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Mass Destruction and Our Safety

May 23, 2015

We don’t usually like using this blog to pass remark without reference to recent actions and activities but feel that Able Seaman McNeilly’s disclosures were exceptional and worthy of comment.

Responsible rebel William McNeilly has now been transferred to the arguably-more-secure confines of the submarine base at Devonport. It still seems likely that he’ll face consequences under military law for challenging the complacency of the Ministry of Defence, which apparently files the health and wellbeing of the entire Submarine Service and the population of the West of Scotland under ‘disposable assets’. The Navy’s activated its public opinion masseurs and wheeled out a few old officers to dismiss McNeilly’s revelations as the rash and unqualified hearsay of an excitable young man. Whilst his account is colourful, even florid in parts, and contrasts severely with the exceptionally level and dry tone of official disclosures, this shouldn’t count against its content. Instead, it’s indicative of the inevitable introspection associated with side-stepping the culture in which he was immersed, a culture of duty and obedience which Milgram and others have shown to be capable of overriding all humane instincts.

We’ve seen further evidence of this culture in the response to our Facebook posts on McNeilly’s detention. A fair shower of Senior Service personnel queued up to attack the whistle-blower and his sympathisers. Apart from puerile slurs, these posts were thematically similar, decrying McNeilly’s actions as a betrayal of the Service and suggesting that he should have knuckled down and tholed the operational conditions on his boat. None of these posts were from submariners. Indeed, one or two brave souls broke ranks to claim similar experience in their time aboard British submarines.

For the benefit of those who are confused, let’s make it clear that there is a huge difference in taking risks with a surface vessel and doing so with a submarine. The implications of an accident for the crew, other shipping, and the general public are worlds apart. If there is a fire, explosion, power, or equipment failure on a surface boat, the crew and nearby shipping may be endangered but it will be possible to summon support and abandon ship if necessary. This is not the case with a submarine on patrol. A submarine which cannot surface cannot evacuate, and the dangers of fire and explosion are far greater when minute-to-minute survival is dependent on a limited air supply and the integrity of the hull. Bearing both a nuclear reactor and multiple nuclear missiles, a Vanguard-class submarine in any kind of difficulty is an enormous liability which could result in a man-made disaster without precedent. The burden of responsibility upon the crew was amply demonstrated during the Cold War, when the crew of Soviet nuclear submarine K-19 sacrificed their lives to prevent a nuclear meltdown in the North Atlantic.

With regard to the specific incidents detailed by McNeilly, disarmament campaigners were immediately able to endorse his account as credible as we’ve heard all this before. Particularly in the period when Trident was introduced, staff within Operation Relentless were forthcoming with concerns regarding its operational safety, and we’ve been privy to unattributable, undocumented reports of incidents and bad practice of a very similar nature to those of McNeilly. What’s unprecedented is for someone with such recent patrol experience to be so forthright and use their name and access to validate what would otherwise be mere anecdotal claims.

The MoD’s been particularly quick to rubbish some of McNeilly’s most fearsome assertions — that alarm consoles were ignored and equipment abused in the missile compartments aboard the submarine on which he served. Unfortunately their own Freedom of Information Act disclosures regarding nuclear weapons road transports describe exactly the same practice; alarms triggered by temperature sensors in the business end of trucks carrying assembled Trident warheads on UK motorways were disregarded, along with the safety of the public across mainland Britain. Additionally, knowing that metal tools are prohibited in the Explosive Handling Jetty at RNAD Coulport which loads warheads onto submarines makes descriptions of missile compartments being used as weight rooms the more troubling.

With regard to security concerns, at least two incidents in the last year or so have seen undisguised Peace Campers exploring Faslane at their leisure — in one case entering the Trident area, in another reaching the foredeck of the Royal Navy’s newest submarine at its berth. The nuclear convoy was also peacefully attacked, and held up for an hour near the shores of Loch Lomond. These actions were designed to disrupt and impede the deployment of nuclear weapons from Faslane and Coulport, but also provide sobering evidence of the vulnerability of Britain’s Bomb. It’s chilling to reflect on how events like this would have panned out if the bases or the transports had been targeted by terrorists careless of their own lives and others’.

Where we part company with William McNeilly is when he describes Britain’s nuclear weapons as an historically-necessary evil. In fact, far from a deterrent against Soviet nuclear attack, the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been a crutch supporting its failing place in the world. Rather than a weapon of last resort, held back to avert the unthinkable, each generation of the Bomb has been in constant use, as a gun is in use when it is pointed at someone’s head. Against the mass of public opinion, which abhors nuclear strike even in retaliation against an enemy’s use of weapons of mass destruction, the British establishment has entrenched its interest with the constant threat of genocide in the longest-running campaign in UK military history. Along the way, they have sunk enormous public resources of finance, skills, and personnel, at great risk of both accidental disaster and the provocation of nuclear war. Meanwhile, the need to be seen to have the will to use this weapon has poisoned any chance of conciliatory diplomacy and a relationship with the rest of the world which moves beyond the exploitation of the colonial era.

McNeilly’s not too interested in geopolitics. What he’s worried about is part of the West of Scotland being obliterated, or his crewmates dying in a radiochemically-toxic accident, for the want of some care and responsibility. His concerns are well worthy of reflection as we approach Parliamentary endorsement of the Trident Successor programme next year. Whether the overseers of Operation Relentless have demonstrated the due care and attention to merit another £100,000,000,000 being thrown at them certainly seems open to question.

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