By Yazdan Chowdhury
Sir Winston Churchill once said of the nuclear deterrent strategy, ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival of twin brother of annihilation’. This is the fundamental guarantor of UK security and whilst the Prime Minister may have faced a difficult few days in PR terms, the botched missile test last June in Florida should not alter the renewal of our Trident nuclear capability.
Let us first look at the operational facts of the ‘failed’ test off Port Canaveral in June 2016. Following a £300 million plus refit of HMS Vengeance, her crew and the vessel were required to take part in a ‘demonstration and shakedown operation’ which is a series of renewed trials to verify new operational seaworthiness. As part of the operation, a decoy Trident II D5 Missile was fired from the west coast of Florida to an unknown pre-planned target off the west coast of Africa. Sources from the UK MoD and the US DoD confirm an American avionic GPS system from the world’s largest defence company, Lockheed Martin, malfunctioned. Naturally no one wants a nuke accidentally heading in the wrong direction, particularly back towards Disneyland, and therefore redundancy procedures were enforced automatically by the missile and overseen by operational conductors, who can take manual control; with the missile self-destructing.
As a result of poor decision making at the time, we now see this incident causing severe headaches for the government. Firstly, the Obama administration did ask the British government not to announce this incident as it was American proprietary technology and more importantly, the British and American share the same missile stockpiles, and so any perceived weaknesses in the British test would undermine American security. Secondly, Theresa May was not adept at batting away the 4 questions from Andrew Marr, and nor were any of the ministers who were questioned on it after the Sunday interview. They kept going on about ‘successes’ or completely ignoring he questions, fuelling suspicions of a cover-up. Whilst Trident operational security must and always will be maintained, all the Prime Minister and other ministers had to say was ‘the test was a success as all redundancy systems and protocols were followed through resulting in complete confidence of the policy to renew trident’.
The timing of this incident and the vote to renew Trident makes begs the uncomfortable question, ‘was Parliament lied to?’ Or more succinctly, ‘was the Government economic with the truth?’ The answer to both of which is a resounding no. With the exception of the crew, there are fewer than a dozen people in government and military who know the locations of our four trident submarines for operational security. The fact of the matter is the system worked, and even with a slight malfunction, redundancy procedures worked. If anything the incident exemplified why we cannot delay the decision to renew Trident. With regards to the ‘failed’ technology from Lockheed Martin, it is part of the seemingly indestructible military-industrial complex, which President Trump has already mentioned he will refine (a topic which we shall examine in another blog post, along with the economic argument).
Of course there are those who say why spend £170 billion on replacing Trident over its new 30-year life span, but one simply cannot predict future threats. It is a fact every SDSR and US National Security Strategy has failed to predict the type of warfare or threat faced every policy review cycle. Mitt Romney was laughed at by the public and pundits in the 2012 Presidential election debate when he said Russia still remained a major threat. Of course nuclear weapons are not going to be used against ISIS but it is the ultimate guarantor of our security and our political power, and buys us our seats at NATO- DSACEUR, United Nations Security Council (all of whom are there as they were the nuclear powers following WWII), Five Eyes Intelligence Partnership etc.
Consider this as a final thought. It is fairly well-known that a new Prime Minister’s first role in the job is to sign the ‘Doomsday Letters’. As they sweep into Number 10 from kissing hands with Her Majesty, they are greeted by the Cabinet Secretary and Chief of Defence Staff who give them a national security briefing of which Trident is at top of the list. They cannot leave the room until the letters are signed. There are 4 options (letters) which need to be sent to the commanders of Trident submarines, who lock the letters in a safe, only to be opened if Her Majesty’s Government no longer exists as a result of nuclear attack. Option 1) Do Nothing. Option 2) Trident Commander uses own discretion to attack or not. Option 3) Take orders from Washington if it still exists. Option 4) Complete annihilation of adversaries responsible. Now imagine a world without Trident. The Prime Minister sweeps into Number 10, has their non-nuclear briefing and then twiddles their thumbs as that is the only option.