Flotsam – October

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Sex and drug scandal on British nuclear submarine

Last month, the British nuclear submarine with ballistic missiles (SSBN) HMS Vigilant docked at the US naval base in Kings Bay on the southern Atlantic coast of Georgia, directly on the border with Florida, for a several weeks’ re-equipment of its Trident missiles. Located in this vast submarine base, which is also the home port of the US Atlantic Fleet’s SSBNs, is the Trident Refit Facility, a facility of the US Navy where SSBNs equipped with Trident missiles can be overhauled, repaired and modernized. The four British Vanguard class SSBNs will also have to use this base for work on their Trident ballistic missile tubes.

The US submarine base at Kings Bay in April 2001. Photo: Bob Webster, CC BY 3.0

After arriving in Kings Bay, the British submarine command received a hint that the Vigilant‘s commander may have an inappropriate relationship with a female crew member subordinate to him. In the Royal Navy, women are allowed to serve on board of submarines since 2011. Romantic relationships within the chain of command are strictly forbidden, but outside of the chain of command they are allowed. While on duty, however, the rule is that lovers must not even touch each other.

As a consequence, two senior officers of the Royal Navy Submarine Service were immediately flown to the United States to investigate the matter. On October 2, information about the investigations came to the public and it became known that the Commander of the Vigilant during these investigations had been withdrawn from his submarine as a precautionary measure and that he has been discharged of his duties.

This affair broadened when a spokesman for the Royal Navy had to admit only a few days later that the first officer was also deprived of his post as a precautionary measure on suspicion of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. According to British naval circles, the simultaneous removal of the two highest officers of a warship is a highly unusual event. According to unofficial sources, the two senior officers entrusted with the investigation were very upset by this lack of discipline in the otherwise so discreet submarine service and were also very ashamed that the piquant investigations had reached the public.

HMS Vigilant returns to her base. Photo: LA(Phot) Paul O’Shau/MOD OGL

On October 26th, when it became known that several crew members of the Vigilant had been tested positive for drugs after excessive partying and had been dishonorably dismissed from the Royal Navy, the events surrounding the Vigilant had developed into a state affair and the worst scandal of the Royal Navy in recent years. British Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon promptly took his first Sea Lord to task in a juicy telling off and ordered him to immediately conduct drug tests on all members of the British submarine fleet to ensure that men removed from the Vigilant (hopefully) were isolated cases.

During the layover in Kings Bay, the Vigilant crew was accommodated in civilian hotels outside the base. There, while the investigations against their commander and his first officer were still in full swing, some crew members had staged wild alcoholic and drug impregnated parties. When higher officers of the submarine got wind of this, they ordered a drug test of the crew, in which 9 crew members were tested positive for drugs. Four of them were flown home immediately and dishonorably discharged from the Royal Navy. 5 others were later flown home and were also thrown out of the navy on October 25.

Just days before the Vigilant was due to leave Kings Bay, a crew member went AWOL and flew to his girlfriend in England. A short time later he was arrested by the military police and is now awaiting his court martial in custody. In the course of the affair, two other crew members quit their duty on the Vigilant.

The Vigilant docked at the British naval base Clyde in 2008. Photo: POA(Phot) Julian Merrill/MOD OGL

In the course of the affair, the Vigilant has lost just over 10% of its 135 men and women crew in a short period of time. It is particularly serious that the Commander and the 1st Officer, the only two persons on board who have access to the safe with the British Prime Minister’s Letter of Last Resort already described in Flotsam edition July 2017, and thus could ultimately be personally responsible for the use of nuclear weapons, had to be relieved of their command. The events surrounding these two officers are likely to revive the debate on the service of women on SSBNs. The parties of the crew members in the hotels not only created the image of the Vigilant as a “party boat”, but also raised new concerns on the safety of the British Vanguard submarines against the background of the ongoing debate (please see the Flotsam editions of December 2016 and January and July 2017).