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Chairman of Commons Defence Committee criticises Government as Michael Fallon declines invitation to appear at hearing

By Rowena Mason, Deputy Political Editor

Guardian Online – 24 January 2017

The chairman of Parliament's defence watchdog has criticised the Government's “unnecessary surreptitiousness” over the Trident missile malfunction, as Michael Fallon declined an invitation to appear before his committee.

Dr Julian Lewis, who leads the House of Commons Defence Committee, said the Defence Secretary had declined the offer to give evidence because 

“he did not feel he could usefully add anything to what he has previously said, even in a closed session”.

Appearing in Parliament on Monday, Fallon rebuffed dozens of questions from MPs about the malfunctioning of a Trident missile test off the coast of Florida last June, just days before a Commons vote on renewing the nuclear deterrent. The cabinet minister insisted the test of the HMS Vengeance submarine and its crew had been successful and there was “absolute faith” in the capabilities of the Trident programme. However, Labour and SNP MPs are urging an inquiry into what went wrong and why it was kept quiet until a Sunday Times report at the weekend.

Ahead of a hearing of the Commons Defence Commitee, Lewis said it was “unfortunate” that Fallon would not attend even in private and criticised the Government's handling of the incident.

“It is unnecessary surreptiousness about something that could have been dealt with in a perfectly straightforward way,” 

he said. 

Admiral Lord West, the former Navy chief, did appear before the committee, where he said anyone who thought it could be kept secret was “stupid or foolhardy” and explained that the Russian Government would almost certainly have known about the malfunction.

“The Russians regularly used have a ship to monitor it and of course they monitor it from space as well,” 

he said, adding: 

“I'm sure they are very well aware that it didn't go all the way down to Ascension [Island] or wherever it is supposed to go.”

He also stressed the the UK and US are 

“joined at the hip in the deterrent world”, 

amid reports – denied by Ministry of Defence sources – that the White House had asked Britain to keep quiet about the malfunction. Asked how it could affect the US-UK relationship, West said: 

“On this occasion, it would appear there was some issue with the actual missile. The missile is an American missile. It is exactly the same one as the Americans use ... This is a telemetry missile and what it would mean is that something went wrong with that telemetry missile. That is primarily an American issue. I'm sure it was a minor thing and it was resolved.”

West said the indications were that the test suffered a “minor hiccup” and there was no reason why Fallon could not disclose the date when the test takes place.

“I don't know the date, but ... I could probably phone up Mr Putin. I did a favour for him once rescuing some submariners – and he would probably tell me,” 

he added.

A second witness, Professor Michael Clarke, a former director of the Royal United Services Institute, who examined some of the evidence held by the Sunday Times, said he thought the initial newspaper story was accurate. He said the evidence that the missile test was aborted suggests it could have been heading for land because of an error with its navigation programming – known as telemetry.

“American sources reported on CNN say that the missile had to be diverted into the ocean to self-destruct, which suggests it may have been heading for land if it had to be diverted into the ocean, if that statement is technically correct,” 

he said.

“That is consistent with what the Sunday Times had information on but could not then confirm, that the missile may have been heading in towards Florida. It does suggest, if that is true, that there was a fairly major telemetry failure [and] that the missile may have been not just uncertain in its flight but may have been genuinely going on the wrong track. But that, I stress, is only confirmed by other journalistic sources so far.”

Clarke said the test may have taken place on 21 or 22, and some sort of failure in the guidance system “seems now to be reasonably certain”. He said Lockheed Martin, which makes the missile, said there have been 161 successful tests and this was the 162nd.