Whistleblower reignites UK’s nuclear-deterrent debate

Allegations of major security failures surrounding submarines in Scotland put nukes on the radar.

UK subs
HMS Ambush, the second of the new Astute Class attack submarines, at HM Naval Base Clyde in Scotland [EPA]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – To many, the common sight of one of Britain’s nuclear submarines cutting through the waters of the River Clyde in Scotland is a symbol of national prestige, power, and defence.

To others, it is nothing more than an economic obscenity and a threat to global stability.

The UK’s nuclear deterrent known as Trident has been based at HM Naval Base Clyde on Scotland’s west coast since the 1960s.

But earlier this month, the weapons system – today made up of four Vanguard-class submarines, which carry Trident missiles – was rocked by revelations from a naval nuclear weapons technician turned whistleblower, William McNeilly.

The Northern Irishman, who eventually surrendered himself to naval police and is currently under investigation, went on the run after detailing 30 alleged safety and security flaws on Trident submarines in an 18-page dossier.

These included a failure to check ID cards, fire risks from rubbish, the flouting of safety procedures, and a cover-up of a collision with a French nuclear submarine.

Protesters outside the British Ministry of Defence [Getty Images]
Protesters outside the British Ministry of Defence [Getty Images]

Blaming the messenger

“His revelations are very significant,” Rob Edwards, environment editor of the Scottish Sunday Herald newspaper that initially broke the McNeilly story, told Al Jazeera.

“They confirm many things that we knew or suspected about the situation on Trident submarines, and they add several important things that we didn’t know and hadn’t suspected and need to be investigated.”

The Royal Navy has called McNeilly’s revelations “subjective and unsubstantiated”, but public support for the submariner – who says he was on patrol with one of the vessels, HMS Victorious, earlier this year – has grown.

Some 7,000 people have signed an online petition calling for McNeilly to be pardoned, and a group of Members of the Scottish Parliament backed a motion praising his “courageous actions”.

Others have also thrown their support behind McNeilly. These include John Ainslie, coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who told Al Jazeera while other submariners have attempted to outline perceived problems with Britain’s nuclear submarines in the past – few, if any – come close to those unveiled by the 25-year-old sailor.

“There’s two unusual aspects to this,” said the anti-nuclear campaigner.

“One is the length of detail – that it’s a very long report detailing lots of things – and the second is that he’s put his name out there for people to recognise him,” Ainslie said.

“The content is more detailed that what we might get on other occasions – and it’s from the perspective of being a relatively new junior member of the crew, but seeing all these things round about him and hearing accounts of previous incidents.”

View from the deck

Yet, some observers have advised against reading too much into the failings alleged by McNeilly, who called Britain’s Trident programme “a disaster waiting to happen”.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond during a visit to HMS Victorious [Getty Images]
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond during a visit to HMS Victorious [Getty Images]

John Large, an independent nuclear submarine analyst based in London, told Al Jazeera: “The Trident nuclear weapon systems and its delivery platform [were] genially tolerant of and resilient against the misdemeanours that McNeilly describes.”

“A lot of the stuff he says was a commonsense look at it from a lower-decks level – almost like a myopic view of a system which he didn’t fully understand,” said Large.

But Large conceded a small number of McNeilly’s observations give some cause for concern.

In one passage from his dossier, the submariner laments “the rate at which people are getting pushed through the system because of manpower shortages”.

“That suggests a much more serious problem of human resources that are maybe being pushed to keep the submarines at sea,” said Large.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence told Al Jazeera an investigation was under way regarding the allegations in the dossier.

“We take security extremely seriously in both our personnel and submarine operations,” she said. “We are going to update parliament at the earliest opportunity on what we’ve been investigating.”

Politics of deterrance 

While highlighting perceived faults with the UK’s nuclear deterrent, McNeilly’s revelations have also reignited the ongoing conflict between Britain’s marked pro and anti-nuclear groups.

Both the ruling Conservatives and the Labour opposition at Westminster support the UK’s nuclear deterrent – but anti-nuclear voices from within Britain’s mother parliament were bolstered by the stunning electoral success of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which took 56 out of 59 Scottish constituencies in the UK general election on May 7.

There is a powerful nation to the east of us that will not be deterred by conventional means - but might be by nuclear means.

by Alan Mendoza, Henry Jackson Society

The SNP, which fought last September’s Scottish independence referendum on a platform of getting rid of Trident from Scottish waters, has already targeted next year’s vote on Trident renewal at Westminster as a chance to give voice to those campaigning against the continuation of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme.

Yet, support for the system’s multibillion pound replacement is almost certain to carry the 2016 vote in the House of Commons in the face of any opposition, with advocates of Trident maintaining that only a nuclear defence system can keep Britain safe from external threats.

“When you have threats to your national security, you sometimes need the ultimate deterrent to prevent them,” said Alan Mendoza, executive director of the London-based think-tank the Henry Jackson Society.

Mendoza told Al Jazeera the recent actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Eastern Europe made possessing nuclear weapons fundamental to the UK’s long-term security plans.

“There is a powerful nation to the east of us that will not be deterred by conventional means – but might be by nuclear means,” he said.

“There are very real threats occurring right now and we don’t know what will come in 10 years time, of course. We don’t know if Iran develops nuclear weapons with a delivery system that might [threaten] Europe,” Mendoza said.

“Everyone knows that there is an ancient antipathy between the Iranians and the British.”

Global attention

As speculation continues to surround the fate of McNeilly – and whether he will be charged under the Official Secrets Act – Edwards said the submariner’s disclosures have given Britain’s anti-nuclear campaigners extra impetus.

Indeed, in light of McNeilly’s leaks, a bullish SNP has already looked to press the UK government on Trident safety by scheduling a House of Commons debate on the issue.

“The McNeilly revelations – because they’ve had global attention and because there’s a kind of human story in the middle of them which engages people – will take the [Trident] issue to a new level,” Edwards asserted.

Computer graphic image from the Ministry of Defence of a Successor class submarine [EPA]
Computer graphic image from the Ministry of Defence of a Successor class submarine [EPA]

Large, too, said while McNeilly’s allegations were less dramatic than many have made out – whistleblowers need to be understood in the sense of “where they’re coming from, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it”.

“The very fact that McNeilly did this means there is something wrong with the system,” said Large.

“And it may not be the mechanical engineering system or the electronics – but maybe the way in which the Royal Navy puts the system together. [McNeilly’s revelations] may be an indication of discontent – which I think it was,” he said.

“So, in many ways, the psychological aspect of this – the reason he published this, even if it’s not important in the strategic sense – is disturbing in itself.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera