Why we should have every confidence in the Trident missile system

On 22nd January the Sunday Times revealed that a routine Trident missile test conducted by HMS Vengeance off the US coast in June 2016 had been a failure. A telemetry problem had caused the unarmed missile to be destroyed in flight. Previous test-firings have been announced to the media but this test had remained secret. Government stands accused of hiding a politically inconvenient fact close to the time when Parliament was due to approve the Trident renewal program.

HMS Vengeance launched the missile correctly and there was no failure by the submarine. Exact details of what happened are sketchy but the problem concerned a malfunction in the telemetry and communications which track the missile. The missile may have been performing correctly, but lacking certainty as to its position and course, the sensible option was to destroy it in flight. The missile was intended to splashdown far away in the East Atlantic but some less credible media reports suggested it veered off toward the US coast, threatening to crash in Florida. US sources have stated that the change of course was part of an automatic self-destruct sequence when the missile detects an anomaly.

The Ministry of Defence has stated: “HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified, allowing Vengeance to return into service. We have absolute confidence in our independent nuclear deterrent”

Background

After completion of a major refit period, RN Vanguard class submarines conduct a DASO (Demonstration and Shakedown Operation) that tests the chain of command, the submarine and its systems and ensures the crew are competent to safely operate the boat. The DASO culminates in a test-firing of an unarmed Trident missile on the Eastern Test Range (ETR), off Port Canaveral, Florida. The ETR is able to track and evaluate the performance of rockets and missiles within its 15 million square miles of instrumented airspace that extends to Ascension Island in the mid Atlantic.

The 2016 test conducted by HMS Vengeance was the 11th Trident missile launch by a Royal Navy Submarine. Costing around £17m per missile, the UK can only afford to conduct a test around every 3-4 years. DASO does incidentally, provide a welcome and very rare run ashore in the sun for the sailors who man the ‘bombers’ as the boat usually comes alongside in Florida or a few days before or after conducting the trials.

Trident – the world’s most reliable large ballistic missile

Lockheed Martin is the most experienced missile manufacturing company in the world and the Trident D5 is the sixth in a series of sea-based nuclear deterrent systems that began development more than 60 years ago. LM continues to support the UK deterrent with engineering services for its stock of missiles purchased under the 1968 US/UK Polaris Sales Agreement. Although the submarines and the warheads are UK-built, the RN is exceptionally fortunate to have access to the Trident missile delivery system acknowledged as the best ICBM system in the word. The three-stage ballistic missile can travel more than 4,000 nautical miles and carries multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicles with separate warheads that make it very hard to intercept.

There have been 158 Trident II D-5 missiles test-fired since late 1989. There have only been 6 failures, (the majority of which occurred in the first few years of the programme. Last year’s failure was the first for more than a decade). Although the USN has conducted most tests, the data is shared with the RN. The USN conducted a successful double test-firing from USS Kentucky off the California coast in Nov 2015 and since the UK test failure, subsequently carried out another successful test in Sept 2016.

Nothing that has ever been engineered by mankind can be guaranteed to have continual 100% success rate. Given the complexity of the Trident missile system, a 96.2% success rate in testing over 28 years is remarkable and is unmatched by any foreign equivalent. After all, tests are conducted to find faults and eliminate failures so the system performs correctly if needed for real. With the full weight of The US Navy and Lockheed Martin committed to supporting Trident, it is safe to assume a thorough investigation has been conducted and the problem will be quickly eliminated.

It should also be remembered that the RN’s Vanguard class submarines carry 12 Trident missiles in their 16 tubes, should one missile fail, another could be launched in its place. Even in recent times and possessing decades of experience in developing ballistic missiles, the Russians suffered multiple failures of their Bulava missile system during trials. Many other nations have zero public transparency about their missile programs so failures remain hidden. Trident is simply the most reliable ballistic missile in existence, anyone who has even a basic understanding should conclude the US and UK governments rightly have every confidence in the system.

A political story

Historically the DASO test-firings have been made public and, because they have been successful, generate little controversy and act as a powerful deterrent to our nuclear adversaries. In 2012 the media was given special access to HMS Vigilant conducting her test and even Russian observers were invited. If you set a precedent of being open and transparent it is, therefore, important to be consistent and admit when there are problems. The government now faces a backlash and is quite reasonably being accused of a cover-up.

Julian Lewis, the highly respected pro-Trident chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee said “This sort of event is not one you can play both ways. These tests are routine but infrequent in this country… whenever they work, which is 99% of the time, film is released of them working, so whichever person decided they wanted to draw a veil over one that didn’t work should have been sacked… You have always got to assume that something like this will come out.”

When there has been a technical failure there is an understandable temptation to keep it quiet using the convenient veil of military secrecy. The press coverage that has followed this weekend’s revelations in the Sunday Times has demonstrated why there were fears about making the truth public. There is a virulent anti-nuclear lobby and a hostile section of the media that has already used the story to make wild and inaccurate claims about Trident, using every opportunity to undermine public support for our deterrent. The Guardian’s defence correspondent, Ewen MacAskill even claimed: “Trident failure undermines the basic justification for nuclear weapons”. There may be a few valid arguments against Trident but using a very rare test-failure as an excuse to question the entire deterrent is nonsense.

This story is essentially just a political and media issue and the real concern is why, and who made the choice not to inform the public of the test failure. Journalists and politicians will no doubt continue to argue this out, meanwhile, the RN will quietly get on with conducting deterrent patrols which have help prevent world war since 1945. There are plenty of scandals to be found in the state of UK defence, but significant problems with the Trident system is not one of them. Any sensible military analysts will conclude that Trident retains credibility and its deterrent effect cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, it is very easy for the media to give an alternative impression.

MoD video of HMS Vigilant conducting successful test-firing of Trident missile, November 2012

 

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