It wasn’t.

What happened? The error was reportedly a problem with the “data acquisition system” forcing a range controller to terminate the flight test, diverting the missile into the ocean as a safety precaution, we understand this is an automatic procedure when the systems electronics detect an anomaly.

The Sunday Times reported on that a Trident II D5 missile “veered off in the wrong direction towards America” after being launched from HMS Vengeance. It should be noted however that a range in the US was actually the target and that the new trajectory that forced the missile into the ocean was part of an automatic sequence designed to bring down the missile when anomalies are detected during testing, not a guidance failure.

The problem was with telemetric directional data, i.e. faulty information being received from the missile. The test was part of a demonstration and shakedown operation that saw HMS Vengeance returned to service in the same month, June last year.

Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Information Council told the Guardian that the telemetric data issue suggests a minor error, rather than a failure on the part of the rocket engine or guidance.

“It is a complex system. It is an amazing feat of human engineering but everything has to work or there is catastrophic failure and a catastrophic failure can have catastrophic consequences.”

A Government Spokesperson said:

“The capability and effectiveness of the Trident missile, should we ever need to employ it, is unquestionable.

In June the Royal Navy conducted a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch from HMS Vengeance, as part of an operation which is designed to certify the submarine and its crew. Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified, allowing Vengeance to return into service. We have absolute confidence in our independent nuclear deterrent.
 
We do not provide further details on submarine operations for obvious national security reasons.”

Former Rear Admiral Chris Parry told the BBC:

“Quite a lot of these shots 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 that they were testing this missile close to its flight limits, so they could see where it wasn’t going to work.”

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Labour MP Kevan Jones said:

“The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is a vital cornerstone for the nation’s defence,” he said. “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.”

HMS Vengeance is the fourth Vanguard class submarine and carries the Trident ballistic missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The vessel sailed from Devonport after refit in December 2015 and then went through trials from January 2016 to June 2016 and fired the unarmed D5 missile towards a range in the US during trials which then allowed her to return to the fleet.

MPs are demanding an inquiry and are calling for a Commons statement from Defence Secretary Michael Fallon on Monday.

Trident still remains the most reliable ballistic missile system in service anywhere in the world.

Who controls Trident?

One of the most common myths around the system is that the United States has control over the UK’s Trident missile system, that is not the case.

It’s often said that the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system is not ‘independent’ or that the UK doesn’t have the ability to use the system without the US agreeing to it, in reality the UK does retain full operational control over the system.

One common argument is that the US can simply ‘turn off’ the GPS system and therefore can stop the UK using Trident, this is also a myth, Trident isn’t guided by satellite.

The missile uses a kind of stellar sighting guidance system and inertial navigation to take a reading from the stars to work out the missile’s position and make any adjustments necessary. They do not require GPS.

One source for the confusion could be the fact that, aside from those currently deployed, the missiles are held in a communal pool at the US Strategic Weapons facility at King’s Bay, Georgia, USA where maintenance and in-service support of the missiles is undertaken at periodic intervals.

The missiles are jointly maintained, this is much cheaper than the UK doing it on its own and does not give the United States control over any of the weapons deployed on the submarines.

Does the system require American codes to launch?

American operated Trident missiles are controlled through the US Navy chain of command by the US President. ‘Permissive action link technology’ prevents anyone other than the president or someone he has delegated control to authorising a launch.

In 2007, the UK Government revealed that its nuclear weapons were not equipped with Permissive Action Links. Instead, the UK’s nuclear bombs to be dropped by aircraft were armed by just inserting a key into a simple lock similar to those used to protect bicycles from theft, the UK withdrew all air-launched bombs in 1998. The current UK Trident warheads can also be launched by a submarine commander with the support of his crew without any code being transmitted from the chain of command.

The British missiles are controlled through the Royal Navy chain of command all the way up to the Prime Minister. In reality the Prime Minister would make the launch decision in concert with whatever was left of the British government.

The key point here is that the British deterrent does not have permissive action link control, which means it does not rely on the use of codes to fire the system. The UK’s Trident fleet relies purely on military discipline to prevent a launch.

In summary, the UK retains full operational control, to the extent that the US could not stop the UK from using the system. A Freedom of Information request proving that the United Kingdom has full operational control over its Trident missile system can be downloaded here.

