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Most expensive RAF aircraft ever takes to the skies

9 Nimrod MRA4s to cost same as 3½ Space Shuttles

In Afghanistan, the most expensive comms-relay and camera plane ever

No again. The new combat computer architecture is by Boeing, in fact, not BAE. The electronic-warfare fit is from Israel. Most of the MRA4's weapons will be from America. Its engines will have "Rolls Royce" stamped proudly upon them, but will in fact come from Germany.

So we're paying almost triple market rate for largely foreign kit integrated into a historical chassis. And it won't have escaped most readers that the threat the old Nimrod MR2s were built to fight - the Soviet submarine fleet - is nowadays simply not an issue. There are still a handful of Russian subs left operational, but the Red Army is no longer in any position to invade Western Europe. The critical need to secure the North Atlantic NATO supply lines is gone.

Sure, a few of the existing Nimrod MR2s (and much more so, the three specially equipped electronic-intelligence birds, the Nimrod R1s**) have been doing useful work over Afghanistan. But for the MR2 this has mainly been a matter of relaying ground radio communications between units separated by mountains. A few MR2s have been fitted with an electro-optical camera turret for use as high-flying spyeyes, too - the MRA4s will all carry a Northrop Grumman "Nighthunter" set for this sort of work.

But you don't pay the best part of a billion dollars per bird for comms relay and basic aerial spyeye capability, not unless you're insane. A cheap unmanned drone able to do such things costs no more than £10-20m, even with the MoD buying. The mere fact that MR2s have been, and MRA4s will be, able to make themselves marginally useful above Afghanistan doesn't mean they're worth what they cost - not in money or in lives.

There can't be any doubt that we should simply cancel the whole project right now. The price of an equivalent number of P-8s would be recouped very quickly indeed through lower running costs. And actually, we might very well give some thought to simply not having subhunter planes for a while - it's hardly top of the priority list right now, and we've recently bought loads of incredibly expensive anti-submarine helicopters and frigate sonars which will do just fine if any enemy subs should actually appear.

Cash freed up by not having maritime patrol planes for a while would let us put some more troops on the ground in Afghanistan - we have the people in uniform already, the manpower cap there is primarily a matter of money - and maybe make some progress in the war we started 8 years ago. Or we could pay our troops decently, or look after the injured better.

But there seems to be zero chance of anything common-sense like that happening. This is largely due to the very successful obfuscation by the RAF of just how relatively little - considering the massive costs in money and lives - the Nimrods have actually been contributing in Afghanistan. It doesn't take away from the hard work and sacrifice of the crews to say that: it should be obvious that maritime patrol aircraft aren't going to be a critically important counter-insurgency tool. Once again, operational security ("can't tell you what they're doing old boy, frightfully secret") has been used as a cloak for empire-building, or in this case empire-preservation.

"It's just wonderful to see this aircraft take to the skies," enthused BAE's Steve Timms last week.

Not if you're a British taxpayer or serviceman, it isn't. ®

*The de Havilland Comet first flew in 1949.

**A Nimrod R1 elint plane is hugely more relevant and useful than either an MR2 or MRA4. Fortunately, the MoD seem to be resisting BAE's plan to replace the aged R1s with more specially-pimped Comet relics at colossal and unnecessary cost. Instead the ministry is looking to buy US "Rivet Joint" planes for this job.

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