Faslane and the SNP

Submariners snub Helensburgh due to independence threat, report claims

The Clyde Naval Base at Faslane on the Gareloch.

By Rob Edwards

Nuclear submarine crews do not want to live around the Faslane naval base because of the prospect of Scottish independence, according to an internal report for the Ministry of Defence.

The report also blamed “not enough” pay, “lack of recognition” and the Royal Navy’s “embarrassing” public image for hundreds of trained submariners quitting their jobs in recent years.

“Unsustainable” staffing levels, “poor” career management and “dissatisfaction” over the imbalance between work and life were cited as other reasons why sailors and engineers have been leaving.

Critics have warned that staff shortages will get worse and that the MoD will “struggle” to maintain the continuous deployment of Trident submarines at sea. The MoD, however, has disowned the report as “unofficial and unauthorised”.

Four Vanguard submarines powered by nuclear reactors and armed with Trident nuclear missiles are currently based at Faslane on the Gareloch. There are an additional two nuclear-powered but conventionally-armed Astute submarines based there, with another five due to come into service.

But the latest data made available by the MoD suggests that there have been problems recruiting and retaining submarine crews. As at 1 October 2017 there was said to be an overall “deficit” of 250 submarine personnel.

There were 2,100 engineers in post instead of a full complement of 2,280, and 560 “warfare” submariners instead of the required 630. Official tables also indicate that between 2013-14 and 2016-17 there was a total “outflow” of 1,080 submariners.

The new report was posted online by the MoD in January 2019 following a request under freedom of information law. Originally marked “official sensitive staff”, it summarised issues raised by a survey of Royal Navy submariners.

Helensburgh remembrance service.

Royal Navy on parade from Faslane submarine squadron.

The date, title and much else have been blacked out by the MoD on the grounds that “information that could compromise the operational state of the RN’s fleet is not released into the public domain where it could be exploited by potential adversaries and put at risk the capability and effectiveness of our RN forces.”

The person who requested the report – whose name has also been redacted – said it was written by a Commander Grey to try and explain why “large numbers” of submariners were leaving. The MoD said the report “was designed for internal purposes and not intended for public distribution”.

One of the reasons given by submariners as to why they were unhappy was a reluctance to make their homes in the Helensburgh area.

“The issue of Scottish independence is a critical aspect of personnel not wanting to relocate their families and lives to the area near Faslane,” the report concluded.

“The service appears to be burying its head in the sand and hoping for the best,” it warned.

To combat the problem, it urged “a firm declaration of intent or course of action by both the naval service and the UK government”.

The report pointed out that when submarines berthed at Faslane, many of the crew flew home elsewhere. As senior officers did not live locally, junior staff thought they could “hardly be expected to move their lives,” it said.

“Generally participants felt that they were not paid enough for the sacrifices they made being at sea,” the report argued. “Several personnel commented on the lack of recognition for their efforts in the submarine service.”

There were also complaints about accommodation and the Royal Navy’s public image. “The ability of the Royal Navy to portray itself well in the media is sporadic,” the report said.

Television documentaries such as Channel Four’s Royal Navy School were branded “embarrassing”.


A Scottish scene as visitors are welcomed to Faslane by a piper.

There was “a demonstrable trend of dissatisfaction” on “work/life balance”, the report added. “Outputs of both branch and career management are generally poor.”

Submarine crews raised “a considerable number of issues” linked to under-staffing, and described “manning as unsustainable and impacting negatively upon the career that was outlined to them”.

The report recommended that the MoD should consider the reintroduction of diesel-powered submarines. “This would allow the submarine service to increase the scale and type of operations,” it said.

The report also disclosed that submariners don’t have much faith that their concerns were treated seriously. “Questionnaires were issued so command was seen to be going through the motions of listening to personnel, rather than actually doing so,” it said.

Many of those surveyed considered that organisations set up to deal with complaints were “composed of ‘Yes Men and Women’ who put spin on feedback rather than reporting honestly of the state of affairs on the front line.”

The monitoring group, the Nuclear Information Service, warned that problems with the UK nuclear weapons programme were mounting. “The MoD is going to struggle to maintain continuous at sea deployment over the next 15 years as the current Trident submarines approach the end of their life,” said director, David Cullen.

“This will increase the pressures on submariners that are driving them out of the service, so in all likelihood the current staffing shortages are going to get worse.”

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was not surprised at the staff shortages. “This report clearly paints a picture of discontented staff and inadequate management within the submariner section of the navy,” said the campaign’s chair, Arthur West.

“The report also highlights that there are doubts among some staff about the future of Faslane as a nuclear weapons base. Frankly Scottish CND hope that their fears are justified and plans can then be made to redeploy their skills into socially useful areas of the economy.”

o'hara brendan 2The Scottish National Party, which is represented at Westminster by the Helensburgh MP Brendan O’Hara, pictured left, accused the MoD of “inventing straw men”, suggesting they should look at other reasons for reduced morale. “The delayed and over budget Astute-class programme left the UK reliant on a single Cold War-era attack submarine for much of the last couple of years,” said a party spokesperson.

“The SNP has long argued for the introduction of an armed forces representative body which would allow submariners, and all armed forces personnel, to speak with one strong voice to negotiate with the MoD for better pay and conditions.”

The campaign group, ForcesWatch, pointed out that the difficulties recruiting submariners were linked to wider problems. “There are numerous reasons why joining the armed forces is a less attractive option,” said coordinator, Emma Sangster.

“Many of those that do enlist will drop out later on as the job fails to live up to the hype of the recruitment adverts which promote an unrealistic and sanitised view of military life.”

She added: “These findings echo the annual survey of attitudes in the armed forces that shows an increasingly low level of satisfaction with a variety of aspects of jobs and lifestyle across the forces, particularly amongst non-officers.”

The Ministry of Defence declined to confirm the author or date of the report, or to answer questions on submarine staffing levels. “This is part of an unofficial and unauthorised study conducted into life in the submarine service, and it would be inappropriate to comment further,” a Royal Navy spokesperson told The Ferret investigative journalism bureau.

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