Why we should have every confidence in the Trident missile system

On 22nd January the Sunday Times revealed that a routine Trident missile test conducted by HMS Vengeance off the US coast in June 2016 had been a failure. A telemetry problem had caused the unarmed missile to be destroyed in flight. Previous test-firings have been announced to the media but this test had remained secret. Government stands accused of hiding a politically inconvenient fact close to the time when Parliament was due to approve the Trident renewal program.

HMS Vengeance launched the missile correctly and there was no failure by the submarine. Exact details of what happened are sketchy but the problem concerned a malfunction in the telemetry and communications which tracks the missile. The missile may have been performing correctly, but lacking certainty as to its position and course the sensible option was to destroy it in flight. The missile was intended to splashdown far away in the West Atlantic but some less credible media reports suggested it veered off toward the US coast, threatening to crash in Florida.

The Mistry of Defence has stated: “HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified, allowing Vengeance to return into service. We have absolute confidence in our independent nuclear deterrent”


After completion of a major refit period, RN Trident submarines conduct a DASO (Demonstration and Shakedown Operation) that tests the chain of command, the submarine and its systems and ensures the crew are competent to safely operate the boat. The DASO culminates in a rest-firing of an unarmed Trident missile at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC). This facility, situated between the Florida coast and the Bahamas, provides an instrumented range where NATO submarines can check their sound signatures and test-fire torpedoes, missiles and decoys. Seabed arrays, radars and other instrumentation feedback data to shore stations that can track and evaluate performance.

The 2016 test conducted by HMS Vengeance was the 11th Trident missile launch by a Royal Navy Submarine at AUTEC. Costing around £17m per missile, the UK can only afford to conduct a test around every 3-4 years. DASO does incidentally, provide a welcome and very rare run ashore in the sun for the sailors who man the ‘bombers’ as the boat usually comes alongside in Florida or a few days before or after conducting the trials.

Trident – the world’s most reliable large ballistic missile

Lockheed Martin is the most experienced missile manufacturing company in the world and the Trident D5 is the sixth in a series of missile sea-based nuclear deterrent systems that began development more than 60 years ago. LM continues to support the UK deterrent with engineering services for its stock of missiles purchased under the 1968 US/UK Polaris Sales Agreement. Although the submarines and the warheads are UK built, the RN is exceptionally fortunate to have access to the Trident missile delivery system acknowledged as the best ICBM system in the word. The three-stage ballistic missile can travel a nominal range of more than 4,000 nautical miles and carries multiple, independently-targeted reentry vehicles carry separate warheads that make it very hard to intercept.

There have been 158 Trident II D-5 missiles test-fired since late 1989. There have only been 6 failures, (the majority of which occurred in the first few years of the programme. Last year’s failure was the first for more than a decade). Although the USN has conducted most tests, the data is shared with the RN. The USN conducted a successful double test-firing from USS Kentucky off the California coast in Nov 2015 and since the UK test failure, subsequently carried out another successful test in Sept 2016.

Nothing that has ever been engineered by mankind can be guaranteed to have continual 100% success rate. Given the complexity of the Trident missile system, a 96.2% success rate in testing over 28 years is remarkable and is unmatched by any foreign equivalent. After all, tests are conducted to find faults and eliminate failures so the system performs correctly if needed for real. With the full weight of The US Navy and Lockheed Martin committed to supporting Trident, it is safe to assume a thorough investigation has been conducted and the problem will be quickly eliminated.

It should also be remembered that the RN’s Vanguard class submarines carry 12 Trident missiles in their 16 tubes, should one missile fail, another could be launched in its place. Even in recent times and possessing decades of experience in developing ballistic missiles, the Russians suffered multiple failures of their Bulava missile system during trials. Many other nations have zero public transparency about their missile programs so failures remain hidden. Trident is simply the most reliable ballistic missile in existence, anyone who has even a basic understanding should conclude the US and UK governments rightly have every confidence in the system.

A political story

Historically the DASO test-firings have been made public and, because they have been successful, generate little controversy and conveniently act as a powerful deterrent to our nuclear adversaries. In 2012 the media was given special access to HMS Vigilant conducting her test and Russian observers were even invited. If you set a precedent of being open and transparent it is, therefore, important to be consistent and admit when there are problems. The government now faces a backlash and is quite reasonably being accused of a cover-up.

Julian Lewis, the highly respected pro-Trident chair of the House of Commons Defence select committee said “This sort of event is not one you can play both ways. These tests are routine but infrequent in this country… whenever they work, which is 99% of the time, film is released of them working, so whichever person decided they wanted to draw a veil over one that didn’t work should have been sacked…You have always got to assume that something like this will come out.”

When there has been a technical failure there is an understandable temptation to keep it quiet using the convenient veil of military secrecy. The press coverage that has followed this weekend’s revelations in the Sunday Times has demonstrated why there were fears about making the truth public. There is a virulent anti-nuclear lobby and hostile section of the media that has already used the story to make wild and inaccurate claims about Trident, using every opportunity to undermine public support for our deterrent. The Guardian’s defence correspondent, Ewen MacAskill even claimed: “Trident failure undermines the basic justification for nuclear weapons”. There may be a few valid argument against Trident but using a very rare failure as an excuse to question a very mature and reliable system is nonsense.

This story is essentially just a political and media issue and the real concern is why and who made the choice not to inform the public of the test failure. Journalists and politicians will no doubt continue to argue this out, meanwhile, the RN will quietly get on with conducting deterrent patrols which have help prevent world war since 1945. Any sensible military analysts will conclude that Trident retains credibility and its deterrent effect cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, it is very easy for the media to give an alternative impression.

MoD video of HMS Vigilant conducting successful test-firing of Trident missile, November 2012


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/why-we-should-have-every-confidence-in-the-trident-missile-system/


Author: Jack Nicholson

Hi, I'm Jack Nicholson, but not the one you're probably thinking of right now. I first joined the Royal Navy in 1997 after working in medicine, becoming a medic. I spent 12 years in the ranks and during this time I served in 3 different ships, met a lot of people and experienced even more than I could have dreamed; eventually commissioning as Medical Service Officer. My work has taken me to places far and wide, such as Afghanistan. I enjoy spending my time raising money for charities which help injured war veterans, as this is obviously very close to my heart after seeing so many of my friends go through traumatic ordeals. One of my favourite hobbies is reading, I really enjoy reading non-fiction books in my spare time

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