Former British military heads say the scrapping of the UK’s troubled Nimrod surveillance aircraft fleet is ‘perverse’ and will put Britain at risk, but the ministry of defence says it has found ways to fill the gap the aircraft’s departure will cause.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, ex-commanders from the Air Force, Army and Navy said the decision, taken last year, could inflict serious long-term damage to Britain’s interests and leave the country’s Trident nuclear missiles aboard Vanguard class submarines vulnerable.
Dismantling of the aircraft began at the BAE Systems Woodford factory on Wednesday. Union leaders called for a halt to the scrapping of the aircraft, which were supposed to replace an even-older Nimrod MR2 fleet. The demolition job is estimated to be costing £200 million, the Daily Mirror reports.
Bernie Hamilton, of Unite union, said: “The lunatics have taken over the asylum when the Government orders the Ministry of Defence to break up £4 billion worth of world-class defence equipment. The decision to scrap the Nimrod leaves a huge gap in the UK’s defence capability and is a betrayal of the workers that played a part in its manufacture.”
The Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft are able to detect and sink enemy submarines and also play a key role in drug-smuggling and counter-terrorism operations. “Nimrod would have continued to provide long-range maritime and overland reconnaissance — including over the UK — anti-submarine surveillance, air-sea rescue coordination, and perhaps most importantly, reconnaissance support to the Navy’s Trident submarines,” the defence chiefs’ letter read.
“Machine tools have been destroyed; several millions of pounds have been saved but a massive gap in British security has opened. Vulnerability of sea lanes, unpredictable overseas crises and traditional surface and submarine opposition will continue to demand versatile responsive aircraft,” the letter said.
It was signed by half a dozen retired military chiefs led by former Chief of the Defence Staff and RAF chief Lord David Craig, who now sits in the House of Lords. The other signatories were Major General Patrick Cordingley, the commander of the Desert Rats in the Gulf War; Major General Julian Thompson, the commander of land forces in the Falklands conflict, and Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward, commander of the naval task force in the Falklands.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman denied that scrapping Nimrod undermined Britain’s defences. The spokesman said: “The role of maritime patrol will continue to be carried out and we will use a range of other military assets to do that.” He said the defence cuts were made against the backdrop of Britain’s record budget deficit and “a significant black hole” in the defence ministry’s budget. “This particular project was overspent, it had been delayed and none of the aircraft were actually operational,” he added.
General David Richards, the current head of the armed forces, said in a statement that “severe financial pressures” led to the decision to axe Nimrod and that the decision had not been taken lightly. “This project was delayed and overspent; cancelling it will save £2 billion over ten years. None of these nine aircraft were operational, only one was built and it had not passed flight tests,” he said.
However, shadow defence secretary Jim Murhphy said the decision was rushed. The UK has the Nimrod R1 signals intelligence aircraft in service, but this model will be retired in March and replaced by ex-US Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft in 2014. The Royal Air Force operated Nimrod MR2s in the anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface unit warfare and search and rescue roles until they were retired in May 2010, which as a year earlier than planned due to financial reasons.
BAE Systems developed the Nimrod MRA4 to replace the capability provided by the MR2. A contract was signed in 1996 for 21 aircraft, but later reduced to twelve and then nine. Only two aircraft were eventually built (only one was fully constructed) under a programme that was subject to delays, cost over-runs and contract negotiations.
Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young blamed a “£38 billion deficit in the defence budget which we inherited from the outgoing government.” He said that the project was nine years late and saw a cost increase of 300%.
After the Nimrod MRA4 was cancelled in October last year, Peter Luff, minister for defence equipment, support and technology said, “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.”