Building a New Scotland: An independent Scotland's Place in the World

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's proposals for an independent Scotland's place in the world.

Defence and security capability in an independent Scotland

Key points

By independence day, a comprehensive, expert-led Defence and Security Review would be completed, ensuring that we develop the capabilities needed to protect and defend our borders, citizens and democracy.

The armed forces of an independent Scotland would comprise land, sea, and air components overseen by a Joint Forces Headquarters.

Following negotiations, an independent Scotland would inherit significant military establishments and infrastructure. These establishments would support the armed forces of an independent Scotland and, with agreement, would also continue to be available to our international partners.

This Scottish Government would design a ‘contract’ for serving personnel that would clearly show how a role in Scotland’s armed forces would be appealing and flexible, with modern pay and conditions. Our offer would include continued strong support for veterans.

This Scottish Government would establish a robust and proportionate security and intelligence body for an independent Scotland – the Scottish Security and Intelligence Agency.

Developing Scotland’s defence capability

Independence will allow Scotland to mould the shape, size and structure of the Scottish Armed Forces. It would provide Scotland with the ability to meet our own national objectives and tackle current and emerging threats. This would also provide a historic opportunity to recast Scotland’s defence forces in a way which is representative of our needs. This section provides this Scottish Government’s view on how the armed forces of an independent Scotland might be structured and the capabilities they may require.

A Defence and Security Review

Ahead of a lawful vote for independence, the Scottish Government would begin the work needed to inform our future capability requirements. This Scottish Government would commission a comprehensive Defence and Security Review, alongside a strategic threat assessment informed by expert advice that takes account of current, evolving and anticipated threats, geopolitics, and technological developments. These would provide expert analysis and recommendations for the size, shape and specific capabilities that Scotland should plan for when building its armed forces. This Scottish Government would support the idea of Multi Year Defence Agreements, which would bring together political parties and relevant stakeholders on an ongoing basis to ensure robust and durable defence and security plans.

Both the Defence and Security Review and the strategic threat assessment would be informed by the strategic assumptions identified elsewhere in this paper – Scotland’s intention to join NATO, the EU, and build a collaborative mutually beneficial defence and security relationship with the UK and our key strategic partners.

The commissioning of the Review and a strategic threat assessment will therefore be key to understanding and developing the full detail of an independent Scotland’s defence capability.

What a Scottish defence capability could look like

By independence day the government of an independent Scotland would ensure that capability was in place to secure Scotland’s borders, land, sea and airspace. In addition to undertaking a strategic Defence and Security Review and threat assessment, other priorities following a vote for independence would include:

  • identifying arrangements for joint working with the UK for a transitional period, and a timetable for UK forces to gradually draw down their presence in Scotland as our independent capability builds up, while recognising that our most enduring security partnership will be with the UK
  • the creation of a Joint Forces Headquarters at Faslane that would lead the build-up of our armed forces
  • establishing a high level of confidence in our capabilities across Scotland, the UK, the EU and with NATO to allow our key allies to understand and trust our capabilities

Building on these initial priorities, and without presuming the outcome of any future assessment, the broad shape of an independent Scotland’s initial capability is expected to include the following elements:

  • a land component, with units whose role would be to operate on the frontline of any operation. This would mean a mix of infantry, artillery, and combat service support units such as medics, engineers, and logistical troops
  • a maritime component that would focus on Scotland’s strategically important geographical location that sees us bordered by the North Sea, and the North Atlantic.[34] Our maritime forces would patrol and secure our territorial waters while protecting critical national infrastructure such as the subsea cable network that surrounds Scotland. Given our strategically important location as the most northernly non-Arctic nation our maritime defence measures would support not just Scotland but also our allies
  • an air component that would consist of aircraft and supporting infrastructure able to undertake core tasks, such as securing Scotland’s airspace, transporting personnel, materials and equipment by air, both across Scotland and overseas, protecting our territory and armed forces from a range of threats

Interoperability (i.e. the ability for military personnel or equipment to operate effectively together) will be essential to meeting the strategic aims of an independent Scotland. The development and design of forces capability will rest on ensuring interoperability between land, sea and air as well as with our allies in NATO and the EU, further strengthening Scotland’s case for NATO membership.

