It was the only firing test of a British nuclear missile in four years and raises serious questions about the reliability and safety of the weapons system. The failure prompted a news blackout by Downing Street that has remained in place until this weekend. The cause of the failure remains top secret but a senior naval source has told this newspaper that the missile — which was unarmed for the test — may have veered off in the wrong direction towards America after being launched from HMS Vengeance, one of Britain’s four nuclear-armed submarines. The source said:
“There was a major panic at the highest level of government and the military after the first test of our nuclear deterrent in four years ended in disastrous failure. Ultimately Downing Street decided to cover up the failed test. If the information was made public, they knew how damaging it would be to the credibility of our nuclear deterrent. The upcoming Trident vote made it all the more sensitive.”
The incident happened shortly before Theresa May became prime minister but she omitted any mention of the failed test when she persuaded parliament to spend £40bn on new Trident submarines in her first big Commons speech on July 18. The revelations are likely to cause a political storm. MPs and the public will want to know why such important information about the effectiveness of Britain’s only nuclear deterrent was withheld before the crucial debate on the Trident weapons system’s future. It is expected that Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, will be called to the Commons to answer questions from MPs about the test.
Kevan Jones, a Labour MP and former defence minister, yesterday called for an inquiry into the failed missile test. “The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is a vital cornerstone for the nation’s defence,” he said. There was a major panic at the highest level of government and the military after the first test of our nuclear deterrent in four years ended in disastrous failure: “If there are problems, they should not have been covered up in this ham-fisted way. Ministers should come clean if there are problems and there should be an urgent inquiry into what happened.”
2012: Royal Navy last successful Test Launch of Trident
The Trident missiles have been test-fired only five times by UK submarines this century because they each cost £17m. The previous tests — in 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2012 — have all been widely publicised by the Ministry of Defence and Lockheed Martin, the weapon’s US manufacturer, as demonstrations to the world of Trident’s reliability. The 2012 test was attended by VIPs and a film of the launch both inside and outside the submarine was released on the internet. But the failed Vengeance test last June was followed by a complete news silence by the British government and the missile’s manufacturer. In December 2015 Vengeance returned to sea for the first time in four years after an extensive refit including the installation of a new missile launch system. It undertook months of tests culminating in the test-firing of a Trident missile.
The source had told this newspaper that the test took place at the end of June — about the time of the Brexit vote on June 23. Three days earlier a warning was issued to pilots to avoid “hazard areas” over the Atlantic due to “a missile launch/splash down”. It appears that Vengeance’s missile was intended to be fired 5,600 miles to a sea target off the west coast of Africa. But the source says the missile suffered an in-flight malfunction after launching out of the water. The source believes this led to it veering off target. Michael Elleman, an engineer who helped to develop Trident, said that if the launch had not been a test and the missile had been armed, then the consequences could have been “collateral damage on steroids”.
The failure means it is 16 years since Vengeance has successfully fired a missile but it has, nonetheless, returned to active service. A statement by the defence ministry yesterday confirmed that the missile test had taken place in June but declined to comment on why it had failed or to say whether there had been a threat to safety. It said the submarine was “successfully tested and certified” and it had absolute confidence in the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank, said: “Reliability problems tend to become cumulative. The infrastructure of the whole system is in need of some urgent investment.”