Trident Missile Testing & EU Nuclear Ambitions
Q41 Chairman [Dr Julian Lewis]: I want to ask Dr Miller about the recent controversy, which we are investigating separately, of the apparently failed test firing of the Trident missile from HMS Vengeance in June last year. I am hoping that we might ask you to send us some written evidence on this, because we are doing a separate study of it. However, I just want to see, in terms of the information that America gives out about test firings, how open the American system is. It has been widely reported that there have been over 160 test firings of Trident missiles as a whole since they came into service in about 1989, and that only a handful of those have failed. Has that openly been reported in the United States?
Dr Franklin Miller KBE: First, let me say with respect to the controversy that I have nothing to add the statement made by the Secretary of State for Defence. Secondly, I am aware that Lockheed Martin Corporation periodically issues press releases, but I do not follow those regularly. Thirdly, I might just echo the Chairman’s comments about the missile. The Trident II D5 missile is the backbone of the American strategic deterrent, as well as the sole UK strategic deterrent system. As you point out, Mr Chairman, it has been deployed since 1989. Since that period there have been more than 160 test flights. The success rate of those test flights is over 98%, so I have every confidence that that missile system today and in future, as it is being modernised by what we call the D5 life extension programme, will continue to be a viable deterrent system well into the 2040s and 2050s.
Q42 Chairman: Would you agree that, on those very rare occasions when something has obviously gone wrong – as happened on this occasion – and many people have observed that something has gone wrong, it does no benefit to the credibility of the system to impose a media blackout about it? Really, all it does is to actually raise doubts about the reliability of the system. You gave the statistic of over 160 tests. Do you know for certain how many have succeeded? You said 98%, which would suggest that we are talking about low single figures that have not succeeded. Is that right?
Franklin Miller: That would work out that way.
Q43 Chairman: Are you able to give us a specific figure – whether that is two, three or four?
Franklin Miller: No, I am not.
Q44 Chairman: Right. We are talking about the low single figures. Presumably, when something like this happens, isn’t it best to be straightforward and up front about what has occurred, so that one can then do the mathematical calculation and show that a highly complex weapons system has been launched and has guided successfully on 97% or 98% of the relevant occasions?
Franklin Miller: Recognising the yawning poo-trap in front of me, I will revert to my previous statement. I will say that one of the reasons we test weapons systems is to determine how they function, and if we ever have a problem, we can correct that. Again, I let the mathematics speak for themselves.
Q45 Chairman: But you are at least able to confirm that, unlike many complex weapons systems, for which a success rate of, shall we say, 80% or 90% would be regarded as outstanding, for this particular weapons system you are saying the figure is in the high 90s?
Franklin Miller: It is above 98%.
Chairman: It is above 98%?
Franklin Miller: Yes, sir.
Q46 Chairman: We are working on a figure of over 160 and fewer than 170, so should we all rush to our calculators to work out what the maximum or minimum number of failures could possibly be on that basis?
Franklin Miller: Yes, sir.
Q47 Chairman: But you are not going to tell us?
Franklin Miller: No, sir.
Chairman: Very good.
Gavin Robinson MP: If you don’t mind, Mr Miller, I do not sense from your demeanour that you are enjoying giving us wholesome, fulsome replies.
Franklin Miller: It would be rude of me to contradict the Secretary of State for Defence in this House.
Q48 Gavin Robinson: I would love to know what conversations led to that position, but no matter, I will not probe that. You stated quite confidently that the benefit of having a test firing, should there be a misfire, is that you can investigate and correct whatever in the system went wrong. On the few occasions that that has occurred, are you aware that there has then been a realisation or a detection of a fault, and that, across the system, there has then been a recalibration, a remanufacturing or something to ensure that what went wrong is now fixed?
Franklin Miller: Yes.
Q49 Gavin Robinson: And do you imagine that that will have happened, or has happened, post-test fire last year across US and UK components?
Franklin Miller: Without speaking to whatever happened last year, any anomaly that is detected during a test flight is the subject of intense scrutiny by the US navy and is corrected.
Q50 Gavin Robinson: Across the –
Franklin Miller: Across the entire fleet, absolutely. The way that the system works is that there is a pool of missiles in Kings Bay, Georgia. They are offloaded, say, from a UK boat. When a US boat comes to outload, it takes those same missile parts, so the Trident II missile fleets in the US and UK are absolutely intermixed. There is a huge advantage to the UK, in terms of economy of scale, because those 160-plus flights are mostly American flights, but the results apply equally to the UK force. Absolutely, if and when any corrective action is necessary, it is applied throughout the entire Trident II D5 fleet. If a boat is deployed, when that boat finishes its deployment, the missiles are offloaded and corrections are made.
Q51 Gavin Robinson: So at some stage, all are brought back to a central point. Would it be unconscionable to believe that that has not happened following June or July last year?
