Malaysia the day the UK detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1953.
Back then the UK saw itself as a superpower that needed nukes, partly as a matter of national prestige. “We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs,” Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said in October of 1946. “We have got to have [a] bloody Union Jack on top of it.”
Nukes also represented an important line of defence for a country that had just staved off an attempted German invasion of the island during World War II and suffered sustained bombing of several of its major cities.
But that logic makes far less sense in contemporary times, when Britain seems at far less risk of an existential threat, and what threats there are seem to come from amorphous (i.e., hard to nuke) groups like ISIS.
Britain’s arsenal, which is fully integrated into NATO’s European nuclear infrastructure, currently hinges on a single nuclear-armed submarine plying the waters off of the Scotland’s western coast (Britain has four nuclear attack subs, but only one is actively deployed at a given time). Even this minimal form of nuclear deterrence, however, comes with major back-end costs that Scottish independence would greatly magnify.
According to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, estimates of the cost of moving the UK’s nukes out of Scotland “have ranged from the low-billions up to 50 billion [pounds].” The UK would have to build new munitions facilities, along with an “entirely new ship lift … utility supply buildings, licensed berths, support areas and earthworks” at a hypothetical replacement base that it would have to constructed more or less from scratch.
And this is on top of the estimated 18 billion pounds needed to replace the existing submarine fleet some time in the next decade or so.
Relocating the nukes wouldn’t just be costly but politically problematic as well. There’s talk of moving some of the nukes to the U.S. or to NATO bases elsewhere in Europe, but at that point it becomes even harder to justify keeping them under Britain’s charge.
The nukes could be moved somewhere within England, but the RUSI report estimates that that could take well over a decade, turning the arsenal into a long-term sticking point between the UK and a newly independent Scotland and possibly a major domestic political issue within a diminished UK as well.
“There may well be a certain financial threshold above which the benefits of retaining nuclear weapons in the event of Scottish independence are felt to be outweighed by their growing costs,” the RUSI report states. “However, there is no a priori means of determining where that threshold might lie.”
In other words, a “yes” vote on Thursday might force the UK to reconsider whether it even wants or needs nuclear weapons at all — on top of the other fundamental long and short-term issues Scottish independence would force the remaining members of the Union to confront.
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