Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has restated the Government’s confidence in the “capability and effectiveness” of the Trident nuclear deterrent following reports a missile went off course in a test launch.
The reports have led to claims of a “cover-up”, as MPs were not informed about the June 2016 test when they voted on the £40 billion renewal of the Trident system the following month. Downing Street confirmed Prime Minister Theresa May was informed about the test before she addressed MPs during the renewal debate in the House of Commons.
During a recent TV interview, Mrs May four times ducked questions about reports an unarmed Trident II D5 missile veered off course after being launched from a Royal Navy submarine off the coast of Florida. But her official spokeswoman told reporters the PM was briefed on the “demonstration and shakedown” operation undertaken by HMS Vengeance.
“The Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister are routinely informed when one of these specific ‘demonstration and shakedown’ operations are planned and on the outcome of them,” she said. “In this instance, that was in June so it was under the then prime minister [David Cameron)]. On taking office, the current Prime Minister was briefed on a range of nuclear issues, including this.”
The spokeswoman declined to say whether Mrs May was informed of a malfunction in the missile system, saying: “We have been clear the submarine and the crew were successfully tested and certified. That was the purpose of the operation.”
Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, Sir Michael refused to discuss details of the launch, but cautioned MPs against believing every element of reports.
He told MPs: “Contrary to reports, HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified as ready to rejoin the operational cycle. We do not comment of the detail of submarine operations.”
He added: “The capability and effectiveness of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is not in doubt. The Government has absolute confidence in our deterrent and in the Royal Navy crews who protect us.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a long-standing opponent of Trident, whose submarines are based at Faslane, on the River Clyde, called the apparent misfire a “hugely serious issue”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said it was “extremely worrying” Parliament had not been told of the incident when voting on renewing Trident.
Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee Julian Lewis said Mrs May “should probably have spoken up” about any malfunction during last July’s debate, but put the blame for any cover-up on Mr Cameron’s team. He said: “This test went wrong in June when it was a question for David Cameron and his team at No 10. They evidently decided to cover this matter up.”