Antique Nimrod subhunters scrapped – THANK GOODNESS!
World's biggest vintage aircraft club finally shut down
Comment The UK press is bursting with indignation today as the process of scrapping the Nimrod MRA4 submarine-hunting aircraft begins. But in fact the four planes now being broken up were a financial and engineering disaster. Had they gone into service they would have become a terrible, cripplingly expensive millstone around the neck of the Ministry of Defence. We are much, much better off without them.
This plane cost us more than two Space Shuttles – and would have cost a lot, lot more if we'd kept it.
Certainly not everyone agrees. We can forget leader-writers fulminating idiotically about Russian submarines and world-beating British engineering: some more serious people have entered the fray. A group of former senior officers writes to the nation that "a massive gap in British security has opened".
But one should note that the signatories – including the air marshals one would naturally expect to find condemning cuts to the RAF, but also the admiral and general who won the Falklands war – don't actually state that they think the Nimrod itself should have been saved. They write:
The vulnerability of sea lanes, unpredictable overseas crises and traditional surface and submarine opposition will continue to demand versatile, responsive aircraft ...
Other countries are actually seeking to reinforce their maritime patrol capacity, with the new Boeing 737 P8A a strong contender ...
It is not perverse to suggest that the gap left by broken Nimrods should be readdressed.
What the ex-brasshats are bemoaning is the UK's loss of long-range maritime patrol aircraft in general, not the Nimrod MRA4 in particular. They're wise to draw this distinction, as the MRA4 project has now achieved the unwelcome distinction of producing the most expensive aircraft ever made: with a reported £4.1bn spent, just one is airworthy.
By comparison, a new Space Shuttle would cost about £1.75bn at current rates if it were built today1. Even the staggeringly expensive B-2 nuclear Stealth bombers only cost £1.3bn apiece.
Our sole flying Nimrod MRA4 (pictured above) has wound up costing us no less than £4.1bn – and it is not even a new aircraft. All the MRA4s are refurbished and re-equipped Nimrod MR2s, which had already been purchased by the RAF long ago at inflated prices.
Even if the project had continued as planned, we would have received just nine refurbished Nimrods in total for our £4bn-odd – each of them would have cost almost half a billion pounds plus what was paid for it in the first place. One should note that this would have represented a more-than-quadrupling of the original "fixed price" agreed per plane by the last Tory government when it kicked off the programme back in the 1990s. Given the project's disastrous history of cost and time overruns, there's no reason to believe than the latest estimates would be any more accurate that the ones which preceded them - we'd probably have wound up spending at least the purchase price of a new fleet of NASA space shuttles to get our nine antisubmarine planes.
The air marshals and generals do well to mention the Boeing P-8, as it shows what an antisubmarine plane of the Nimrod type ought to cost: India is buying P-8s for £160m each at the moment, well under one-third of what we were set to pay for our MRA4s. And the P-8, using sensors, computers and so on selected recently rather than back in the 1990s will be much more capable as well.
"These planes [the Nimrods] are no longer state of the art. Cheaper alternatives are emerging," says Keith Hayward, head of research at the Royal Aeronautical Society, talking to the BBC.
And make no mistake, scrapping the Nimrods will save money – a lot of money. Support and maintenance of a normal military aircraft can be expected to cost two to three times the acquisition price over its service life – and the Nimrod was far from normal.
In fact, the MRA4s would have been the last nine De Havilland Comet airliner airframes left flying in the world. The Comet, designed in the 1940s, failed commercially and went out of airline service many decades ago – and since then large aircraft have no longer been made in the UK.
The Nimrod/Comet is so old that it belongs to a lost era of manufacturing: this is the main reason why the MRA4 project was so horrifically late and over budget. The planes supplied for upgrading by the RAF had significant differences in size and shape – they had been essentially coach-built, bodged together with the blueprints used more as a guide than followed with any accuracy in the modern sense. Trying to rebuild, re-equip and re-engine them, with no real idea what the physical dimensions and internal layout of any given plane actually were, was a technical nightmare.
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. ®
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.