Comparator nations

The findings and recommendations of a future Defence and Security Review and the strategic threat assessment will inform the development of an independent Scotland’s capability. The approach taken by countries of similar population size to Scotland (5,436,600)[35] gives a realistic indication of the scale of capability an independent Scotland could need.

Table 1, below, offers a comparison of the size of the armed forces in five countries – Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. These countries are comparable to Scotland based on their location in North Europe, population size, values and international partnerships, though of course their own histories and geographies have led them to make decisions suited to their own circumstances.[36] They also share a number of common features in relation to their army and land forces. They have a mix of infantry, mechanised infantry, reconnaissance and air defence capabilities, supported by infantry fighting vehicles, tanks and other vehicles and operate multi-role combat aircraft and a varying mix of maritime patrol, transport, rotary and other aircraft.[37]

Table 1: Defence spending and personnel figures for comparable countries to Scotland
POPULATION* 5,920,767 5,601,547 5,275,004 5,553,840 10,483,647
% GDP SPEND (2022) 1.31 2.07 0.23 1.47 1.34
Defence spending – USD billion 5.06 5.82 1.17 7.43 8.07
ARMY 8,000 13,400 6,750 8,300 6,850
NAVY 2,250 3,150 750 4,600 2,350
AIR FORCE 3,000 2,700 700 4,300 2,700
Reserves 44,200 238,000 1,600 40,000 10,000

*Population figures are based on demographic statistics taken from the US Census Bureau

Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 2023. Abingdon: Routledge, 2023

While we anticipate that a transitional period would be required to build up to the level of capability deployed by these long-term and well-established armed forces, these comparators show that countries of Scotland’s size can, and indeed do, have substantial militaries capable of defending territories while providing support to collective defence arrangements.

In November 2013, the Scottish Government published ‘Scotland’s Future’.[38] This paper set out a phased approach to increasing capability over a 10 year period post-independence, with the aim of having 15,000 regular, and 5,000 reserve personnel after 10 years.

Table 1 demonstrates that the Scottish Government’s 2013 proposition[39] would place Scotland near the middle of the range of the comparator countries above. It is worth noting, however, that some of the comparator countries have policies that we would not seek to replicate – use of compulsory military service or the idea of a citizen militia. Both Finland and Norway also share a land border with Russia, which has significant implications for their defence policy.

While we believe the force size estimates produced in 2013 remain reasonable, the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the degree to which the global security situation has evolved and may do so further. In that context, it is important to re-emphasise that the shape and size of Scotland’s armed forces would be decided by a comprehensive Defence and Security Review to allow decisions to reflect the most up to date threat and capability assessments.

Table 2 provides an overview of comparator countries’ naval vessel capability. These countries operate a significant fleet of medium to large combat vessels with a varying mix of frigates, corvettes and, in some cases, submarines, supported by widely varying fleets of inshore craft.

Table 2: Naval vessel capability for comparator countries to Scotland
Submarines - - 6 5
Destroyers 3 - - - -
Frigates 2 - - 4 -
Patrol & Coastal Combatants 12 20 6 13 150
Mine warfare 6 8 - 4 7
Amphibious - 52 - - 11
Logistics & Support 12 7 2 6 15

Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 2023. Abingdon: Routledge, 2023

While the illustrations above largely focus on conventional military capability, Scotland will also need to draw on our existing experience to develop the technological capabilities required for modern warfare, in areas such as cyber, national security and intelligence which are covered later in this paper.

Defence footprint

According to the UK Ministry of Defence, in August 2021, there were 113 military establishments across Scotland (not including Service Family Accommodation).[40] These range from air defence radar at Royal Air Force Saxa Vord in the far north of Shetland to the Kirkcudbright Training Area in Dumfries and Galloway. There are major military bases such as His Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde at Faslane, Leuchars Station on the east coast and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray.

These establishments will be in the sovereign territory of an independent Scotland, which would be free to determine how best to use them to support our armed forces, as well as, through formal agreements, those of our allies, including the UK. Scottish waters, military bases and training areas would continue to be available to host some of the world’s largest multi-national training exercises[41] and our excellent facilities and challenging terrain could be used by our allies as part of Scotland’s contribution towards ensuring our mutual security.

This Scottish Government proposes that Faslane would be Scotland’s primary naval base, home to a range of conventional maritime forces. It would also act as the joint headquarters of the Scottish defence forces.

