William McNeilly, the whistleblower who revealed serious security breaches around Trident, has produced a dossier that makes for disturbing reading. If substantiated, then the narrative of Trident – as the gold plated insurance policy so vital for our security – is not borne out by the reality. If a fraction of McNeilly’s report is accurate, then much needs to be addressed, both in the very fabric of the system and in the procedures designed to operate and secure it. How often in recent months we’ve heard politicians defending ‘continuous at-sea deterrence’ – that our national security demands 24/7 submarine patrols. How disconcerting then to read that the flagship of the Trident fleet, HMS Vanguard, ‘is in the worst of the worst condition. Countless times it tried to sail but had to come back in, forcing the other boats to do extended patrols.’
McNeilly also reports a host of small breakdowns and faults, which could no doubt be routine and easily resolvable, but there are other bigger picture faults which call for serious investigation, like repeatedly failed missile tests. He also appears to shed light on one of the most significant accidents in recent years: British and French nuclear weapons subs crashed under water, downplayed at the time: ‘Everyone who serves on the Trident submarines knows that it was HMS Vanguard that crashed into the French submarine [in the Atlantic in February 2009]. I was talking to a chief who was on the submarine at the time. He said: “We thought, this is it, we’re all going to die.” He went on to explain what happened. There was a massive cover up of the incident.’ One would like to assume that the reasons for the accident were thoroughly investigated but McNeilly’s report does not inspire confidence that any root cause was addressed: clearly system errors, both human and technological, still abound.
Can it possibly be the case that security is as lax as McNeilly suggests? His account of the occasional near absence of security screening makes the prospect of terrorist infiltration and attack at least as likely as accident through shoddy equipment. Again, if just a handful of the examples – such as the failure to check passes, or to search contractor equipment, are true – then there is much to disturb us all. But particularly shockingly is the casual culture which appears to have arisen on board, in the closest proximity to nuclear weapons. He tells of one of the missile compartments being used as a gym, of personnel deviating from set procedures because they can be “long and winding.” Maybe living cheek by jowl with weapons of mass destruction somehow inures you to the terrible danger they present and the responsibility you hold to protect the rest of us from it. Certainly other reports suggest that Britain would not be alone in needing to address these problems – Eric Schlosser’s scholarly and detailed account of nuclear near-misses in the USA leaves the reader wondering how we could possibly have avoided nuclear catastrophe – even without a war.
I am left wondering whether the changing reality of nuclear weapons plays any role in the potentially disastrous scenario that McNeilly reveals. In the Cold War, nuclear weapons were a real factor in global affairs, maybe military, certainly political, kingmakers and powerbrokers, whether we liked it or not. In the twenty-first century nuclear weapons aren’t where it’s at. They are totems of the past, clung on to by leaders reluctant to accept a changed world. But the security story has moved on, to asymmetrical struggles, to cyberwarfare, to terrorism in its myriad manifestations. So maybe it’s no wonder that morale is low on board, that naval personnel behave as if Trident is no longer a threat.
Our leaders may or may not be aware of the reality in the subs and on the bases. McNeily warns that Cameron and others are presented with a slick show which is unrecognisable from the practice of operating Vanguard Class submarines. If this is true, and McNeilly has opened these slack and dangerous practices to the light of day, then he has done everyone a service and should be acknowledged as a whistleblower rather than vilified as a traitor or a crank. For the rest of us, this must sound an alert about Trident – not just in daily practical terms but in government plans for replacement of this obsolete and dangerous system. Far from securing us, it appears now that it presents a huge risk to our very existence.