The British Trident missile failure in June last year, broken by the Sunday Times yesterday, illustrates one of the core problems with Britain’s nuclear deterrent posture: it involves deeply complex technical and human systems that can go wrong. This is inescapable. Assurances that imply otherwise are deeply disingenuous.
It does not mean that they often fail, nor that they are generally unreliable. The Trident missile still has one of the most reliable test records in the business. It remains the most sophisticated weapons system ever devised by human beings (extraordinary, given Trident II D5 missiles were first deployed almost thirty years ago).
But we must never forget that it involves terrifying capabilities, that translates via the direct threat to our adversaries and their response to an existential threat to our way of life. There have been numerous accidents, failures and other near misses involving nuclear weapon systems worldwide. Some could easily have resulted in a full-scale nuclear exchange. It has only been through the grace of God that we have not already had a catastrophic disaster. Our luck up to this point cannot be relied upon in future.
This reality still does not appear to have much impact on the decisions to deploy complex nuclear weapon systems. This is largely because there is a powerful complacency built upon over-confidence in the systems, and a group-think that equates those that question this over-confidence with a pre-determined, anti-nuclear attitude.
Of course, this missile was unarmed, so the direct risks from this test were minimal. And as pundits keen to reassure are frequently reminding us, the point of tests is to uncover failures and learn by them. But this was the test of a well-proven system that had been assumed near perfect. And the assumption of its absolute reliability underpins critical political and technical decisions being made today, including that in London to move forward on a replacement.
Perhaps this is why there was so much irrational fear within Downing Street that puncturing that collective bubble of confidence in the Trident system could lead to mass defections in the forthcoming vote to renew it. They must have known the long-term damage this would cause to their reputation. Any sense of admiration that they were willing to take this political risk on behalf of national risk miss the point that decisions on national security require proper assessments of all the risks.
It certainly tarnishes the image of a Prime Minister attempting to develop a reputation for straight-talking and openness. Theresa May’s refusal to deny or to clarify the issue yesterday has only made matters worse.
But this is not just a personal failure on her behalf. It is a symptom of a wider malaise in which governments are more interested in reassurance than the truth. It shows a failure to understand that national security relies as much or more upon accountability to and buy-in from the citizen as it does upon secrecy.
It also displays an extraordinary lack of confidence in the ability of Parliamentarians to appropriately weigh up evidence. Did they really think that sufficient Parliamentarians would have changed their vote on the basis of a single test, if the government had been upfront with all the facts?
The government could have turned it into an asset by demonstrating its openness. As it is, this episode leaves anyone with an open mind feeling manipulated, and must surely magnify existing cynicism. Admiral West, a vocal proponent of the Trident system put it clearly when interviewed yesterday on the World at One, ‘if a firing goes wrong you should say that it’s gone wrong unless you think there’s something that means it’s so fundamentally wrong the whole system is no longer viable’. Of course, West was ambiguous about the appropriate course of action if it does mean the whole system is no longer viable, but this was not the case.
This is not about speculating now that this could have changed the result substantially. In the event, the 355-vote majority in favour of the programme was comfortable (not least because of the political context, a far more substantial reason to doubt MPs’ ability to properly consider these questions, as I have written previously).
The main lesson to draw from all of this is that we cannot trust the government to be fully honest with us over the broader risks associated with these systems. When we hear official reassurance the only appropriate response is scepticism.
Claims that submarines will always be stealthy and that emerging technologies that are developing at an extraordinary pace can never be expected to reliably locate submarines do not bear scrutiny. The reassurance we receive on this is predictable, based upon past practice and group-think.
Claims that submarines and their missiles are adequately protected from cyber attack or other forms of covert compromise, when the capacity for such interference is growing at an extraordinary pace and affecting all other walks of life also deserve scepticism.
It is irrational to take at face value the reassurance that these systems are safe and reliable today. It is even more so that they will remain so into the future. This does not mean that these systems should necessarily be abandoned (though there may be a good case to be made on other grounds). The point is that if our government is to take these risks, which are unavoidable when deploying these systems, it has to be far more honest about those risks and more open with those affected by them.