A campaign to award a special service medals to submariners on nuclear patrols was launched in parliament today on the fiftieth anniversary of round-the-clock underwater deterrence.
Currently, servicemen and women who form part of Operation Relentless nuclear weapon missions can wear a ‘bomber pin’ alongside the traditional dolphin insignia worn by submariners – but there is no formal medal to recognise their sacrifice.
The UK’s commitment to continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) requires a nuclear armed submarine to be on active patrol at all times, meaning crews often spend many months under the ocean without a break.
They go to extraordinary lengths to remain undetected by adversaries, and commanders of deterrent submarines bear the ultimate responsibility of launching a nuclear strike if instructed by the Prime Minister.
Yet the secrecy of their operation and its never ending nature has deprived submariners of the medal awarded to armed forces colleagues serving in other conflicts.
Mr Woodcock, whose constituency includes Barrow shipyard where the UK’s submarine fleet is built, has tabled a motion in parliament calling for “formal recognition of their service with the introduction of a special ‘service medal’ to all former and current submariners who have served on patrol in the ongoing Operation Relentless”.
He has enlisted the support of senior MPs including former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, and chair of the House of Commons defence select committee Julian Lewis.
Mr Woodcock’s early day motion – a mechanism for MPs to lobby ministers on various issues – calls on the government “to establish a working group to work with the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to introduce this medal”.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Mr Woodcock said: “fifty years of unbroken nuclear patrols is a truly extraordinary achievement and it is high time the government gave proper recognition to the servicemen whose sacrifice has made it possible.
“More than any nearly any other individuals, submariners on deterrent patrols have kept us all safe from the horror of nuclear conflict for fifty years. There must be a way to overcome any secrecy concerns to give serving and retired submariners the special service medal they truly deserve.”
Responding to Mr Woodcock’s call, Mr Williamson said in the House of Commons: “I think the honourable gentleman raises an important point. It is certainly something that I would be willing to look at. I’m sure the honourable gentleman is aware that it is not sadly a decision purely for the Ministry of Defence, but we’d certainly be happy to look at the merits of this and how we can give full recognition for all those crews who have served over such a long period of time.”
Mr Williamson announced that “We already honour our submariners with the deterrent patrol pin, often known as the ‘bomber pin’, giving recognition to their enormous efforts, but we also recognise that we want to go further still. Consequently, we are going to ensure that those who complete ten patrols will now be recognised with a new silver bomber pin. Future bomber pins will be made from metal taken from HMS Resolution, linking today’s submariners with the forefathers and emphasising the longevity and significance of the fifty year mission.”
The House of Commons debate on the fiftieth anniversary of CASD comes ahead of a special thanksgiving service for submariners organised by the Royal Navy to be held in Westminster Abbey on Friday 3 May.
The first nuclear patrol was begun by Barrow-built HMS Resolution in 1968, with continuous patrols commencing in April 1969.
Since then, the United Kingdom has provided protection against nuclear protection to its NATO allies with the close cooperation of the United States – the foundation of the so-called ‘Special Alliance’ between the two countries.
In 2016 parliament voted to renew the ageing Vanguard-class submarines that carry the Trident missile submarine. Construction is now underway with the first of the new Dreadnought class boats due to come into service by 2028. There are fears that continous at-sea deterrence may break down if the Dreadnought programme is not completed to schedule given the difficulty of keeping the Vanguard class submarines seaworthy beyond their projected life span.
Last year, Mr Woodcock left the Labour party claiming that its leader Jeremy Corbyn could not be trusted to maintain Trident given his lifelong commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Labour’s official policy is to continue with renewal, but Mr Corbtn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have both said they would never countenance threatening to use the weapon, raising questions over what its purpose would be under a Labour government.
The UK submarine programme employs more than 9,000 advanced manufacturing and engineering jobs in Barrow shipyard with many thousands more employed in the supply chain in more than 1,000 firms across the UK.