Belfast Telegraph

Trident row: SDLP demands explanation after claims nuclear deterrent missile malfunctioned off the coast of Florida

The SDLP has demanded that the MOD explains why it allegedly hid a Trident missile malfunction only weeks before a Westminster vote on renewing £40 billion nuclear deterrent last summer.

Theresa May was informed about the Trident missile test at the centre of cover-up allegations before she addressed MP, Downing Street has confirmed.

But the Prime Minister's official spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny reports that a missile malfunctioned during the test, stating only that Mrs May was told the operation was completed successfully.

SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said: "If there is evidence of a malfunction in Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system, it cannot be covered up or dissembled. The Ministry of Defence needs to come forward with information about this incident and come clean about why it attempted to suppress it ahead of a major Westminster vote on renewing Trident.

"How can any MP have confidence in the Trident system or in the valueless word of the MOD after this? Be under no illusion, the attempt to conceal this malfunction was a deliberate tactic to shore up a Commons vote.

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"The SDLP will continue to oppose the British Government’s fixation with investing in a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction while they continue to rain down cuts on health, education and social security spending. This government cannot continue parading like an imperial power while the public suffers devastating austerity."

Mrs May has said she has "absolute faith" in Britain's 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 told about the June 2016 test when they voted on the £40 billion renewal of the Trident system the following month.

Mrs May confirmed she was informed about the test before addressing MPs ahead of the vote, which came just days after she entered office.

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon was summoned to the Commons to update MPs on the incident, but repeatedly refused to discuss details of the launch.

He restated the Government's confidence in the "capability and effectiveness" of the Trident system and cautioned MPs against believing every element of the Sunday Times report.

But as he was speaking, CNN reported an unnamed US defence official with direct knowledge of the incident had confirmed the unarmed Trident II D5 missile veered off course after being launched from a Royal Navy submarine off the coast of Florida.

The US official was reported to have said the altered trajectory was part of an automatic self-destruct sequence triggered when missile electronics detect an anomaly.

Speaking after a Cabinet awayday in Cheshire, Mrs May said: "I'm regularly briefed on national security issues, I was briefed on successful certification of HMS Vengeance and her crew.

"We don't comment on operational details for national security reasons."

She added: "The key issue about the debate we had in the House of Commons on the future of Trident, is whether we should renew Trident for the future.

"Should we continue to have an independent nuclear deterrent?

"I have absolute faith in our independent nuclear deterrent.

"I believe we should continue to have that for the future, the House of Commons voted for that.

"Sadly the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, doesn't want to defend our country in that way.

"I believe defending our country is absolutely crucial."

The Prime Minister has come under pressure to reveal further details of the test, after four times dodging the question of when she learnt about it during a TV interview on Sunday.

Her official spokeswoman confirmed on Monday morning that the PM had been informed when she came into office last July about the previous month's "demonstration and shakedown operation" - which resulted in HMS Vengeance and its crew being certified to return to active service after a lengthy refit.

The 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 her predecessor David Cameron and his team.

"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," Dr Lewis told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, Sir Michael repeatedly refused to discuss details of the launch, but cautioned MPs against believing every element of press reports.

"The Government has absolute confidence in our deterrent and in the Royal Navy crews who protect us," he told MPs.

Ministers "would not have asked this House to endorse the principle of the deterrent and our plans to build four new submarines if there had been any question about the capability and effectiveness of our deterrent".

Sir Michael told MPs that a demonstration and shakedown "concludes each time with an unarmed missile firing", adding: "HMS Vengeance successfully concluded that shakedown operation."

Labour's former defence minister Kevan Jones, whose urgent question forced the Defence Secretary to come to the Commons, challenged Sir Michael to confirm that the missile veered off course and explain who ordered a "news blackout" on the test.

Sir Michael responded: "There are very few things that we cannot discuss openly in Parliament, but the security of our nuclear deterrent is certainly one of them.

"It has never been the practice of governments to give Parliament details of the demonstration and shakedown operations."

He added: "It may well be that earlier governments in different situations, indeed in more benevolent times, might have take different decisions about how much information they were prepared to reveal about these particular demonstration and shake-down operations. But these are not, of course, as benevolent times."

Despite Sir Michael's comments, the Ministry of Defence has in fact repeatedly publicised successful launches of Trident missiles in recent years.

In October 2012, the MoD released a press statement stating that then defence secretary Philip Hammond was announcing extra funding following "the successful firing of an unarmed Trident ballistic missile by HMS Vigilant during a test launch in the Atlantic Ocean last week".

The test, undertaken during the Vigilant's own demonstration and shakedown operation, was mentioned by senior MoD official Bernard Gray later that year in a Government magazine, which carried pictures of the launch.

And in a speech in June 2014, then defence procurement minister Philip Dunne said: "Last week I was off the coast of Florida embarked on USS West Virginia to witness a test-firing of 2 Trident 2 D5 missiles. This successful test demonstrated once again that the Trident remains a credible and reliable deterrent."

Sir Michael told MPs that decisions on publicity were made "on a case by case basis".

Shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith told the House of Commons: "The British public deserve the facts on a matter as important as Britain's nuclear deterrent and they deserve to hear those facts from their Prime Minister, not in allegations sprawled across a Sunday paper."

She added: "At the heart of this issue is a worrying lack of transparency and a Prime Minister who has chosen to cover up a serious incident rather than coming clean with the British public."

Scottish National Party defence spokesman Brendan O'Hara said it was an "insult to our intelligence" to claim that Trident's capability was "unquestionable".

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