British government cost cuts played a major role in a fatal 2006 military plane crash, an inquiry found yesterday a further blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is already accused of failing the troops.
The crash in Afghanistan, in which a Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance plane caught fire and exploded minutes after mid-air refuelling, killed all 14 military personnel on board in the worst single incident for British forces since the Falklands War.
“There was a shift in culture and priorities in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) towards business and financial targets, at the expense of functional values such as safety and airworthiness,” said aviation lawyer Charles Haddon-Cave, who conducted the 20-month review.
Haddon-Cave said his report had identified “manifold shortcomings in the UK military airworthiness and in-service support regime”. The crash had been avoidable, he concluded.
The report hands additional ammunition to critics of Prime Minister Brown, who faces a tough re-election battle by June.
“The Government as a whole must bear responsibility for the way in which the MoD has been treated under the pressure of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts,” said Liam Fox, defence spokesman for the opposition Conservatives. “Cutting corners costs lives. War cannot be fought on a peacetime budget.”
Efficiencies vs safety
Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth admitted “efficiencies within the system” had overtaken airworthiness as a priority, but said measures had since been taken to improve safety.
“Lives have been lost as a result of our failure,” he said. “As an organisation the MoD has changed its culture and approach to put safety first.”
The crash was the fifth involving the MR2, prompting the review of the arrangements for ensuring their airworthiness.
Last year the coroner looking into the deaths said the entire Royal Air Force Nimrod fleet should be grounded because they were not airworthy, but Ainsworth said he had been assured they remained safe to fly.
Haddon-Cave’s report found that a safety review of Nimrod aircraft carried out before the crash by BAE Systems and a MoD team had failed to identify potentially catastrophic hazards. “The Nimrod safety case (review) was a lamentable job from start to finish,” Haddon-Cave said. “It was riddled with errors. It missed the key dangers. Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism.”
The report criticised 10 individuals from the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, and independent advisor QinetiQ for their roles in the safety review.
A spokesperson for BAE said: “The company will consider and assess how best to support the Ministry of Defence in implementing the recommendations for improving processes to further enhance the operational safety of aircraft in military use.”
The report also criticised QinetiQ as “lax” for failing to read BAE Systems’ reports or check their work properly. A spokesman for QinetiQ said the company wanted to take time to digest the report fully before making a detailed response but would seek to learn from its criticisms.