In March 2012 HMS Vengeance, one of the UK’s four Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident II nuclear missiles, entered the Devonport naval base in Plymouth for a major overhaul. Before doing so, its nuclear warheads were removed at the Coulport naval base on the Clyde. The submarine made its way across the Atlantic to the US Strategic Weapons Facility at King’s Bay, Georgia, on America’s east coast. There, its arsenal of US-designed and built Trident missiles were removed. The missiles were processed into a much larger pool of missiles that equip the US’ Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
More than three years later, in December 2015, HMS Vengeance was recommissioned and journeyed back across the Atlantic to King’s Bay to be reloaded with missiles. In January 2016 an extensive series of sea trials began to test and certify the crew and equipment for its return to active service. This culminated in a live test fire of a Trident missile in June 2016 at the US missile test range at Port Canaveral, off the coast of Florida. This is known as a demonstration and shakedown operation (DASO).
We now know the test went wrong. The missile trajectory was supposed to follow the US Navy’s Eastern Test Range, which extends to the southern Atlantic, off the west coast of Africa. This range is made up of a series of shore and sea-based tracking facilities.
However, as was reported, the problem seems to have involved the communication of data between the missile and one or more of these facilities – rather than a problem with the missile or the launch system. It is unclear what, if anything, malfunctioned with the UK submarine and its fire control system and what malfunctioned with the missile, its guidance systems, or the systems comprising the test range.
Tests of certified and operationally deployed missiles happen quite often and sometimes, they fail. On July 27 2011, for example, a routine flight test of a US Minuteman III inter-continental ballistic missile failed and the missile was deliberately destroyed mid-flight.
The Trident missile actually has an exceptional record. The US Navy has conducted over 160 successful flight tests since missile design was completed in 1989, making it the world’s most reliable large ballistic missile – until last June.
But why the cover up? There are two reasons. The first, which is speculative, is that the US government regards the details of the failure of its missile (to which Britain purchased a right to deploy but do not “own”) or the failure of its test-flight communication systems and software, as proprietary information that it has not authorised the UK to disclose at any level of detail, perhaps because of wider concerns about what went wrong.
The second, and probable core reason, is the intense political sensitivity that surrounds Trident in the UK. The test failure came just as the British parliament was about to debate and vote on whether to continue with the Trident replacement programme. This would enable the UK to deploy nuclear weapons in the coming decades.
What makes a deterrent?
The central issue in all this is the political need for certainty when it comes to nuclear weapons. The UK’s political leaders routinely insist that the country needs its own nuclear weapons in order to protect the state from a major armed attack by another state. The Whitehall narrative insists that nuclear deterrence – the threat of a nuclear attack to prevent the escalation of armed conflict to the point of all-out war, including nuclear war – works without problem. In fact, it is so reliable, it effectively guarantees protection against attack. This is how it is sold to the public: nuclear weapons assure safety and protection; no nuclear weapons means weakness and vulnerability.
This is why Trident is so often referred to as “the deterrent”, as if it successfully deters simply by existing. Means and ends are one and the same. This narrative of “nuclear absolutism” (UK nuclear weapons are absolutely necessary and nuclear deterrence works absolutely) is part of the marketing strategy for maintaining an independent UK nuclear weapons capability.
And a vital part of this narrative is the absolute reliability of the weapon system. Politicians, the public, and whoever the UK is targeting need to know, need to believe, that if the order to fire is given, then the UK’s missiles will be launched and massive nuclear violence will follow.
The problem is that the practice of nuclear deterrence is not perfect. It involves people, weapon technologies, systems, bureaucracies and cultures. Sometimes things do go wrong and when they do, the illusion of certainty is compromised, and this creates problems. It raises questions about the nature of the risk and whether it is worth taking, questions that Theresa May, for one, doesn’t want asking.
We know that organisations can struggle to deliver persistently safe outcomes with complex systems. This can result in disasters like the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, the Deep Water horizon oil rig disaster in 2010 and the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown in 2011.
This is the wider lesson from the Trident test failure: accidents happen with nuclear weapon systems, just as they do with any complex socio-technological system. But the consequences of things going wrong with nuclear weapons and the practice of nuclear deterrence in which they are embedded are enormous. This is particularly so in crises that can induce risk taking, misperception, and extreme stress.
The consequences could be the detonation of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of nuclear warheads, causing catastrophic harm.
Proponents of nuclear deterrence might accept this risk by arguing that it is very small. Yet we cannot know that and we should not deceive ourselves by thinking nuclear weapons are intrinsically safe and nuclear deterrence is foolproof. They are not and, given the consequences of failure, it is why a majority of states voted at the UN General Assembly in October 2016 to begin a formal process to ban nuclear weapons.
Nick Ritchie has previously received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. He is a member of the British Pugwash Group, the British International Studies Association, and the Royal United Services Institute's Project on Nuclear Issues.