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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RAF's Nimrod plane fleet withdrawn in defence cuts

A Nimrod MR2 surveillance plane

The RAF’s fleet of 11 Nimrod surveillance aircraft, one of which catastrophically burst into flames killing 14 servicemen in Afghanistan in 2006, is to be withdrawn from service by March next year as part of a range of defence cuts announced today.

Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, denied that the decision to axe the Nimrod Mark 2s 12 months earlier than planned had anything to do with the crash of Nimrod XV230, which was caused by leaking fuel, and he insisted it was still safe to fly. He told the Commons the decision was purely for financial reasons.

He said the decision was unconnected to the devastatingly critical official report published in October by Charles Haddon-Cave QC, who accused the Ministry of Defence of sacrificing safety to save money on maintenance of the Nimrod fleet. Several senior military officers were criticised in his report.

However, Mr Ainsworth also announced that the programme to introduce a replacement, the Nimrod MRA4, was going to be delayed. With the Mark 2s scrapped by the end of March, this will leave a capability gap, defence sources confirmed.

The first MRA4 - one of nine ordered - will be delivered to RAF Kinloss in Morayshire - home of the Nimrods - in February but it will not be operational for a long time because the crews will have to carry out lengthy flight training. “It’s a brand new aircraft, so it will take time,” a defence official said.
One of the principal roles of the Nimrod anti-submarine-warfare and surveillance aircraft is to protect Britain’s nuclear ballistic-missile submarine deterrent as it leaves Faslane on the Clyde for patrols in the North Atlantic and Antarctic.

The defence sources said that the protection of the deterrent would have to be left in the hands of the Royal Navy, using hunter-killer nuclear-powered submarines.

The decision on the Nimrod Mark 2s and its replacement will have a considerable impact on the personnel at RAF Kinloss. There are currently 1,600 RAF staff based there, and a proportion of them, especially the engineers, will be displaced to other bases to work on different aircraft.

RAF sources said there were no plans to make any of the Kinloss staff redundant.
Although Mr Ainsworth emphasised that the thrust of the “savings” would be to provide more funds - £900 million - for Afghanistan, the switching of resources will mean that the defence support services will suffer.

The RAF will lose one Harrier squadron and probably a Tornado GR4 squadron although the latter's axeing will be delayed until next year’s strategic defence review. Four of the five Harrier squadrons are based at RAF Cottesmore in Leicestershire, a legendary wartime airfield, and this location is now earmarked for closure. The remaining Harriers will be based at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.

The MoD has not ruled out RAF redundancies, although initially cutbacks will be achieved through natural wastage and a slowing of recruiting. Future redundancies are likely to fall on the staff based at Cottesmore. The base opened in 1938 and early bombing raids were carried out against German troops advancing through Belgium and France.

Andrew Brookes, director of the Air League, warned today that the MoD was once again engaged in trying to save money in the short-term but could expect greater costs in the long term. He said axeing Harriers and Tornados would not save money because they were worth nothing, and delaying the Nimrod MRA4 would add to the spiralling costs of the programme.

This week, the National Audit Office took the MoD to task for making a short-term saving of £450 million on the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier project by delaying the building programme - only to find that in the long term the cost would rise by £674 million.

The extra money for the frontline will come out of the MoD’s budget instead of Treasury reserves which normally finance operations in Afghanistan, because the new orders for - among other things - more Reaper unmanned spy planes, better body armour and more night-vision goggles and improved communications for special forces are intended to be long-term capability improvements.

Mr Ainsworth also confirmed the planned purchase of 22 more Chinook helicopters and another C17 Globemaster transport aircraft for the RAF. However, the first ten Chinooks will not be ready for operational service for another three or four years, by which time the British combat mission in Afghanistan could be winding down.

Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary, said: “Our defences are being cut, not as a response to a diminished threat – if anything the threat is increasing. The Government that’s had four defence secretaries in four years, one of them part-time, is now cutting capability as a result of catastrophic economic mismanagement. Our brave Armed Forces are paying for Labour’s incompetence.”
“The new Chinook helicopters are of course welcome, but this decision would not have been necessary if the Prime Minister had not, against all advice, cut £1.4 billion from the helicopter programme in 2004,” Dr Fox said.

“But for his failure to understand the Armed Forces, those Chinooks could have been on the frontline today, saving the lives of our brave soldiers. Instead, they will not be available until at least 2013 by which time, according to the Prime Minister, we should have substantially transferred security responsibility to Afghan national forces.” (@timesonline)

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