The offer to Armed Forces personnel

The armed forces of a democratic nation are nothing without the dedication of the people willing to serve their country. The Scottish Government recognises that an independent Scotland cannot ask hardships of those who serve without ensuring that they, and their families, get the utmost support in return.

Mere acknowledgement is not enough. Our serving personnel should be clear about what they can expect in return for the solemn commitment they have made. It is not acceptable that those who are prepared or have been prepared to lay down their lives in defence of their country may struggle – both when serving and as veterans – to use their skills, develop a good standard of living and to access the public services available to everyone else.[42]

This Scottish Government would take a responsible approach to the transfer of serving UK defence personnel to a Scottish Armed Forces. At the point of independence, no UK service personnel would be compelled to take up a post within the Scottish Armed Forces. Given the need for a period of transition for both Scottish defence forces and the armed forces of the UK, the manner of the transition would be the subject of responsible negotiation between the Scottish and UK governments at that time.

In an independent Scotland, this Scottish Government would redesign the ‘contract’ with our serving men and women, making a role in the armed forces appealing and flexible, with modern pay and conditions, including by:

  • making an offer to those serving that makes the Scottish Armed Forces an attractive and competitive career choice, with a clear and comprehensive package for them and their families, that provides development opportunities when serving and clear career pathways when returning to civilian life – removing the cliff face of transition many face[43]
  • giving our armed forces personnel a voice in the decisions that affect them on matters such as housing, health and education for our armed forces community in Scotland • respecting and supporting family life by designating a home base in Scotland throughout their career
  • integrating service personnel within their communities as much as possible during and after their military career, with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and streamlining health, housing, education and skills and other key services
  • supporting this integration while ensuring continuity of medical care and education and development of career paths that match with relevant sectors in civilian life. The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) partnership has already worked to map some military qualifications to the SCQF and develop a Military Skills Discovery Tool helping employers and educational institutions to understand qualifications gained during service[44]
  • developing an exit package that focuses on retraining and future employment for service members and their spouse/partner respecting and supporting family life by designating a home base in Scotland throughout their career

Our veterans community

This Scottish Government is also committed to achieving the best possible outcomes for our veterans community, creating the conditions for Scotland to be the destination of choice for its Service leavers and their families. This is set out in the Scottish Government’s Veterans

Strategy Action Plan first published in 2020[45] and refreshed in 2022,[46] informed by an extensive consultation with stakeholders across the community and tailored to the needs of our veterans and their families. Veterans and their families are valuable members of our society, offering a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience. Recognising this and ensuring they do not suffer disadvantage because of their service and can integrate successfully into civilian society will be a cornerstone of support for veterans in an independent Scotland.

This Scottish Government has been steadfast in its commitment to our veterans, being the first Scottish Government to create a dedicated Minister in 2012 who made the landmark appointment in 2014 of the first independent Veterans Commissioner of any nation in the UK.[47]

The relationship between the Scottish people and those who have committed to protect them can be reforged, ensuring our military personnel and veterans are part of and play a full part in the communities in which they and their families live and where the present dislocation between serving and civilian life is minimised.

Scotland’s defence industry

The defence industry in an independent Scotland would play a key role in helping to build up our capability over time. In 2022, this sector added £3.2 billion to the Scottish economy and had over 33,000 direct employees, including 1,500 apprentices.[48]

Although the Defence and Security Review would inform our capability requirements, it is anticipated that due to Scotland’s geography, a substantial maritime capability will form a key part of our defence forces. As shown earlier in this paper, comparator countries all operate a significant number of surface ships up to and including frigate-sized vessels.

Scotland is already home to renowned shipbuilders and has significant shipbuilding capabilities which can be seen by the work undertaken by both BAE[49] and Babcock[50] in delivering world- leading ships for the Royal Navy. This Scottish Government’s intention would be to use the capability of Scottish yards to create the maritime capability for the navy of an independent Scotland.

Companies in an independent Scotland would also be expected to be in a strong position to compete for UK Defence work, following a recent change in UK naval procurement policy. The UK Government published a refreshed national shipbuilding strategy in March 2022,[51] confirming that the procurement approach for all UK naval ships is now to be decided on a case-by-case basis and can be open to single source procurement, UK competition, international competition, or a blended approach comprising UK and international competition.

This Scottish Government firmly believes that the world-leading capability of Scottish yards would continue to be attractive to the UK Government in the period beyond independence and we do not believe the expertise that exists there would be easy to replicate elsewhere in the UK.

