Reducing Challenger 2 I can understand, withdrawing the ageing Type 22 frigates I can understand, I can even understand (just) the logic of withdrawing the Harrier, but the decision on Nimrod MRA4 is reckless insanity with only marginal savings.
We sometimes get seduced by the ‘sunk cost’ argument where there is a reluctance to cancel something because the huge sums already invested. CVF is a good example, cancelling that might not save any money in the short term but the operating costs are significant so those sunk costs would be small in comparison with the long term savings.
From a financial perspective MRA4 satisfies the general rule of sunk costs but the running costs are relatively small, regardless of the capability loss so there isn’t even a strong financial case for cancellation.
Most of the costs have already been spent, as at July 2010 the total expenditure on MRA4 was £3.9billion.
The estimated total cost of the support solution up to the currently anticipated achievement of initial operating capability in October 2012 is £0.6 billion. In addition, the estimated cost of pay for RAF personnel undertaking the training until 2012 is £17.2 million
The Nimrod MRA4 is without a doubt the poster child of those famous toxic projects that the Labour government inherited from the previous one and is a perfect illustration of how good old fashioned bungling, political interference and industrial primacy over defence.
Two things have conspired to condemn the Nimrod MRA4
- The word Nimrod
- Political gain
Nimrod has a toxic brand identity; the wing issue, general bungling, £400million each and finally the safety issues. Despite BAe’s own staff and the types operators being absolutely crystal clear on how bad an idea it would be, the MoD and BAe decided to save £4.37 by upgrading old MR2’s to the new MRA4 standard. The ill fitting wing issue is well known and not worth repeating here but the fact remains that MRA4 is largely a new build aircraft, only parts of the fuselage and vertical stabiliser remains from the MR2 and those have been thoroughly inspected and re-lifed. For all intents and purposes, MRA4 is a new aircraft. The MR2 safety issues, accident and subsequent enquiry said more about the RAF and MoD than it did about the aircraft but there is no doubt even the MRA4 has been tarred with the same brush. A risk averse MoD and gutless government is simply scared of the name.
Secondly, there is maximum gain to be had by blaming the cancellation on the previous government’s incompetence in defence acquisition, what better example than a programme that would have delivered 9 aircraft at over £400million apiece?
But what are we losing?
Equipped with 4 RR BR710 Turbofans engines the MRA4, on one ‘tank of fuel’ fly for 6,000nm or 15 hours, can carry a huge quantity of weapons and other stores on 9 bomb bay/4 wing hardpoints, has an incredibly sophisticated mission system (the same as the US Boeing P8 Poseidon), long range Searchwater radar, an Electronic Support Measures system, Link 11/16, a wider range of sensors and more communications equipment than you can shake a stick at!
All this is held in an airframe that can operate equally well from 200ft to 36,000ft and has been proven to satisfy all requirements for several months, the first has already been delivered to the RAF.
In some ways, it might be argued that the MRA4 did not quite have some of the capabilities, especially for
Allies and Alternatives
One of the justifications for the cancellation of MRA4 is that we can rely on a combination of allies and alternatives to fill the gap.
Allies such as France and the USA do have long range maritime patrol aircraft but the French ones are just as old as the MR2 and nowhere near as capable as the MRA4.
The US is currently in the process of introducing the 737 derived P8 Poseidon but that is making the MRA4 look like a well run project. The MRA4 is derived from a civilian airliner (the Comet) it is a sturdy design with an old fashioned thick wing and inboard engines but the P8 Poseidon uses the Boeing 737-900 as its donor airframe. The 737, especially the wing and engine configuration, are wholly unsuited to the kind of low level manoeuvring required for the role and this has led to all manner of very expensive workarounds to compensate, especially for operating a medium, rather than low altitude.
The proposed A319 MPA remains nothing but a design study and would face exactly the same problems as the P8 but with a smaller payload.
For some of the less warlike roles of maritime patrol there are a number of off the shelf alternatives but they are a very poor substitute for MRA4 and would have only a fraction of the military usefulness.
Anti Submarine Warfare is a particular UK specialism and one which we neglect at our peril. New submarine designs are increasingly capable and being sold the world over, many think that anti submarine capabilities can be filed under ‘cold war relic’ but nothing could be further from the truth. The west has not faced a credible submarine threat for a long time but that is changing very fast and as we reduce numbers and consolidate capabilities onto ever more expensive but fewer surface platforms the loss of even one of these to a submarine would be catastrophic.
For alternatives, why bother when they would be more expensive and less capable.
For allies, the Maritime Patrol role, at least with a military role, is an area where our allies are rather poorly resourced and the MRA4 would have been much more sought after than almost anything else we have.
For the impact of loss of the MRA4 the best person to describe it is none other than Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State for Defence
Deletion of the Nimrod MR4 will limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly into high-threat areas, increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime CT (counter terrorism), remove long range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan.
Remember that letter!
To pick on just a few of those areas
Long range search and rescue is a treaty obligation (International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979), one which we have been struggling to comply with since the MR2 was withdrawn (cobbling together a patchwork of capabilities) and will obviously continue to fail to meet with the MRA4 decision. Before withdrawal the MR2 carried out about between 1 and 2 search and rescue missions per month, the majority being beyond the range of a Sea King. Using a £400m military aircraft for long range search and rescue is perhaps a little overkill but using the Nimrod means the public purse does not have to fund a separate aircraft fleet just for the role. We might transfer this to the coastguard, perhaps rolling it into a revised SAR helicopter PFI deal but would this really be economical?
Nimrod also protects the Trident submarines as they enter and leave home waters, now this role can be carried out by Merlin helicopters and frigates but this means an increase in standing commitments from the RN at a time when frigates and helicopters are at a premium. The noise signature of helicopters is considerably more than the jet engines of the Nimrod and therefore much less detectable by modern submarine acoustic systems. Perhaps weakening the survivability of Trident will be used as another excuse to get rid of it by the Liberal Democrat’s.
Piracy was highlighted by the SDSR as being a particular threat, the MRA4 would allow the few surface assets we have in the area to be maximised and hugely improve our output.
Another huge capability loss will be the communications relay and ISR facilities offered by MRA4.
The real strength of Nimrod MRA4 is its versatility.
So, let’s keep the Red Arrows, increase the aid budget and shovel yet more cash into the EU but a capability as vitally important as MRA4 is tossed aside, just as it is coming into service. Perhaps the Red Arrows was a dig too far but its the sentiment, difficult decisions have been dodged across all three services.
Without sounding too hysterical, people will die because of this decision.
That’s not really very strategic is it?
In a recent Parliamentary written answer, Peter Luff MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology) stated
But it is the aircraft’s future support costs that contributed to the decision not to bring it into service, despite its advanced state. Since the withdrawal of the Nimrod MR2 in March this year, the Ministry of Defence has sought to mitigate the gap in capability through the use of other military assets, including Type 23 Frigates, Merlin Anti Submarine Warfare helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, and by relying, where appropriate, on assistance from allies and partners. Although it was originally assumed that such measures would only be required for a limited period of time, we are now developing a longer-term plan to mitigate the impact of cancellation on our continuing military tasks and capabilities. In view of the sensitive and classified nature of some of these military tasks, and the implications for the protection of our armed forces, including the nuclear deterrent, it is not possible for us to comment on these measures in detail.