What we know about UK's nuclear submarine Trident missile misfire

The Ministry of Defence has admitted to an 'anomaly' during a drill

An unarmed Trident II (D5) ballistic missile is fired from HMS Vigilant on a previous date. (PA/file photo)
An unarmed Trident II (D5) ballistic missile is fired from HMS Vigilant on a previous date. (PA/file photo)

A Trident missile misfired and crashed into the ocean close to the submarine that fired it, according to reports.

According to The Sun, the crew aboard HMS Vanguard were submerged just yards from where the missile fell during the incident off the coast of Florida on 30 January.

The Ministry of Defence has not confirmed the details of the incident, which is believed to have taken place last month, as it relates to national security.

What we know

The government has not denied the reports and have confirmed to Yahoo News that an “anomaly” occurred during a recent test, and that it was “event specific”. However, the lack of denial – and the story being widely reported elsewhere – indicates the reporting is accurate.

The Sun reports that the exercise took place on 30 January on board HMS Vanguard, a nuclear-powered submarine. It was under the surface off the coast of Florida at the time of the misfire. The newspaper said a dummy Trident 2 missile was propelled into the air by compressed gas in its launch tube, but that its so-called first stage boosters did not ignite.

GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 04:  HMS Vanguard sits in dock at Faslane Submarine base on the river Clyde December 4, 2006 in Helensburgh, Scotland. Tony Blair is to address MPs about his plans for the future of the UK's independent nuclear weapons system.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
HMS Vanguard, pictured at Faslane Submarine base on the river Clyde, fired the missile during a test exercise in Florida. (PA)

Defence secretary Grant Shapps was on-board the 150-metre vessel at the time of the incident, his spokesman confirmed. First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key was also present at the time to mark what was the final exercise for Vanguard and its crew after undergoing a refit that took more than seven years, an MoD spokesman said.

The MoD said there remained “absolute confidence” in the UK’s constant at-sea nuclear deterrent and that it continues to be “secure and effective”. However, it is believed to be the second misfiring in a row, with a test launch of a Trident missile by the Royal Navy off the coast of the US in June 2016 also reported to have been a failure.

In July 2016, the House of Commons approved the decision to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent up to and beyond the early 2030s. Transition to the new warhead in the Dreadnought-class submarines, which will be compatible with the Trident missile system, is expected from the late 2030s onwards.

Downing Street was unable to say when the last successful Trident missile test occurred.The prime minister’s official spokesman told reporters that the UK government still had “complete confidence” in Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Asked how the government could offer such assurances given the last test in 2016 also resulted in a misfire, Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said: “There really isn’t much more I can add on the technical issues. The purpose of this operation was a full two-month period of exercises which successfully validated the submarine and the crew.

"There was this specific anomaly but we are confident that the anomaly was specific to the test and that there are no wider implications.” Asked when the last successful Trident missile test was, the spokesman said: “I can’t provide any more commentary on matters of national security.”

Shapps has also not publicly commented but a written ministerial statement on the UK's nuclear deterrent is expected to be laid in the House of Commons, according to the order paper.

Questioned by Sky News about the “embarrassing” misfire on Wednesday, health secretary Victoria Atkins smiled and said the government has “complete confidence in the system".

Britain's Defense Minister Grant Shapps attends the Nato - Ukraine Council Defence Ministers at the Nato headquarters in Brussels on February 15, 2024. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)
Defence secretary Grant Shapps was on board the submarine at the time of the misfire. (Getty)

What we don't know

With the MoD refusing to confirm the missile failure, other details made in the initial report in The Sun remain unconfirmed. The newspaper quotes a source that says the missile dropped just yards from the submarine – but we don’t know how accurate this is. There are also no confirmed details of whether the top-secret missile technology was recovered.

Details about where the missile was intended to fly are also only rumoured. According to The Sun, it was due to fly 3,700 miles from Florida to its impact point in the mid-Atlantic. The paper reports that the intended route had been revealed in a warning to ships and aircraft from National Geo Spatial Intelligence Agency.

The government has not said if the misfire has any impact on the effectiveness of the UK’s deterrent operations.

The reports have sparked demands of assurances from Labour over the effectiveness of Trident. 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.”

Read more