Franklin Miller: Without commenting on June or July of last year, there is a course of action that, over time, will correct any flaws detected in the Trident fleet.
Q52 Gavin Robinson: Are you in a position to say that that has occurred? Has that been completed?
Franklin Miller: Without respect to anything that happened last June, I would think no, because if you consider the number of missiles deployed, that would be a huge turnover in a short period of time. But I think over time any flaws detected will have been corrected across the entire fleet.
Q53 Gavin Robinson: Historically, over time, would that mean nine months to 12, or 12 to 24?
Franklin Miller: I cannot answer the question. I would be guessing.
Q54 Gavin Robinson: But two years, five years?
Franklin Miller: I would be guessing. I would mislead the Committee if I gave you a figure. I do not know.
Q55 Chairman: I have a press release here, dated 31 August last year, and it is headed
“Lockheed Martin-Built Fleet Ballistic Missile Achieves 161st Successful Launch”.
They are being quite specific about the number of successful launches they have had as of last August. Were we to ask American sources how many successful launches there had been up to date, is there any reason to believe that they would not tell us?
Franklin Miller: I do not know.
Q56 Chairman: But we know that it was 161 successful ones –
Franklin Miller: That is over 160, Chairman.
Q57 Chairman: Indeed. There was one rather spectacular failure –
Franklin Miller: That was PEM-1 – the pinwheel shot, the very first test. None of us forgets that.
Q58 Chairman: Would it have made sense to impose a media blackout over that one?
Franklin Miller: It was in full view.
Chairman: Indeed. As was this recent one. Right, your loyalty to your conversations with the Ministry of Defence is duly noted and appreciated.
Q59 Douglas Chapman: The missile that went astray, or had an issue, did not carry a warhead obviously, because it was a test. I heard it was heading for Florida. Had there been a warhead in place, and a position in which you were already in conflict with somewhere else, would you be fully relaxed with the result coming from that firing?
Franklin Miller: All 160-plus test missiles never carry warheads. They carry instrumented packages. When a submarine is on war patrol, specific target co-ordinates have to be inserted into the missile guidance system. If the missile goes off in a wrong direction, then the various protocols that would arm the warhead for detonation would be violated, and the detonation sequence would not occur. The missile would know that it was going in the wrong tactical direction.
Q60 Douglas Chapman: So there is absolutely no risk at all associated with that happening.
Franklin Miller: Yes. I think the answer to your question is a simple yes.
Q61 Chairman: It has been reported that –
Franklin Miller: I should say that – no, that’s fine.
Chairman: Feel free. The more the merrier.
Franklin Miller: One should not believe everything that one reads in the press.
Q62 Chairman: That is why we try to ask people like the Secretary of State for Defence to set the record straight. By having ham-fisted cover-ups of things that occur in plain view, all it does is sow doubt and give ammunition to the enemies of the programme, doesn’t it?
Franklin Miller: I would not believe everything that I read in the press, Chairman.
Q63 Chairman: Let us see if we can establish beyond what we read in the press during the course of our inquiry. Finally on nuclear, it has been reported that European NATO states are engaging in some form of discussions about whether there should be a European nuclear deterrent. What is the likelihood of such an event taking place, according to your perspectives, and what would the effect of that be if it happened?
Franklin Miller: This is exclusive of the UK – as I read the stories, it is exclusive of the British deterrent.
Q64 Chairman: Yes. It is the idea that the EU, in its search for a separate defence identity, might seek to acquire a nuclear deterrent, which would presumably either have to be something new acquired by one of the other states or alternatively a Europeanisation of the French deterrent.
Franklin Miller: French doctrine and policy is that the French deterrent is not committed to anything except the defence of France’s vital interests, which the President of France will define at the time of crisis. France has never fully committed its nuclear deterrent to the defence of NATO, and it would be a stretch to imagine it would extend it to the defence of the EU without any preconditions. That would require, therefore, a European deterrent force to be acquired by someone else, breaking the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As this Committee is undoubtedly aware, nuclear deterrents are bought at some considerable price. We are talking about 1.3% of Germany’s GDP. Acquiring a nuclear deterrent would be a lot more expensive than that, so I think that the odds of an independent European deterrent that does not include the United Kingdom are very, very low. I would say that they are zero.
Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman: I would agree. We only have to pause a second to think about not only the cost but the command arrangements to realise that it is a complete non-starter. The history of nuclear policy is full of attempts to try to think about how you involve countries that have not actually taken responsibility for building nuclear capabilities with a nuclear capability. They are always pretty fraught. As you know, Chairman, the Multilateral Force – the MLF – of the 1960s caused an awful lot more anguish than any practical process. I think this is one of those stories that is put around by people who have not really looked very hard at the practicalities of nuclear weapon construction.
[For the full transcript of this Defence Committee session, click here.]