Scotland’s space sector

Space is increasingly important in the delivery of national and international security.[52] Scotland already has a strong space sector, predominantly focused upon commercial space. According to Space Scotland, it is already punching above its weight in terms of performance in the UK space sector, with almost one fifth of all UK space sector jobs being based in Scotland in 2021.[53]

Scotland has world leading capabilities in small satellite manufacturing[54] and is applying downstream data applications including earth observation, which plays a vital role in monitoring global climate change.[55]

The delivery of launch capability will provide Scotland with the full end-to-end solution for small satellites. With a combination of domestic launch vehicle manufacturers and international partnerships Scotland could become the home of European launch. This government believes this capability will be attractive to a range of international defence partners.

National security and intelligence

The safety and prosperity of an independent Scotland would be assured not only by its military capability and alliances but also by the establishment of a robust but proportionate security and intelligence apparatus.

Scotland’s needs in this area would be met by the establishment of a single Scottish Security and Intelligence Agency. This new body would support Scotland’s role as a good global citizen, contributing to national security whilst promoting and protecting human rights, the rule of law and democratic values. As in all other aspects of an independent Scotland, national security would be delivered in line with Scotland’s values, with institutions that would be accountable to Ministers, and subject to scrutiny by Parliament, with an independent oversight mechanism to ensure transparent examination of the most delicate matters whilst respecting the need to protect sensitive information.

The specific capability of this agency would – as in other areas of defence and security – be informed by a comprehensive strategic threat assessment following a vote for independence, but the key functions it would deliver and how it would operate are already clear. A Scottish Security and Intelligence Agency would, at a minimum, undertake:

  • risk and threat assessments
  • investigation of threats
  • liaison with Police Scotland and others (including the military), the UK and internationally
  • intelligence gathering, receipt and handling
  • production of open-source intelligence assessment and analysis
  • protection of Scotland’s critical infrastructure • cyber security functions
  • monitoring of, and response to threats to the democratic process
  • protection of classified material
  • security of ‘Information Agreements’ with the EU and other key allies cyber security functions

Scotland’s security: cyber security and resilience

The adoption and use of digital technologies have increased in recent years and this has benefitted the country hugely. However, alongside this digital transformation, there have been increases and changes in the types of threat we are now seeing. Threats to our democracy and way of life no longer come only from ground, sea or air. Conflict is both physical and virtual and there have been several instances of the use of cyber to undermine elections and the democratic process.[56] The years ahead are likely to be more challenging as we become even more reliant on the internet and digital technologies and the cyber threat becomes more sophisticated. It will be of the utmost importance to keep Scotland safe: enabling us to defend our democracy and counter high levels of malicious state and criminal activity. We will need the capabilities, the networks, the relationships and the approaches to keep Scotland safe, secure and resilient.

These objectives are eminently achievable. Following the restoration of its independence, Estonia, with a population only a quarter of that of Scotland,[57] has become an exemplar for secure digital public services and has one of the world’s strongest cyber defence infrastructures, demonstrating that small states can outperform their bigger neighbours when it comes to security.[58]

Since the implementation of a national cyber resilience strategy for Scotland in 2015,[59] Scotland’s cyber resilience has been improving, with evidence[60] that:

  • awareness of cyber threats among the general population is increasing
  • Scotland’s national cyber incident response arrangements are in place and are tested regularly
  • our public sector organisations are becoming better prepared against the cyber threat
  • the cyber security skills pipeline is strengthening, with qualifications offered at secondary and tertiary education levels

An effective, collaborative partnership-approach to building cyber resilience is already in place in Scotland,[61] providing an effective base on which to build future capability. An independent Scotland would increase and deepen its cyber security capacity and capabilities in order to:

  • lead on key national cyber security and defence issues
  • understand and play its part in the global cyber security and defence ecosystem, developing strong partnerships with allies
  • provide early warning, threat intelligence and assessment across priority sectors
  • respond effectively to cyber security incidents and attacks, which may include more focused state sponsored attacks and more technologically advanced cyber attacks
  • provide technical defence capabilities

In addition, the EU Directive on Network and Information Security  (NIS) requires EU member states to have a Cert (computer emergency response team) capability in order to support the sharing of cyber threat and knowledge with other Certs across Europe.[62] Developing this capability would be an early priority for an independent Scotland.



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