Trident failure: a government cover-up or a matter of procedure?

Andrew Dorman

Last week the UK government came under fire for their handling of an alleged failed nuclear test. Our editor Andrew Dorman assesses the lessons learnt.

Last week it emerged that last summer, just prior to the House of Commons voting on the replacement of the United Kingdom’s existing fleet of Vanguard-class submarines, there was a failure in the test of an unarmed Trident missile. On The Andrew Marr Show the Prime Minister repeatedly refused to answer the question of whether she knew about the failure before she went to Parliament with the replacement question.

In response, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn led the calls claiming that the government was engaged in a major cover-up; that the UK’s nuclear deterrent was unnecessary and lacked credibility. Among those traditionally in favour of the UK retaining its nuclear deterrent, Julian Lewis, Chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee, and Labour Peer Adam West demanded that the government be far more open. Should the government have come clean? Or was this merely a case of opposition grandstanding?

So what are the known facts?

First, Parliament voted in July 2015 in favour of replacing the navy’s existing submarines with new submarines, thus ensuring that the UK can continue to maintain one submarine perpetually at sea. This goal, otherwise known as the ‘continuous at sea deterrent’ (CASD), seeks to prevent a potential opponent from having a chance to destroy the UK’s entire nuclear fleet. Just before the vote HMS Victorious conducted the standard test that these submarines perform when they return from a major refit. The evidence available so far suggests that the submarine managed to successfully launch the missile, and that problems began post-launch.

Second, the fault would appear to lie with the missile. What we do not know is whether the fault was peculiar to this missile or wether it is a generic problem among all the submarines. However, there are clues. Neither the UK nor the US actually owns specific missiles. Rather they have a share in a common pool of missiles. If there was a wider problem then the US response would have conveyed equal concern. Instead they brushed it off with a direct media confirmation of the failure. The fact that there appears to have been no major actions suggests that the issue is either missile-specific or that the problem was quickly identified and rectified.

Third, the traditional method of the government consulting with the main opposition parties on sensitive issues was not used. Procedural convention states that in cases of national security, the Leader of the Opposition is kept informed via the Privy Council of any developments on the understanding that the information is kept secret. The government’s apparent failure to use this avenue is not surprising given Jeremy Corbyn’s long support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. On this issue Corbyn would not have wanted to be constrained by Privy Council privilege, nor would the government have wanted to risk passing on information to such prominent opponents of the UK’s nuclear deterrent system.

What else has the episode revealed?

These outcomes aside, a range of related factors have become obvious in the course of this episode. First, the aftermath of the revelations last week reveals the basic lack of understanding across Parliament about strategy and, in particular, the concept of deterrence. Amongst those demanding to know why the government hadn’t been fully open with parliament about the failure of the Trident missile were Julian Lewis, Lord West, and Labour’s Shadow Defence spokesperson Nia Griffith. Deterrence relies on a potential opponent opting not to take a particular course of action because of the potential consequences that might result. Even if there is a major problem with the Trident missile system it would have been unwise for the government to reveal to potential opponents that the ‘deterrent’ might be unreliable. It makes far more sense to leave a potential opponent in doubt about what might happen. Put another way, if the lock to your front door is broken you do not put a sign up on the door saying ‘lock broken’. The fallout from this particular episode reveals a lack of understanding of this basic national security principle.

Second, the secrecy surrounding the failed test has been directly linked to the subsequent parliamentary vote on renewing the nuclear deterrent. Here, there is much confusion over what Trident actually is. This is not helped by the government’s own language. The UK’s nuclear deterrent is provided by a combination of 4 Vanguard-class submarines each capable of launching Trident ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. The recent statement by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to the House of Commons and the questions that followed demonstrated the widespread ignorance within parliament on nuclear matters. For example, Labour MP Paul Flynn expressed his concern that a nuclear accident might have occurred. This was especially problematic given that in routine tests like the one last summer, missiles are generally known to be unarmed.

Third, the government’s handling of this event can be described at best as poor. Partly this links back to the state of the Labour Party and the problem of having a unilateralist as its leader. It also reflects the Scottish National Party’s replacement of the Liberal Democrats as the third party along with their consistent opposition to the UK’s nuclear deterrent. With the Privy Council route in effective abeyance for issues pertaining to national security we are likely to see a repetition of this saga over other issues of defence policy. However, a less than acquiescent opposition does not excuse the failure of communication by Theresa May’s team in this instance. While Brexit and the related drive to create a trade-focused ‘global Britain’ loom large on the agenda, this latest episode in the Trident saga indicates that defence is not an area where the Prime Minister is focusing her attention. That said, it seems fair to say this was a case of procedural confusion, rather than a government cover-up.

Andrew Dorman is the Commissioning Editor of International Affairs. He is also a Professor of International Security at King’s College, London.

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