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A vote for Scottish independence would strike at the “very heart” of Britain’s maritime defence forces, the UK First Sea Lord has said, in the first intervention on the referendum debate by a serving military chief.

Admiral Sir George Zambellas said on Tuesday that a claim by an independent Scotland on the Royal Navy would “greatly weaken” the forces because bases, infrastructure, procurement and personnel would have to be split up. He added that while the UK would adapt and cope, Scotland would feel a “deeper impact” if it broke away.

“I believe that independence would fundamentally change maritime security for all of us in the UK and damage the very heart of the capabilities that are made up of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Fleet Air Arm,” Sir George wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

“Officers, sailors, civilians and their endlessly supportive families, who come together from the four corners of our country to serve under the White Ensign, consider that they are serving in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy of the United Kingdom,” the First Sea Lord added. “That is something special and precious we do not want to lose.”

His comments will increase the pressure on Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, who has faced growing criticism about defence in the run-up to September’s referendum. Just as Sir George made his intervention, a dozen former armed forces chiefs, including Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup and General Sir Mike Jackson, wrote to Mr Salmond arguing his plans to remove the Trident nuclear base from Faslane would “cast a dark shadow over Scotland”.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond is also preparing to make the case for the union in a speech in Glasgow today. He will say that shared defence provides “security and the peace of mind” for Britain.

“[I am] a proud and wholehearted believer in the success of our unique partnership of peoples . . . I believe, as Defence Secretary for the whole of the UK, that Scotland is stronger within our United Kingdom and the UK is stronger with Scotland within it,” Mr Hammond is expected to say.

The defence secretary also warned that in the event of independence, the future of the UK naval base at Faslane would be the subject of “long and protracted negotiations”.

“Any notion that it would be quick and easy is just plain wrong,” Mr Hammond will say.

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