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Trident Missile Test

Volume 778: debated on Monday 23 January 2017


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement, the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on the test firing of a Trident missile.

“On 20 June, the Royal Navy conducted a demonstration and shakedown operation, designed to certify HMS “Vengeance” and her crew prior to their return to operations. This included a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch. Contrary to reports in the weekend press, HMS “Vengeance” and her crew were successfully tested and certified as ready to rejoin the operational cycle. We do not comment on the details of submarine operations, but I can assure the House that, during any test firing, the safety of the crew and public is paramount and is never compromised.

Prior to conducting a Trident test fire, the UK strictly adheres to all relevant treaty obligations, notifying relevant nations and interested parties. On this occasion, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, the opposition defence spokesperson, and the chair of the Public Accounts Committee were informed in advance.

I can assure the House that the capability and effectiveness of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is not in doubt. The Government have absolute confidence in our deterrent and the Royal Navy crews that protect us and our NATO allies every hour of every day”.

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, immediately on crossing the threshold of No. 10 on 13 July, the Prime Minister wrote four identical letters to the commanders of our Vanguard fleet, instructing them what to do in the event of the Government ceasing to function and this country being subject to a nuclear attack. That is the measure of how important we think our nuclear deterrent is.

With reports that a test missile launched in June failed, the Prime Minister was asked four times on live television yesterday when she knew about this and she would not answer. This morning, No. 10 confirmed that she was told about the test when she took office. Frankly, if the Prime Minister cannot face up and answer an honest question about the very basis of our nuclear deterrent, we must ask whether she is up to holding that high office in the first place. At the end of the day, it all comes down to character.

Today’s Statement says:

“We do not comment on the details of submarine operations”.

That is strange because I have an MoD press release, dated June 2013, in which we are told that HMS “Vigilant” was awarded a trophy for successfully completing a similar test to the one we are talking about today. More than that, the press release also tells us that the crew prepared for the test for six months. It gives the date of the test and tells us where it took place. It tells us that it was the 10th test in a row and how long our nuclear deterrent is at sea. Also, in the last hour or so, a spokesman for the White House has confirmed that the missile was successfully diverted and destroyed off the coast of Florida.

The Government’s policy of no comment on these matters because of national security is in chaos—it is a shambles—and deserves to be thought through all over again. It is nonsense. Previous tests have been filmed and broadcast. Why was this one kept secret? I do not wish to compromise our national security—none of us wants to do that at all—but can the Minister confirm that the cause of this failed missile launch has now been identified and resolved, and that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fully operational?

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord saw fit to criticise my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As I am sure he would expect, the Prime Minister is routinely updated on matters of national security. This DASO happened before she assumed office but she will have been briefed on a range of nuclear issues while Prime Minister.

I turn to his point about tests made in the past. There is no set approach to communicating the outcome of demonstration and shakedown operations; that is decided on a case-by-case basis, informed by the circumstances of the time. Nothing should be read into the fact that the outcome of this particular test was not publicised.

The noble Lord asked about the test itself. If the premise of his question was to accept the validity of the weekend press reports then I cannot accept that premise. As I have said, this was a successful operation, following which HMS “Vengeance” and her crew returned to operational service for deployment on nuclear deterrent patrols, which was the purpose of the exercise.

I apologise to my noble friend. I understood from the clerk that in an Urgent Question we go backwards and forwards across the House.

I do not think I am the only Member of your Lordships’ House who was extremely disappointed by the line taken by the noble Lord, whom I thought normally rather a responsible spokesman on defence for the other side. I think it was a disappointment to many of us.

I think the Prime Minister was rather overzealous in her interview to preserve in this case the long-standing principle of not commenting in detail on our nuclear activities. As the Secretary of State for Defence in another place has made clear, he and the Prime Minister are kept regularly informed, as I was in my time, about the progress and activities of our critical nuclear deterrent.

The current situation is why we have tests. There have been problems before. As was made clear in the Statement, problems arise and are dealt with. The important thing is to maintain at all times the credibility of our deterrent, and anyone who seeks to undermine it or suggest that it is not working does great damage to our country. No one would be more interested in a running commentary on the activity of our deterrent tests at present than the Kremlin, Pyongyang and maybe Daesh. We need to maintain our last line of defence and its credibility. I strongly support the Statement that my noble friend has repeated here today.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend, who has immense experience of these matters. I say again that this was a successful operation. There are very few matters that cannot be discussed openly in Parliament or outside it, but this is one of them. Noble Lords will, I hope, appreciate that it is appropriate and right for government to maintain secrecy on detailed matters relating to our nuclear deterrent.

My Lords, we on these Benches support the use of a deterrent, and the whole point of a deterrent is that people do not know, blow-by-blow, what happens when and how and where. However, it has been argued today that it could be a waste of taxpayer resources to have a nuclear deterrent, which depends on credibility for its deterrent effect, if there are doubts about its effectiveness. Does the Minister agree that the confusion surrounding this test will erode public trust in the credibility of the nuclear deterrent? Would the Government agree to make sure that Parliament and the public are kept updated on non-sensitive information?

My Lords, I can only repeat that we have absolute confidence in the operation of our independent nuclear deterrent capability and that the effectiveness of the Trident nuclear system—should we ever need to employ it—is absolutely assured. I would add only that I often reflect on the importance of not believing everything one reads in the press. This is a classic example of the application of that principle.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I witnessed the launch in question from the survey vessel two and half miles away from where the missile came out of the sea. I put it to the Minister, with great respect, that it would make it much easier for those of us who very powerfully support the independent deterrent, and the building of the four “Dreadnought” submarines in the successor class, to make the case generally in the country when we are interviewed in the media if the Minister could assure us that a full analysis has been successfully made of whatever went wrong—I have no knowledge at all of the nature of what went wrong—and that remedies have been put in place. I understand that every particle of a D5 missile is riddled with the highest security classifications, but in this case, such an assurance could be possible and would be very welcome.

My Lords, the most important assurance is the one that I have already given: this is a system in which we have absolute confidence. It has never been the practice of government to give Parliament details of submarine operations or of the systems and subsystems that are tested during a demonstration and shakedown operation. But I hope I have said enough to reassure noble Lords about our deterrent and its reliability.

My Lords, in naval parlance, this is a complete pot mess. A very successful DASO, which proved that “Vengeance” and her crew are well capable of being part of the CASD rotation, was carried out, but because of the way it was handled it has failed to reassure us all. I have spent my life fighting for Trident and I understand all the complexities and all the security issues. For 20 years, we have shot and sent out films of every single DASO and made an announcement about it. We did not do it this time, and consequently we are in a position where we have embarrassed our own Prime Minister—which is not very clever—and have given succour to those people who do not like the deterrent, do not understand why we need it and want to find some way of attacking it. That is what we have achieved. Does the Minister not agree that our failure to handle this openly has caused huge problems? It has given succour to those who do not like the deterrent, which our nation needs, and has embarrassed our Prime Minister. It has made a complete mess and was handled badly.

My Lords, I do not agree with that. I can say only that we assess the approach to communicating or not communicating the outcome of a DASO in relation to the circumstances of the time. It is true that past tests have been commented on publicly, but I put it to the noble Lord that the circumstances back then were different from the circumstances now. Nothing at all should be read into the fact that the outcome of this test was not publicised. If a Question had been put down immediately after the test took place last summer, we would have given the same Answer.