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Trident missile misfire off Florida: When did British PM learn about it?

A failed missile test last June for Britain's aging Trident nuclear deterrent system may have been kept quiet as ministers voted to £40 billion of funding for the program.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the BBC's Broadcasting House in London, Britain, on Sunday.
Neil Hall/Reuters | Caption

An investigative report from a British newspaper alleges that a failed British missile test last year was kept quiet in the lead-up to an important vote to continue funding for the country's aging nuclear missile system, Trident.

While the test of the missile happened shortly before Prime Minister Theresa May took over from David Cameron, it is possible she may have known about the failure, if it occurred, before Parliament approved a measure to approve 40 billion pounds ($53 billion) for the system. Ms. May is a strong supporter of Britain's nuclear deterrent capabilities, and has spoken in support of the defense system at multiple points during her political career.

The British government created the Trident nuclear missile system in the early 1980s to replace the Polaris program built two decades earlier. The system consists of submarines, missiles, and warheads that can be deployed around the world as a nuclear deterrent. Currently, four submarines operate under Trident's purview.

According to The Sunday Times, Trident II D5 missile launched from the submarine HMS Vengeance in June of 2016, somewhere off the coast of Florida. The test missile contained no nuclear warhead, but when the missile was launched, something went wrong. Instead of launching on an eastward trajectory toward Africa, a malfunction caused it to head toward the United States instead.

Previous tests of the Trident missiles in 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2012 were all successful and highly publicized by the Ministry of Defense, according to The New York Times. But this test went completely unreported, even as Parliament debated whether or not to provide extra funding for the Trident missile system.

"There was a major panic at the highest level of government and the military after the first test of our nuclear deterrent in four years ended in disastrous failure," an anonymous source told the Times. "Ultimately Downing Street decided to cover up the failed test."

Notable in the debates in the weeks after the test was a speech by May advocating for the continuation of the nuclear deterrent, saying it would be "an act of gross irresponsibility" for the United Kingdom to abandon its nuclear weapons program. On July 19th, little more than a week after May became prime minister, the measure to provide funding for Trident passed with 472 votes to 117, securing the future of the system.

In an interview with the BBC, May repeatedly refused to confirm whether she knew about the missile test before the vote.

"I have absolute faith in our Trident missiles," the prime minister told the BBC on Sunday. "When I made that speech in the House of Commons, what we were talking about was whether or not we should renew our Trident."

Labour leader and anti-nuclear campaigner Jeremy Corbyn has a different view of the reported test.

"It's a pretty catastrophic error when a missile goes in the wrong direction, and while it wasn't armed, goodness knows what the consequences of that could have been," Mr. Corbyn told Sky News. "I think we need a serious discussion about that."

A statement issued by the Defense Ministry Sunday acknowledged that a test had indeed been conducted from the HMS Vengeance. The ministry did not deny that the missile had steered off course, but called the test "successful," according to The Guardian.

"The capability and effectiveness of the Trident missile, should we ever need to employ it, is unquestionable. In June, the Royal Navy conducted a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch from HMS Vengeance, as part of an operation which is designed to certify the submarine and its crew."

"We do not provide further details on submarine operations for obvious national security reasons," the statement added.

Kevan Jones, Labour MP and former shadow defense minister, called for an inquiry to investigate exactly what happened during the missile test.

"The UK's independent nuclear deterrent is a vital cornerstone for the nation's defense," he said, according to the Times. "If there are problems, they should not have been covered up in this ham-fisted way. Ministers should come clean if there are problems and there should be an urgent inquiry into what happened."