The UK doggedly maintains an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ but a naval officer has blown the whistle on the system’s inherent insecurity—with its potentially incalculable implications.
The Royal Navy might have hoped that the detention on 18 May of Able Seaman William McNeilly, who had just revealed the poor security of Britain’s submarine-based nuclear-weapons system, might bury the issue of its safety in public. If so, it was not reckoning with the capacity of the massively-enlarged contingent of Scottish National Party MPs, following the general election, to make hay at Westminster—the four Trident submarines are based at Faslane in Scotland and the SNP had made opposition to the system’s expensive replacement a campaigning focus. Now it has secured a debate on Trident safety on 28 May.
This is not just a Scottish concern: it brings into question whether the UK is the responsible nuclear-weapons state it presents itself to be. McNeilly claimed a disaster was waiting to happen, which might not just affect those manning the submarines.
The navy will no doubt attempt to rectify many of the problems and reassure the public via the government benches on Thursday. But these revelations expose muddled thinking around the need for continuous patrolling—one submarine is supposed to be at sea at all times, with the other three undergoing refit or being used for training—and highlight the need for a reassessment by the new government.
While the navy categorically denied the charges, there were no doubt a lot of red faces in the senior service. McNeilly’s claims included shockingly lax security arrangements on shore and on the at-sea submarine, which would open up nuclear-weapons operations to insider attack. They involved disturbing and willful neglect of safety measures on board, threatening fire and other lethal accidents. They also highlighted the willingness to go to sea with faulty systems and a disregard of alarms, compromising the smooth, safe and stealthy operation of the submarine. When these breaches were pointed out to senior staff, however, they were largely ignored.
The navy and regulators will be all over the case in the coming days, urgently reviewing management, safety and security protocols. They may find scapegoats, at least internally. They will also need to brief whichever junior minister is appointed to defend the service on Thursday on their improvements. Yet these will have unintended, negative side-effects.
Stricter security protocols are expensive and intrusive, and leave those subject to them experiencing inconvenience and feeling resentment. The navy demands a great deal from its submariners, and recruitment and retention is already a problem. Could, for instance, the more effective enforcement of regulations banning the use of electronics on board in most areas (including living quarters) affect morale?
If the UK is to field such dangerous and highly complex systems the rational approach must include expensive and robust arrangements to minimise the potentially horrific risks. McNeilly described a practice of removing fire-fighting equipment from the submarine when in port, so that it was more easily accessible for teams entering the submarine to respond to any incident, and was incredulous that in a system costing billions each year such cost-saving practices could be pursued.
There are also conflicts with other objectives. As John Borrie pointed out in a Chatham House blog post, readiness and alert status rub up against safety and security. This was particularly clear during the cold war, when corners were cut in terrifying and reckless ways, in the race to achieve capability against what was seen as an urgent and very potent Soviet threat. It was a minor miracle that numerous accidents did not result in a nuclear catastrophe. British submarines may now be at lower levels of alert but, as the BASIC Trident Commission heard in evidence, their nuclear payloads could be launched in upwards of just 15 minutes.
Yet there are also problems which arise because the Trident mission has not been clear since the Soviet Union collapsed. McNeilly described human error and complacency, inevitable in a system thankfully never tested in combat since it began almost 50 years ago (with the prior Polaris submarines). No amount of training or indoctrination can force human beings to operate inconvenient procedures when they do not see the point, particularly when there is no immediate threat or identified enemy.
Some familiar with the submarine service claim that to drop continuous patrolling would harm morale. But the clear implication of McNeilly’s testimony is that, while submariners may believe in the continuing need for a British nuclear-weapons capability, many on patrol have lost any sense of its particular rationale for them—because, with no strategic threat to the UK and no chance of engagement, there is none. Forced to endure months under the water in unpleasant incarceration, it is no wonder they cut corners for an easier life.
If the UK is to maintain Trident submarines in a responsible and cost-effective manner, it is time for the posture to reflect the threat level. Occasional patrols should have particular purposes—training and testing in maintaining the systems for a possible future when patrols could actively deter a real and present threat.
No doubt some may exploit this story to claim that the Vanguard-class submarines will soon require replacing, and that there is no time to waste in bringing forward the construction and deployment of their successors. But this would be completely to miss the point. Any institutional reassurance that these systems are foolproof must be treated with scepticism. There is no such thing as a completely safe and secure system—particularly one involving such technical complexity that it relies upon demanding human management, where the implications of any shortfall could be so immeasurable.