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UK's nuclear deterrence is in a state of limbo - The second failed submarine-launched 'Trident' ballistic missile (SLBM)

It is known that the UK and France are the only European nuclear powers. On these and on the nuclear warheads of the USA located in European states, the "old continent" bases its nuclear deterrence against Russia, with high-ranking officials of the latter, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine and from there, playing with words - until now - increasingly with the "red button".

Estimates of intelligence services of Western countries speak of an increased possibility in the coming years, after the end of the war in Ukraine, that Russia will attack either the Baltic countries of NATO, or Moldova-Poland.

Before these possible unpleasant developments, the European countries are shielding their defense further, with Great Britain proceeding with a test launch of a nuclear missile, unsuccessfully, however, for the second time in a row, worrying friends and encouraging enemies, that its nuclear deterrence is faltering.

Second consecutive failed launch of a Trident ballistic missile (SLBM) from a British submarine

"The Royal Navy's Trident ballistic missile has failed its test launch for the second time in a row," reports an international reputable media outlet, noting:

"The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) has moved to provide assurances following the failure of the Royal Navy's latest Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test.

However, this is now the second failed test in a row, giving a grip to critics of the UK's hugely expensive nuclear deterrent.

The Ministry of Defense has provided very little detail about what happened during the latest test involving the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) HMS Vanguard in the Atlantic on January 30.

However, he admitted that "an anomaly occurred" during the exercise but the bottom line is that it would not have occurred in a wartime scenario.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “As a matter of national security, we cannot provide any further information on this. However, we are confident that the anomaly was event specific, and therefore has no impact on the reliability of the wider Trident missile systems and stockpile. The UK's nuclear deterrent remains safe and effective."

The Sun revelation

The Sun quoted an unnamed source as describing the missile falling into the ocean immediately after launch: "It left the submarine, but it landed, right next to them."

The same report said that the Trident missile had been successfully propelled into the air by the compressed gas in the launch tube, but that the first stage solid-fuel rocket engine had failed to ignite.

The original plan was for the unarmed UGM-133A Trident II, or Trident D5 SLBM, to travel a distance of about 3,700 miles across the Atlantic before crashing somewhere between Africa and Brazil. UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps reportedly attended the test launch and was on board HMS Vanguard at the time.




The ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) HMS Vanguard

Each Vanguard-class ship has 16 missile tubes, but in practice only eight are used, to comply with Treaty regulations. A maximum of 40 warheads are currently carried on Royal Navy SSBNs on deterrent patrol, with each Trident missile capable of carrying multiple warheads or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).

While each Trident can theoretically carry 14 MIRVs, depending on the type, 40 warheads in each patrol amounts to about five per missile.

The "Trident" missiles in the target

The story in the Sun forced the Foreign Office to issue a statement about the failed test, something it apparently had not planned to do, while government ministers insisted the Tridents remained reliable.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, former chairman of the Defense Select Committee, said in a television interview that the problem was related to the test equipment and not the Trident missile itself.

"My understanding is that it was some equipment that was actually attached to the missile itself that prevented the missile system from firing after the missile left the submarine," Ellwood said.


Meanwhile, Labour's shadow defense secretary John Healey said: “Reports of a Trident test failure are worrying. The Defense Secretary will want to reassure parliament that this test has no impact on the effectiveness of the UK's deterrent operations."


Undoubtedly, launching an SLBM from a submarine is a complex process, and failures are not at all uncommon.

However, the fact that this was the second test of its kind to fail in a row adds to the embarrassment.

The first failed test in 2016

In June 2016, another launch of the Trident missile into the Atlantic was a spectacular and controversial failure, with the unarmed missile flying off course in the complete opposite direction, towards the mainland United States.

Its self-destruct mechanism had to be activated, ensuring it would blow up in the air above the water.

Since then, the British-owned "Trident" missiles have undergone a life extension program, which should have made them more reliable.

Also troubling about the latest failure is the fact that it was intended as a final pre-deployment exercise for HMS Vanguard after more than seven years spent repairing it.

The merit of the crew of the HMS Vanguard-class submarine

A Ministry of Defense spokesman said: "HMS Vanguard and her crew have proven themselves fully capable of handling the UK's sustained deterrent operation at sea, passing all tests during a recent demonstration and shakedown operation, a routine test for to confirm that the submarine can return to service after deep maintenance work."

For the crew of HMS Vanguard, the missile failure and subsequent media scrutiny would hardly have been welcome. This also comes at a time when Royal Navy SSBN crews are likely to be subject to higher levels of stress due to extended periods at sea.

The UK's continuous naval deterrence includes the four Vanguard-class vessels, which entered service in 1994.

One of these SSBNs is at sea at all times.

Last year, a Vanguard-class vessel returned from a patrol of around six months - possibly a record-breaking length of time. The Royal Navy's extensive SSBN deployments have led to questions in the past regarding operational safety. In December 2022, The Guardian newspaper reported that the Vanguard submarines had been deployed at sea for then-record periods of five months each that year.

"The great danger is that this unchanged routine, week after week, leads to boredom, complacency and an inevitable decline in standards," Rob Forsythe, former commander of the Polaris SSBN, wrote at the time. "Equally worrying, personal relationships are being tested to the limit."

Since 1998, the Royal Navy's SSBNs have provided the UK's sole nuclear weapons capability, although the latest failure has sparked debate over whether there is an argument for handing over the nuclear strike role to the UK's Royal Air Force.

The imminent replacement of the Vanguard-class submarines with four new Dreadnought-class vessels

This seems highly unlikely, especially with the UK committed to replacing the Vanguard class with four new Dreadnought class vessels, with the submarines alone costing around $43 billion. These vessels are expected to enter Royal Navy service in the early 2030s. The new SSBNs will also be armed with modernized Trident missiles, which will likely receive W93 warheads.


The modernization of the UK's SSBN fleet and the "Trident" SLBMs that arm it is a controversial undertaking.

The failure of two successive Trident missile tests may just be a coincidence, but it's the last thing the UK MoD wants as it tries to justify the cost of new Dreadnought-class submarines while convincing foes and friends alike of nuclear deterrence. of the UK, which is questionable in practice at present.

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