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Antique Nimrod subhunters scrapped – THANK GOODNESS!

World's biggest vintage aircraft club finally shut down

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The previous Nimrod was doing frightfully hush-hush stuff in Afghanistan – but 'hush-hush' isn't the same as 'appropriate' or 'cost effective'

The MRA4 fleet, had it ever gone operational, would have been the world's biggest and most expensive vintage aircraft enthusiasts' club. Every time a spare part was needed it would have had to be custom made. Thousands of esoteric experts would have had to be kept on staff. Support costs would have been well outside the ordinary two-to-three-times-acquisition range: we would have spent many more billions keeping the last nine Comets flying in decades to come.

Still, at least it provided a chance for British high-tech equipment to be used – a bit of a boost for Blighty's industry?

Not so much. The planes' combat computer architecture was by Boeing. Their electronic-warfare fit was from Israel. Most of the MRA4's weapons were to be made in America. Its engines had "Rolls Royce" stamped proudly upon them, but were in fact made in Germany. The only British industry to get much of a boost from the project was that of restoring old aeroplanes.

So if we actually need or needed maritime patrol planes, we should definitely buy P-8s at a third of the upfront cost and much less than a third running cost (the P-8 is based on the 737 airliner, in service round the world in large numbers: parts for it will mostly be as cheap as chips).

The former generals and air-marshals quoted above think we definitely do need maritime-patrol planes. It's not a totally foolish point of view: patrol planes are probably a good bit more valuable than Tornado low-level-penetration bombers, which we have bizarrely decided to keep.

But you have to remember that what a maritime patrol plane is mainly for is hunting submarines. And in fact, predictions of disaster to the contrary, the British armed forces have an almost unbelievably large armoury of almost-brand-new submarine hunting kit remaining once Nimrod is gone.

Most of the Royal Navy's surface fleet right now is made up of Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, delivery of which completed only in 2002 – and these ships have since been expensively upgraded with low-frequency active sonar and other new tools since. The navy also has the latest Merlin anti-submarine helicopters, which have only been fully operational for a few years and which can also operate from land bases or fleet auxiliaries. Perhaps an even better answer than these to enemy submarines are our own fleet of nuclear powered fast-attack subs, even now being joined by the very latest and arse-kickingest Astute class boats. The RAF's long-ranging AWACS planes can also do much of the Nimrod's job.

When you also reflect that the Russian submarine fleet is now no more than a pale shadow of its mighty Cold War self, and even so it remains far and away the most dangerous non-allied sub force on the planet ... well. If our boys and girls can't stave off this much diminished threat with all the many, many billions of poundsworth of antisubmarine gear they still possess, that's a bloody poor show.

Hey, but hold on! The Nimrod also did load of other great stuff. Why, the BBC call it a "spy plane" – it was hard at work doing super top-secret stuff in the war against the Taliban.

This too is fallacy. A lot of the confusion results from the existence of the three seldom-mentioned Nimrod R1s, which actually were spy planes - they didn't carry subhunting kit like the mainstream Nimrod MR2s and new MRA4s, they were packed with electronic-intelligence gear. But they are to be replaced by US-made "Rivet Joint" planes: the MoD couldn't afford to pay British industry to import or reinvent all the Yanks' new trickery, and are very glad to simply buy it off the shelf.

But it's also true that the old Nimrod MR2s were flying above Afghanistan alongside the infinitely more useful R1s. The subhunter planes were typically employed on secret missions, too, perhaps adding to the media's understandable confusion.

But in fact the MR2s weren't doing anything which would justify the vast expense – in money and lives – of having them there. They were mainly relaying radio communications between units on the ground, which would otherwise struggle to get a signal past intervening mountains. A few of them had been fitted with basic optical spy-eye kit, allowing them to offer the same sort of observational capability as an enormously cheaper unmanned Hermes 450 (but not as good as an unmanned, still cheap Reaper, which also has man-tracker radar).

The secrecy regarding this work typically came from the fact that the Nimrods were acting in support of special-forces units - nothing more. But they were not doing anything or providing any help which couldn't have been supplied by much, much cheaper aircraft.

The only reason you would bother having Nimrods or something like them on the strength really is hunting submarines. And that task genuinely isn't very important right now: and we have a lot of other tools for the job anyway. If the world changes and submarines become a big issue again for some reason, we can easily buy some better, cheaper P-8s in years to come – the production line for those will be running for a good long time and prices will only fall.

And in the mean time we can applaud the MoD and the Tories – if not for the cretinous decision to order the Nimrod MRA4s in the first place (thanks, Michael Portillo), if not for the myriad things they got wrong in the recent defence review – then at least for axing Nimrod now and saving us from having to pay for the most expensive vintage aircraft club in the world. ®

Bootnote

1Endeavour, the final Shuttle to be built, cost $1.7bn for 1990 delivery – equivalent to $2.79bn in today's money, or £1.75bn at today's rates.

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