25 COMMENTS

      • Seriously, the main stream media have not reported on this information at all. People are even asking for a official inquiry into what happened, but if this supposed information was available it would not be necessary.

  1. I don’t get all the hysteria over this failed test. How many systems fail? I would suspect many in all fields of industry and defence. No, this issue has become a weapon for political opponents of prime minister May, and little else. Why should the MOD issue a failure notice, all it would achieve is to stir up the ever hungry press /media and politicians and potential enemies.

    Sadly, if ever these weapons were released in anger I doubt it would matter if one or two went walkabout.

    Lastly, why would this particular failure affect the renewal of the whole system? Surely, an all new boat and missel would address such issues as a matter of development. Though, I understand the missiles will be a derivative of the current vehicles, that should not cast doubt on the renewal programme.

    • My understanding is the missile compartment, rocket and guidance systems are old US technology. The rest, Submarine platform and warheads are British. Maybe the US don’t want to expose whatever fault it was 😉

  2. “Ministers should come clean if there are problems and there should be an urgent inquiry into what happened.”

    So if there was not actually a problem, the MOD acted perfectly reasonably.

  3. Absolutely pathetic, who seriously thinks we should inform the world especially our enemy that our deterrent yes that DETERRENT system is faulty, these individuals need to grow up and join the real world especially the whinging politicians it makes me sick that these pompous individuals spout there nonsense.

  4. The Times say the trajectory route was supposed to be south-east across the atlantic?

    So, what range in the US was the target…. this would be in completely in the opposite direction?

    • Perhaps read the article “What happened? The error was reportedly a problem with the “data acquisition system” forcing a range controller in the US to terminate the flight test. The missile had not gone off course.”

      • Perhaps read the query steve.

        All the media say that the ‘course’ was south-east towards Africa.
        However this says the target was a range in the US…. ie: the opposite direction.

        Both cannot be true.

        • It’s a range off the coast of the US for submarines, shockingly, the missile was fired toward Africa at open ocean. The missile detected a fault invoked an abort sequence and moved in the direction of the US briefly until it was destroyed by the range controller.

          As per the atricle above

  5. As someone who does have concerns about this I think it’s worth saying that for many people, whether they support the existence of Trident or not, the worry is that the government appear to be trying their very hardest to be opaque about this. If the media are guilty of turning a non-story into a frenzy then the government is surely guilty of fanning the flames with their own unwillingness to come clean about the facts, and the timeline. I am quite prepared to believe that the system works despite this problem. But what this smells of is a cover-up at a time when the renewal of Trident is on the agenda. Yes the press may have sensationalised the event (as they may be doing now) but we expect that and cannot use that as an excuse for a lack of transparency.

  6. Im surprised uk defence journal you have not done an article on the recent news that russia can wipe out the british army in one day.

  7. After how many years in operation the missile veers off course.
    The number of times this has happened is percentage terms %?
    Would you buy a 205billion car based on that lethal percentage.
    That is the whole point of the cover-up!

  8. It is a difficult topic, mainly because the weapons are primarily about deterrence and so admitting they may not work, destroys their main aim. As long as the other side thinks there is a chance they may work, the deterrence is in place. We also have the issue that the US also uses trident and so a problem with ours could also indicate a problem with theirs.

    However, we live in a democracy and the terms of that is that the people appoint the politicians to oversea the workings of the government. A major vote like this, is based on the politicians in theory voting on what they feel the people believe and so all the information should have been made available.

    If you are on a board of a company, you don’t vote on decisions involving the company without expecting to know all the relevant facts and i can’t see how this was not relevant. It should not be the MOD or the PM that decides what is relevant in such cases.

  9. Doubtless the RAF Politicians will seize on this Trident incident to fly their kite once again for an air launched nuclear deterrent. They have already inveigled their way into our carriers in order to provide an elemental long range strike capability. Remember the RAF’s island based F111 fiasco!
    “Per Ardua ad Nausea”.

    • Grow up. In this day and age of financial mismanagement and budget slashing the three services should be looking to work together more, not issuing s*** chat about each other. The RAF is ‘on the carrier’ as you call it because the RN have no recent modern generation FJ experience (not the RAF’s fault) and will probably help man them because the RN don’t have the people to do it themselves (certainly not the RAF’s fault). Save your petty spears for Whitehall.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here