Everyone Fails Nuclear Weapons Tests Sometimes

The first step toward having an honest conversation about nuclear arsenals is admitting they don’t always work flawlessly.

HENDON, ENGLAND - MAY 05:  Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to staff at Utility Warehouse on May 5, 2015 in Hendon, England.  Campaigning has intensified in the last few days before voters go to the polls in a general election on May 7, 2015.  (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
HENDON, ENGLAND - MAY 05: Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to staff at Utility Warehouse on May 5, 2015 in Hendon, England. Campaigning has intensified in the last few days before voters go to the polls in a general election on May 7, 2015. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

London’s Sunday Times recently had quite the scoop. Last June, a Royal Navy submarine, HMS Vengeance, conducted a test-firing of a D-5 ballistic missile from one of its submarines. The missile veered off course, away from its intended target in the waters off West Africa and toward Florida, before auto-destructing.

The Tory government, then headed by David Cameron, covered up the failure to avoid the embarrassing revelation right before a crucial vote in the House of Commons to invest in a new generation of ballistic missile submarines.

The British government has refused to comment on the report, although an anonymous U.S. official confirmed the failure to CNN. British Prime Minister Theresa May has repeated the fairly laughable claim that the United Kingdom doesn’t comment on operational details for national security reasons. One small problem: The last time the Royal Navy conducted a “demonstration and shakedown operation,” or DASO, in 2012, they released a fricking video of it. You can view the entire launch sequence in its British glory, right down to the floral patterned upholstery — “Tudor Rose” according to NAJ Taylor — and the commander’s tiara-like headset. It’s like Coronation Street, but for the end of the world.

I do love how they say “miss-aisle.”

Now, a word about Trident and reliability. The United Kingdom leases — yes, leases! — its D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles out of a common pool shared with the U.S. Navy. There is no difference in the missiles, just the little pointy things that go on the business end. And even those bear a certain family resemblance.

So, the reliability of the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent is properly understood as the reliability of all the D-5 tests over the system’s lifetime. And the overall test record is excellent. Missile reliability typically follows a “bathtub” curve — a bunch of failures at the beginning, a long period of reliability in the middle, then a spike of failures at the end. Since 1989, the test record for the D-5 is 161 successes and (probably) two failures. That is an excellent record, and one failed test is not enough to conclude the system is about to become unreliable. In fact, the U.S. Navy launched two more D-5s in August, and those worked out just ducky. Of course, the United States and Britain will want to analyze the failure to see what went wrong. Trident is undergoing a guidance replacement, so that is the most likely cause of the failure. But, statistically speaking, it is very unlikely that the failed test is a harbinger of the D-5 missile’s obsolescence. The missile is fine.

Try telling that to the U.K. press, though! The United Kingdom is amid a big, contentious debate about whether to spend a fortune — $260 billion — on replacing the current submarines with a new generation, which will be called Dreadnaught. Not surprisingly, the opposition parties have seized upon the test failure to rough up both May’s government and replacement decision. “It’s a pretty catastrophic error when a missile goes in the wrong direction,” said Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, “and while it wasn’t armed, goodness knows what the consequences of that could have been.” Thanks, Jeremy, for your calm and thoughtful approach to national security issues.

Of course, one doesn’t need to whip up panic to note that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the wisdom of the Trident replacement. My friend Toby Fenwick has long argued that investments in nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines will starve Britain’s conventional forces. His suggestion is to invest in dual-capable nuclear forces, such as the F-35 jet, so that Britain’s nuclear investments also have a conventional payoff. Others just want to scrap Britain’s bomb entirely, noting that the U.S. nuclear guarantee is more than enough. These are reasonable views to which I am sympathetic, but the failure in June doesn’t strengthen them.

If the failure doesn’t tell us anything about the reliability of the D-5, it does tell us something about the reliability of our political leaders. Covering up the failure was unethical. I realize no one cares about ethics in governance anymore, but I am still old-fashioned enough to believe that public servants have an obligation to be truthful. Public officials should not lie or present “alternative facts.”

This cover-up, though, suffers the additional indignity of being stupid. There was no reason for Cameron’s government to cover up the failure. The government was going to win the vote even with a rough day or so of press coverage. And while a single failed test wouldn’t hurt deterrence — look at Russian reliability rates some time — lying about it sure does. The attempt to hide the failure is an implicit admission that you think something is wrong with the program, no matter the reality.

If the failure in June demonstrates anything, it is about the collapsing credibility of our political institutions. And, in part, I think it reflects an inability of advocates of nuclear deterrence to articulate a persuasive argument for continuing business as usual. Once upon a time, advocates of nuclear deterrence like Sir Michael Quinlan in the U.K. and Thérèse Delpech in France knew what they thought. And they weren’t afraid to make the case for nuclear weapons in public. A single failed missile launch wouldn’t have disturbed Sir Michael’s cheerful equanimity or dented Thérèse’s steel spine. With a few notable exceptions, particularly in France, today’s advocates for business are far more defensive. They seem to spend most of their time trying to keep these programs from scrutiny.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that’s because advocates for deterrence aren’t willing to admit how much the role of nuclear weapons has declined since the end of the Cold War. They can’t make persuasive arguments about the role of nuclear weapons today, because they won’t let go of the past. In the United States, we’ve seen an appalling irresponsibility among those charged with stewarding nuclear weapons — from misplaced bombs and drug rings to gambling problems and a bender in Moscow. Time and again, I have suggested that the problem is that our political and military leadership have refused to align our nuclear policies with the limited role that nuclear weapons play in defending our country. And in doing so, they insist on maintaining policies and operational practices that we all know are silly. And as much as our leaders insist otherwise with a straight face, the people handling the bombs know otherwise and act accordingly.

That is, I suspect, why the U.K. debate about the missile failure is so strange. May doesn’t know the first thing about deterrence, because it actually doesn’t matter that much. Her own lack of familiarity with issues is a kind of revealed preference, an admission that serious politicians spend their time on other matters. If only she had the courage to admit that.

Photo credit: ROB STOTHARD/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk