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MPs: Axe Nimrod subhunters to balance MoD budget

Rogue dinosaur project for the chop?

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As the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) confronts yet another looming annual budget shortfall, Parliament's Defence Committee has issued its 2008 report into British military kit procurement. The oversight MPs say bluntly that it is time for the MoD to start axing major equipment programmes, rather than spreading its cash ever-thinner across too many projects. They give a strong hint that the troubled Nimrod MRA4 subhunter plane should go.

In particular, the report considers several of the big headline purchases underway now, and those planned for the immediate future. The MPs examined the Nimrod MRA4 subhunter plane, the A400M turboprop transport, the Type 45 destroyer and the F-35 stealth jumpjet, all of which are under construction now. They also reported on the plans to build two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy (Future Carrier) and to replace much of the Army's current combat vehicle fleet (Future Rapid Effects System).

Overall, the Nimrod MRA4 seemed to come out worst in the MPs' view. This is not surprising, as the Nimrod project is now running more than seven years late and has ballooned in cost from £2.2bn to £3.5bn (for now) - while the number of planes has simultaneously dropped from 21 to 12. Thus the per-plane price has almost tripled, to a horrifying £292m apiece. Even worse, there are a lot of people asking whether the British forces genuinely need a fleet of huge expensive submarine-hunting aeroplanes right now.

According to the MPs:

The Ministry of Defence... states that the “major programme showing cost growth at present continues to be Nimrod [MRA4]”...

Since the [MoD purchasing bureau] Chief Operating Officer, Mr Gould, told us that the problems being experienced on the Nimrod MRA4 programme were not considered unusual... and that “it was predictable”, we are deeply concerned that they nevertheless seem to have come as such a surprise to the MoD...

The Nimrod programme has experienced further slippage in 2007-08 of 3 months.

We hope that the new Minister for Defence Equipment and Support will look closely at this programme and consider whether it is ever likely to deliver the capability our Armed Forces require in the timescale needed. If it is not the MoD should withdraw from the programme.

In other words, just bin it. Much of the acquisition cost has already been paid, but huge sums would be saved down the road in running and support costs. It would probably be possible to close down a large RAF base, for example.

The current, ancient Nimrod MR2s wouldn't be much missed. They are working hard above Afghanistan right now - despite the fact that they aren't the safest planes around - but the jobs being done aren't such as to call for quarter-billion-pound airliners full of specialist submarine tracking gear. Comms relay, electronic intercept and surveillance can be done by cheaper planes - or even by hugely cheaper unmanned jobs, without risking flyboys' lives.

The only other project which the MPs see as a possible candidate for the chopper is the plan to build two big new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. These, however, have top-level political protection - they are to be built in a yard within sight of Gordon Brown's constituency seat - so their axing would appear unlikely. ®

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