Today, news broke of the launch failure of a Trident II D5 ICBM in 2016, a few weeks before Parliament voted to renew the Royal Navy submarines that carry them.
Let’s just start by stating an undeniable fact: the Trident missile is an extremely reliable piece of equipment. Between 1989 and 2015, it successfully completed 155 test launches with both the United States Navy and the Royal Navy. This gives the missile a success rate of 99.4% (including this failure).
While I am not uncritical about how the news of this incident was kept secret, I am annoyed (though not shocked) at how it has been jumped upon by various groups in an attempt to suggest the system is unreliable and/or unnecessarily dangerous. So let’s take apart some of their sentiments:
‘This test proves that Trident is unreliable and dangerous’
Ignoring the statistics I listed above, everything has the capability to fail at some point. The Titanic was unsinkable, and we all know how that turned out. The reason we conduct these tests is so potential problems can be identified and corrected.
‘Lives were put at risk’
The missile was unarmed and fired towards a pre-designated target, following a pre-designated path. Notices are released for mariners and airmen (NOTAMs) for these launches (as well as all rocket launches) so that precautions can be taken to avoid unsafe areas. Additionally, the range safety officer (who in this case is said to be the one who aborted the test) keeps watch during every launch to ensure no-one infringes into unsafe areas.
‘This could happen with a real, armed launch’
Technically, yes, it could. But it’s extremely unlikely (I point to the success rate above). Every vital piece of equipment can fail – aircraft can crash, we still fly, cookers can catch fire, nearly every home still has one. Additionally, in this case, with the current reason for the malfunction being a telemetry error, there is a possibility that the missile could have continued to operate correctly and go on to deliver its payload – we just don’t take that risk during test flights.
TL;DR – your car could blow up tomorrow, but you’ll still drive it to work.
‘A 99.4% success rate is not good enough’
If you’ve got an idea for an SLBM that is guaranteed to work 100% of the time, then you might want to let someone like the MoD know, as you’re going to make a lot of money.