My Missile’s got a Mind of its Own

Posted by in March's Magazine

Picture the scene at the Ministry of Defence, handlebar moustaches all around and not a hipster in sight. Old buffers harrumphing at new-fangled contraptions while the boffins brief the politician:

“Trident missiles, Secretary of State, top notch, more powerful than anything ever produced before, capable of levelling cities, destroying civilisations and making land uninhabitable for thousands of years.”


“Yes, I know all about them – fabulous things, give us a lot of clout in the world they do, people listen when you’ve got things like those.”
“Indeed, yes, yes. We tested one recently, went through the whole firing procedure to make sure it works and everything goes to plan.”
“Good idea – can’t be too careful with these things. How did it go?”
“Well, the boat did what it was supposed to and the crew did what they were supposed to, but the missile didn’t quite hit the target.”
“Missed it, eh? Bad luck that – how far out was it?”
“About 180 degrees.”
“180 degrees? That’s the other direction, isn’t it? Not much point in having a deterrent that goes the wrong way. You might hit anybody. Who knows about this?”
“Well, so far you and the Americans.”
“The Americans?”
“Well, the missiles are theirs and when it was launched it headed towards Florida instead of Africa.”
“That’s not good, not good at all. What should we do?”
“Well, we’d like you to tell the new Prime Minister and then ask her to stand up in the House of Commons and tell people that Trident is fabulous and just what we need and renewing it is worth every penny of the two hundred billion pounds it’ll cost.”
“That sounds like a plan and let’s keep this all hush-hush, shall we?”

If you think this sounds like a script for an episode of Yes Minister I wouldn’t blame you but the thing actually happened. There was a test of a Trident missile that went wrong just four weeks before the vote in Westminster about whether we should spend £205bn on the next generation of subs. Theresa May’s first action in the House of Commons as Prime Minister was to speak in favour of nuclear weapons.

She didn’t tell us there might be a problem like the missiles going the wrong way, which seems to me like it might be a bit of a major flaw. Hitting the person standing behind you rather than the target you’re aiming at seems a bit off, really, awkward and hard to explain.

When the Defence Secretary finally got dragged into Parliament he never really answered any of the questions – the test was, he said, successful because the boat and the crew behaved the way they were supposed to. You might have thought that the missile going the way it was supposed to would be part of the test, too, though.

These weapons of mass destruction sit on the Clyde and the kill zone from Faslane covers most of Scotland’s population. From time to time they’ll shove the missiles on the back of a lorry and trundle them down to Aldermaston in Berkshire for maintenance and then trundle them back up again.

In September Rob Edwards of the Sunday Herald reported that the convoys keep having mechanical breakdowns and collisions (180 logged safety incidents since 2000). The convoys travel through Scotland’s towns and cities and frequently visit Edinburgh.

In January US Government files were released that detailed a crash between an American Polaris sub leaving the Holy Loch and a Russian hunter-killer sub waiting for it in the Clyde in 1974. In 2009, HMS Vanguard, a Trident sub, crashed into a French sub – also carrying nuclear weapons – in the Atlantic. In 1992 a Russian sub and an American sub crashed in the Barents Sea.

We don’t know how much damage was caused on each occasion because it’s kept from us; Labour’s Defence Secretary in 2009 cited national security as a reason for not telling us what condition the subs were in. Just like the Tory Prime Minister cited national security in 2016 as a reason for renewing Trident.

Nuclear weapons are immoral. They target civilian rather than military targets. They are ruinously expensive and there’s growing evidence that they are unsafe. If we add to that the fact that they don’t work the way they’re supposed to then the case for having them lies in shards at the feet of the sabre-rattlers and the fanatics.

Nuclear weapons are virility totems left over from a bygone age, it’s time we were rid of them.

Twitter: @DeidreBrock

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