Submarine faults bring into question UK’s ability to successfully launch a Trident nuclear strike

Information released by a submariner who has blown the whistle on poor safety practices and equipment failures on board HMS Vanguard, one of the Royal Navy’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines, indicates that the UK may not be able to guarantee launch of the any-time nuclear strike that the Trident system is designed to deliver.

An account published by William McNeilly, an engineering technician who until recently served on board HMS Vanguard, claims that the submarine was not able to successfully complete tests to demonstrate that it would be able to launch its payload of missiles.

The government claims that deployment of Trident submarines under a constant rota of nuclear patrols, known as continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) ensures that the Navy is at all times able to  launch a nuclear attack against a surprise act of aggression.  McNeilly’s account of his experiences on board HMS Vanguard raises doubts as to whether the ageing submarine is in a sufficiently good state of repair to launch its weapons with the 100% certainty that the Navy expects.

McNeilly claims that at the end of one patrol Vanguard failed to pass two critical tests intended to confirm whether  it could have performed a successful Trident missile launch.  Problems caused by seawater entering the submarine’s hydraulic system, used to open the hatches which seal the Trident missile launch tubes, prevented the submarine from completing a critical ‘Battle Ready Test’, required to demonstrate that the hatches would open correctly and that the submarine could fire its missiles if ordered to.

Another test, known as a WP 186 missile compensation test, was conducted three times and failed on all three occasions. The test is intended to show that the missile compensation system can accurately compensate for changes in weight of the submarine during a Trident missile launch.  Failure to pass the test means that the missiles will launch from an unstable platform if they are fired.  McNeilly writes that “billions upon billions of tax papers money” is being spent on a system “so broken it can’t even do the tests that prove it works”.

The Navy has had difficulties in keeping ageing submarines at sea in the past.  Rear Admiral Andrew Mathews, former Director General (Nuclear) at the Ministry of Defence, told  the House of Commons Defence Committee in 2007 that the availability of nuclear submarines “reduces through life”.  In the early 1990s, when the Resolution class Polaris submarines reached the end of their lives, he stated that “we were really struggling to maintain one boat out at sea” and said “I do not think it would be conceivable that we would be successfully maintaining the continuous-at-sea deterrence with that class of submarine now”.

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