So, one of the four Royal Navy nuclear SSBN submarines – in this case HMS Vengeance – was reported in the Sunday Times yesterday to have been involved in a firing of an unarmed Trident missile some 200 miles off the coast of Florida last June and that, whilst the firing itself went well from a submarine and Royal Navy crew point of view, may not have subsequently gone according to plan.
So be it, that is what testing unarmed missiles is all about in a training exercise. Worse though, in terms of the media frenzy that was to follow the report, is that because the Prime Minister Theresa May did not know or was perhaps, for various reasons, unprepared to provide specific answers to Andrew Marr on TV yesterday, we have subsequently been forced to witness senior members of Her Majesty’s Opposition Labour Party together with Scotland’s First Minister and others who, from my perspective with some of these being ex-senior military, really should know better, rather too much speaking in public openly and in directly criticising the PM for failing to provide answers and accusing the Government of covering the matter up. Needless to say, I very much regret this.
So what has been reported to have occurred in this particular incident? The story is that following a test launch from HMS Vengeance on an unspecified day last June somewhere off the Florida coast of the USA, an unarmed Trident missile then veered off course. The specific accusation behind the incident is that as it occurred just a few weeks before MP’s voted to renew the Trident nuclear submarine weapons systems in the House of Commons it should have been disclosed to the House at that time. In detail, the report suggested that an unarmed Trident II D5 missile that was intended to be fired a distance of 5,600 miles (9,012 km) from HMS Vengeance 200 miles off the coast of Florida to a sea target somewhere off the west coast of Africa had instead, veered towards the USA.
For its part, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that HMS Vengeance, which came out of an extensive £350m refit in December 2015, did fire an unarmed Trident missile last June as part of a training exercise, but that is all that it has said.
So what probably did occur? I dislike speculation, but given the extent of unfortunate comment relating to this reported incident and what has subsequently been written and said, I am obliged to suggest that although the firing appears to have been perfectly executed by the Royal Navy, it seems most likely that the misfire incident was, as at least one sensible reservist commentator said on Twitter yesterday, “that a correctly performing round [was] aborted [on safety grounds] by the RSO [Range Safety Officer] because of incorrect flight information from erroneous telemetry”.
There are various issues to note in relation to this particular incident in relation to disclosure. First and most important, is that the position of any of our fleet of four SSBN (Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear) is never disclosed or confirmed by the Ministry of Defence. Silence is sometimes both golden and necessary and for the most obvious reasons and the fewer people that know where our nuclear submarines are the better.
While the PM and others in Government are clearly always privy to top secret classified information on where any of the Royal Navy SSBN’s are at any point in time (one is always known to be in refit) she would I suspect not be told as a matter of course every movement unless she asked. However, she would be told of a particular specific incident but in this case, it seems to me that the simple answer to this particular imperfect media storm, is that she probably wasn’t made aware of the June 2016 firing incident because she did not become Prime Minister until after it had occurred.
My second point would be to say that if this was to have been the first of what as far as I am aware, have been around five or six test launch firings of unarmed Trident missiles since 2000, for one to have failed is no big deal. Indeed, as one very sensible defence journalist, Tim Fish, tweeted yesterday, “one fail is not much of an issue. Russian ones have been failing regularly over the past decade – it’s what tests are for”.
Even if the Prime Minister had known about the apparent incident last June, and which I somehow do not believe that she was, it would in my view have been perfectly reasonable for her to have said nothing on the grounds of knowing all too well within a TV interview such as this, that the second question would have been ‘what was she told and what was her view’?
Not surprisingly perhaps, up jumped the Labour Peer, Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord and perhaps the only former 1SL that I know of who constantly break ranks talking openly to media and saying that ‘now they have to reassure us because they [the Government] are so stupid not to let us see what was going on in June”. To that I say only, out of the mouths of fools!
The debate about disclosure and transparency can, particularly when national security is concerned, sometimes be taken too far. Had a specific question been asked in the House of Commons and then not properly answered, then that would have been quite another matter. But, forgive me, because I do not remember anyone asking David Cameron about it when he was in his final weeks and days as Prime Minister or indeed, anyone since then. Sometimes disclosure has to be via a question in the House.
For now, whilst not wishing to be seen as denying that provided national security issues are not breached, proper disclose of incidents should be made in answer to questions in the House I believe that it remains best left with those charged with responsibility for defence to decide what should and should not be disclosed and to handle matters accordingly.
To suggest that because the Royal Navy has in the past provided details of successful firings of unarmed Trident missiles that the matter was no longer top-secret is wrong. I accept that if defence is to be sold to the public and that if they are to be better persuaded that spending more on defence should be a priority of government that disclosure of what our armed forces are doing and where is hugely important. But that does not mean that it should disclose everything.
Another accusation levied at me yesterday was that the decision not to say anything was a political one as opposed to the specific detail being withheld on the grounds of national security. Maybe, but to that I would counter a view that all matters related to defence are political of course. While defence is supposed to be the single most import aspect of Government and for those of us on the periphery, a priority we must also observe that sadly defence is and remains a political choice.
As a final retort let me repeat what Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former senior Royal Navy officer and NATO commander, told the BBC yesterday – “Quite a lot of these shots [missile firings] nowadays are being done to test the limits of the system, so that we can get the next generation of ballistic missiles in”. “It may well be” he said “that they were testing this missile close to its flight limits, so they could see where it wasn’t going to work.”
CHW (London 23rd January 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785