Lesley Riddoch: Missile misfire in more ways than one

The Trident troubles and Trump presidency should trigger a complete re-think on our defence, writes Lesley Riddoch
Test firing of a Trident missile. Picture: MoD Crown Copyright/PA WireTest firing of a Trident missile. Picture: MoD Crown Copyright/PA Wire
Test firing of a Trident missile. Picture: MoD Crown Copyright/PA Wire

“For many decades, we’ve … subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own.” In his 15-minute-long speech, Trump also made no mention of Nato, Britain, Europe or the European Union.

It was a shockingly clear statement of the new President’s foreign priorities. Apart from eliminating ISIS and cosying up to Israel -- there are none. And in case anyone still failed to catch his drift, the Donald spelled it out in two words.

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“A new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital …. America first.”

Of course, this comes on top of Trump’s recent reference to Nato as “obsolete,” the praise heaped on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the admission that he doesn’t really care if the European Union survives. If European politicians were nervous about President Trump’s intentions, Saturday’s speech must have pushed them close to the edge.

And then came the weekend news that a Trident missile misfired off the coast of America just before the Commons vote to renew the nuclear weapons system in July 2016 – a damaging revelation that was allegedly kept from the public and MPs by a Whitehall cover up.

Theresa May, grilled on the subject by Andrew Marr on BBC1, was supremely unconvincing. Asked four times if she knew about the test failure at the time of the Commons debate, the Prime Minister insisted the debate had focused on the weapons system’s renewal not its efficacy and then tried to change the subject onto Jeremy Corbyn’s repeated Trident flip-flops. Her answers were weak, evasive and surprising – why didn’t she just play the usual “confidentiality of national security” joker card and close the discussion down?

The story wasn’t gathering much traction until this unexpected Prime Ministerial wobble.

Now the SNP’s Westminster Leader Angus Robertson MP has demanded that Theresa May comes to parliament this week and tell MPs exactly what - and when - she knew about the Trident malfunction and her government’s alleged cover up. Labour and the Lib Dems have echoed that call.

Angus Robertson said: “Trident is obscenely expensive and morally repugnant. If we now have to add that there is a real possibility it is unreliable and unsafe - then there must be massive question marks about its viability.”

So will Theresa May be forced to eat humble pie in the Commons before jetting off to assume the dubious title of being the first foreign Head of State to meet President Trump? Not likely. But at a time when the different political cultures of Scotland and Britain are laid bare over Brexit, she won’t want to hand the SNP another rod to beat her government with – especially when 58 of Scotland’s 59 MPs voted against Trident renewal, yet the project went ahead. Every opinion poll shows the Scottish public favours scrapping Trident, and in 2007 Holyrood voted by 71 to 16 (with 39 abstentions) against renewal.

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The Scottish Government estimated the £350 million budget for preparatory work could have financed 8,333 nurses, 9,722 teachers, 43 primary schools, 18 secondary schools or 18 community hospitals.

And of course £350m is only a tiny fraction of the £200 billion total final spend.

Restarting arguments like this won’t help Theresa May as she approaches a likely rebuff by the Supreme Court this week forcing her to let the Scottish Parliament have a formal say in the conduct and content of Brexit negotiations.

She certainly won’t want the misfire incident to connect with Donald Trump’s snarling hostility towards Europe and force a rethink of national security.

Yet that is precisely what must happen after this explosive chain of events.

In future, America isn’t coming to the rescue of Europe and now a misfire suggests Trident may be unreliable. Does that make the weapons system more essential or highly expendable?

British voters may be heaving a sigh of relief that The Donald has nothing to do with our decision – the problem is, he does.

The UK doesn’t own its Trident missiles, but leases them from the United States. British submarines visit a US Navy base for repairs, maintenance and re-arming.

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Indeed, the reason the misfire happened so close to American soil is that Britain has no test site of its own and must try out weapons under American supervision at Cape Canaveral.

Important Trident technology is provided directly by America, British technology is taken from US designs and Britain’s nuclear sites are partly run by the American companies Lockheed Martin and Halliburton.

Some argue this means nothing.

“Just because my car is made in Japan or Germany, doesn’t mean it’s not my car to drive,” says Thomas Karako, a senior fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

But Ted Seay, a senior policy consultant at the London-based British American Security Information Council -- who spent three years as part of the US Mission to Nato -- thinks otherwise.

“If you’re thinking about launching nuclear weapons at Russia or perhaps Iran, it has to be fought out around the Nato table. To say that you could launch a unilateral attack over the heads of Nato and Washington might be theoretically true, but practically speaking it’s rubbish.”

Indeed, a White Paper by the Select Committee on Defence in 2006 seems to bear that out and expose the extent of Britain’s nuclear reliance on America.

“One way the USA could show its displeasure [with the UK} would be to cut off the technical support needed to send Trident to sea. The USA has the ability to deny access to GPS (as well as weather and gravitational data) at any time, rendering that form of navigation and targeting useless if the UK were to launch without US approval.”

Prophetic words penned a decade ago when Donald Trump was just managing real estate. Surely, any responsible and responsive government would now rethink the wisdom of backing Trident? Perhaps Mrs May can squeeze it in to discussions in Washington this week.

Or maybe not.