What caught my attention during a recent trip to the US was the seeming embarrassment and revelations surrounding the failed MOD Trident missile test launch off the coast of Florida. As an investigator, I was particularly captivated by the swift timing and divergence of speculation and opinions from the various media talking heads about what and, curiously, why the test went wrong.

Uncovering the Root Causes: Why the test went Wrong?

Upon examining the circumstances surrounding the failed test, it becomes apparent that there was a rush to speculate on the causes, with various media outlets espousing their opinions without sufficient factual basis. This rush to judgment risks damaging the integrity of the ongoing investigation and in this case potentially undermining confidence in national defence capabilities.

So, given the gravity of the failed test and its implications for national defence, what went wrong and why?

It is clear that whilst the immediate "what happened" can be readily observed—after years of planning the test, it seems the Trident missile dramatically misfired and crashed into the ocean just next to the submarine that launched it—the more critical question of "why it happened" requires deeper analysis.

The official MOD line, clearly designed to provide national reassurance, was that this was an "event-specific anomaly which wouldn't have occurred during a real launch". It suggests this was a one-off and nothing further to worry about….but can such a concerning failure really be reconciled in one simple sentence?

From an investigative perspective, the 'What happened' is interesting (and usually simple). However, the 'Why it happened' is crucial (and often complex)… It also takes time!

It's fascinating to observe how different perspectives emerge, often within hours, when things don't go as planned. Talking Heads, driven by differing agendas, are typically quick to promote their own views and speculate on what caused the failure event.

I was listening to one interview in particular on BBC Radio 4 when the words of the talking head jumped out at me…

"So everybody's blaming the missile at the moment, but it seems to have worked perfectly. It's either been a human or a procedural error that has caused this. The system didn't fail."

Apart from the incredible bias this statement reveals, even if it transpires human error or some procedural anomaly was at play, the real question must surely be, "What within the system lacked the human error resilience that enabled this to occur?"

Jumping to conclusions before an investigative spade is in the ground is commonplace, particularly as with this case when reputations are in the spotlight. US firm Lockheed Martin developed and produced the Trident missile and support equipment, while the MOD was responsible for operating the system.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the competing causation theories will be Failed Technology vs Operational Error, particularly given this wasn't the first test failure launch of a Trident missile. The starting point for any investigation of worth is to look back before looking forward…has something like this happened previously, and if so, what lessons (or otherwise) did we learn, and were these lessons implemented?

Avoiding Investigation Traps: Key Principles for Thorough Analysis

I often share my thoughts about five investigation traps, and those at the heart of this incident have already fallen into a few!

• Planning (It takes time to get from the what to the why)
• Depth and Breadth (Good investigations get beyond what is seemingly obvious)
• Objectivity (Sticking to the facts and not being influenced by personal beliefs or bias)
• Just Culture (No blame..Investigate what in the system allowed human error to occur)
• Subject Matter Expertise (enlisting SME help is a sign of strength, not weakness)


To ensure a robust, credible and effective investigation, it is crucial to follow the principles of careful planning, conducting detailed data capture, maintaining objectivity, understanding the context of human error if it exists, and when appropriate utilising subject matter expertise.

Check out other articles written by our Head of Investigations, Alan Smith:

From 'If Only' To Action: Leveraging Preventive Measures For Enhanced Safety

Workforce Engagement And Resilience In The Rail Industry

Investigative Integrity In Crisis: Lessons From The Post Office Horizon Scandal

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