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Trident missile launch flop prompts questions over UK’s nuclear deterrent

Submarine fleet operating beyond expected service life, says expert, as ex-TUC chief calls for strategic review

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 21 February 2024 21:36 GMT
Ministry of Defence footage shows a Trident missile test somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean on 23 October 2012

The government is facing questions over the effectiveness of Britain’s nuclear deterrent after a test launch of the UK’s Trident nuclear missile failed, crashing back into the ocean close to the submarine that fired it.

The unarmed Trident II missile was launched from the nuclear-powered HMS Vanguard as part of final tests following a £500m overhaul, before the vessel returns to patrol service.

“It left the submarine but it just went plop, right next to them,” a source said.

The launch was carried out off the east coast of Florida on 30 January but has only just been revealed.

Shapps said the government retained ‘absolute confidence’ in the UK’s nuclear deterrent (AP)

The failure, at a time of heightened international tensions and when the readiness of Britain’s navy is under scrutiny, is embarrassing for ministers. Another Trident missile veered off course during a test launch in 2016.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps was on board the 150-metre submarine at the time of the most recent failure, and first sea lord Admiral Sir Ben Key was also reportedly there.

The Labour Party has sought assurances from Rishi Sunak in the wake of the incident, calling the missile test failure “concerning”.

But Mr Shapps said the government retained “absolute confidence” in the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

The “anomaly” had no implications for the UK’s ability to deploy nuclear weapons, he insisted.

It comes just 10 days after the departure of the UK’s flagship aircraft carrier for a major Nato exercise was postponed after an unspecified “issue” was found in final checks.

Last month, Mr Shapps said the UK was in a “pre-war” phase.

However, former Trades Union Congress (TUC) chief Frances O’Grady said the vision of Mr Shapps on board seemed like “a terrible metaphor for what is happening in the country”.

“We know about the squeeze on budgets; we have 25,000 fewer troops than in 2010; we know how important the defence sector is for jobs, but lots of procurement failures too,” she told the BBC’s Politics Live.

“It feels like this is a time, especially in a world that feels really unsafe, where we need a proper strategic review and a look at what are the real threats we face and the best way to meet them.”

The Trident missile had been due to land thousands of miles away, in the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and west Africa.

It was successfully propelled into the air by compressed gas in the launch pipe, but the first-stage boosters did not ignite and the missile crashed back into the water.

Former Royal Navy warfare officer Chris Parry said the missile had operated correctly – the procedural error meant a command abort had to happen for safety reasons.

Matthew Savill, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think tank, said the Vanguard fleet was operating beyond its expected service life.

“They’re working on the basis that the Vanguard submarines are going to be at least a decade beyond their original service lives,” he said. “And that creates stresses and strains on the system.”

HMS Vengeance, another Royal Navy Vanguard class Trident ballistic missile submarine (Reuters)

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “Reports of a Trident test failure are concerning. The defence secretary will want to reassure parliament that this test has no impact on the effectiveness of the UK’s deterrent operations.

“Labour’s support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent is total. We recognise the special service of those who’ve maintained our continuous at-sea deterrence for over 50 years.”

Mr Shapps said the test had been the culmination of a “demonstration and shakedown operation” to gauge the performance of Vanguard’s weapons and crew after the refit.

He said the operation reaffirmed the effectiveness of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and that the submarine and crew were “successfully certified” ready for operation, but that an anomaly had occurred that was “event-specific”.

“There are no implications for the reliability of the wider Trident missile systems and stockpiles,” he said.

“Nor are there any implications for our ability to fire our nuclear weapons, should the circumstances arise in which we need to do so.”

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said the government had “complete confidence” in Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

He repeated the Ministry of Defence’s explanation that there had been an “anomaly”, but said that, for national security reasons, he was unable to expand on what that meant.

“There was this specific anomaly, but we are confident that the anomaly was specific to the test and that there are no wider implications,” he said.

Britain’s nuclear deterrent is provided by four nuclear-powered submarines equipped with the American-built Trident ballistic missile system, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The warheads are built in Britain.

Britain and the US say there have been more than 190 successful tests of Trident, which can be fired at targets up to 4,000 miles away and can travel at more than 13,000 miles an hour according to the Royal Navy.

In the 1980s, the UK spent £12.52bn on acquiring Trident – the equivalent of £21bn in 2022-23 prices, according to figures from the House of Commons Library.

It costs around £3bn a year to operate.

The Ministry of Defence said it is spending more than £50bn a year in cash terms on the armed forces, “supporting global deployments and continuing to invest in new tanks, fighter jets and warships”.

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