UK has ‘absolute confidence’ in nuclear deterrent after test failure

Feb 22, 2024 4:25 am | News

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The UK retains “absolute confidence” in its nuclear deterrent despite the second failed test of a dummy missile in eight years, defence secretary Grant Shapps said on Wednesday.

The statement to MPs came after the government was forced to confirm a media report that an unarmed Trident II ballistic missile fired by one of its submarines on January 30 crashed into the sea shortly after launch.

The British military rarely comments on its nuclear deterrent and gave little detail about the incident, with Shapps blaming “an anomaly”.

During the test, the missile was expelled from the submerged submarine as planned but crashed into the sea shortly afterwards when its first-stage boosters did not ignite, according to The Sun newspaper, which first reported the story.

Analysts said this chain of events suggested it was the missile that was at fault and not the submarine itself.

Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and former chair of the House of Commons defence select committee, said he understood it was testing equipment attached to the missile that caused it to misfire.

“All went according to plan but the actual rocket didn’t fire because of the testing equipment,” Ellwood told GB News. “Of course, were this to be fired in anger you wouldn’t have that testing equipment strapped on to the missile itself.”

The embarrassment of the failure was compounded by the presence of the defence secretary onboard the submarine, HMS Vanguard, along with the head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key.

The boat, one of the UK’s four submarines that carries nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, had just undergone a lengthy seven-year refit and the test-firing was part of its return to service.

“The test reaffirmed the effectiveness of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, in which the government has absolute confidence,” Shapps told parliament in the written statement.

“On this occasion, an anomaly did occur, but it was event specific and there are no implications for the reliability of the wider Trident missile systems and stockpiles,” Shapps said.

The UK’s nuclear deterrent is based on the US-built Trident missile system, which is also a key part of the US nuclear arsenal.

A British defence official said: “HMS Vanguard and her crew have been proven fully capable of operating the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent, passing all tests during a recent demonstration and shakedown operation, a routine test to confirm that the submarine can return to service following deep maintenance work.”

Even so, analysts said the failed test, and the fact it was revealed by the media rather than the government, was a blow to the effectiveness of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which is the backbone of the country’s defence posture.

“Nuclear deterrence is at heart about cognitive action and the perceptions it engenders. You have to get on top of the story, otherwise you deny yourself control of the desired cognitive effects,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London.

The UK manufactures its own nuclear warheads but shares the Trident missiles with the US under a deal that allows the Royal Navy to lease up to 58 missiles from a common pool stored at a military base at Kings Bay, Georgia.

There have been 191 successful test firings of Trident missiles since the weapon entered service in 1989, with the most recent conducted by the US navy submarine, USS Louisiana, in the Pacific last September. The missiles are built by US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, using rocket motors from rival Northrop Grumman.

The previous UK test launch in 2016, reportedly failed because of a problem with the “data acquisition system” and was commanded to self-destruct after it veered off course.

Each Vanguard submarine routinely carries eight missiles, each with five warheads. The failure rate is estimated at about six per cent, according to the Navy Lookout blog. So in the event one submarine fired all its weapons during wartime, one of the missiles might fail.

The test launch failure is the second setback for the British navy in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the UK’s two state of the art aircraft carriers, was withdrawn from the largest Nato military exercise since the cold war at the last minute because of a malfunction with one of its propeller shafts. It was replaced by its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales.

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