The Nimrod Verdict: Bridging the RAF Capability Gap Reveals New Political Caveats

Contributor:  Laurent Rathborn
Posted:  02/14/2011  12:00:00 AM EST
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The Nimrod has been deployed with UK armed forces since 1969 as a maritime patrol and intelligence-gathering platform. Over its lifetime the aircraft has received numerous upgrades as its mission profile has changed. The latest round of upgrades, designated MRA4, has been cancelled as part of the UK Government’s Strategic Defence Review, part of a series of government cutbacks aimed at reducing public sector debt.
The loss of MRA4 
The platform will, of course, eventually be scrapped (as must happen to all military hardware), but the revamp to the MRA4 standard would have kept the aircraft in operation until well into this century.

First commissioned in 1992, cost and time overruns to the MRA4 project were quick to rear their heads. By the time the project had been scrapped in late 2010, it was £789 million over-budget and over nine years late. Incoming Secretary of Defence Dr Liam Fox, who commissioned the Strategic Defence Review, said of the project that "The idea that we ever allowed ourselves (the British Government) into a position where something that was originally Nimrod 2000 - where we ordered twenty-one, reduced to nine, spent £3.8bn and we still weren't close to getting the capability - is not to happen again." Scrapping began on the 26th of January 2011.

The loss of such a veteran aircraft has prompted outrage in the military community. Many officials and military personnel have spoken out against the scrappage as “perverse” and wasteful, as well as opening up a gap in the UK’s military capabilities. A letter sent to the Daily Telegraph on the issue was signed by six former defence chiefs, one of whom was Vice Air Marshall Tony Mason.
He explained to the BBC that "My concern was not just that this exceptionally important programme had been cancelled for good but the total absence of reference to this strategic gap in our defences." The letter stated that “Nimrod would have provided long-range maritime and overland reconnaissance, anti-submarine surveillance, air-sea rescue coordination and reconnaissance support to the Navy’s Trident submarines.”
Capability cum incapability
Claims of a lack of capability appear to be well-founded. Nimrod RC1 aircraft will terminate their service with the RAF in 2011, whereas the upgraded MRA4 is supposed to be replaced by Boeing RC-135 (V/W Rivet Joint specification) aircraft by 2014. This leaves a three-year gap, which has been temporarily plugged by an agreement between the RAF and the US Air Force to operate the RC-135 jointly in the meantime.
This, in turn, has been met with scepticism. “I am incandescent with rage that we are even considering ditching what is a world-class, ‘gold standard’, war-winning capability in the name of economy and the dubious claimed benefits of greater interoperability with the USAF,” commented an RAF insider to The Times on Wednesday.

RC-135 aircraft shared with the RAF are expected to have American crew components and some manner of US oversight. Practically, this has a number of implications. Oversight of the use of shared Rivet Joint aircraft in the lease phase means that their use is politically constrained. This is not currently expected to be a serious problem due to both the UK and the USA having Iraq and Afghanistan as current highest-priority military campaigns, but has ruffled feathers at the RAF due to both cost and capability concerns. “Very, very short-sighted and very cheap,” was the verdict given on the replacement strategy.

On the other side of the coin, the lease phase of the replacement programme means that RAF crews can begin training a minimum of three years before their own aircraft become operational. It is not known whether current Nimrod crews will be retrained or new crews trained up, but the former would seem to be the easiest and most cost-effective solution in a time of cutbacks.
The biggest question is whether or not the replacement aircraft will be ready in time; having seen what happened to the Nimrod upgrade programme, some commentators are concerned that a replacement programme may run into the same technical and logistical problems as before.
Can RC-135 answer the call?
Other criticisms of the scrappage/replacement programme have centred on the RC-135’s capabilities. It is incompatible with the RAF’s current refuelling tanker fleet, so is unable to be refuelled in mid-air - unless US aircraft step in. Other concerns have been raised about the sophistication of the aircraft’s SIGINT systems; some claim that upgraded systems, coded project HELIX, due for the MRA4 were more advanced than those destined for replacement British RC-135 units. This means a net capability loss at a technological level, with Rivet Joint units being described as “...not as capable overall, in all areas of the radio frequency spectrum,” by one RAF officer.

The scrappage of the RAF’s Nimrod fleet goes further than simple loss and replacement of aircraft. Military personnel and defence commentators alike are unhappy with the related closures of RAF Kinloss in Scotland and the planned decommissioning of the BAE Systems technical plants at Woodford and Oldham, where the MRA4 was being built. Hundreds of jobs are expected to be lost, but BAE staff is not yet sure of when the closures are expected to go ahead. John Fussey of Unite, which has many BAE members, commented that "We don't know yet (about closures). We've got to discuss with the company what happens.”

Scrapping Nimrod as a platform means that the RAF will have to live with curtailed capabilities, but observers are split about whether the cuts are necessary. Had the original upgrade programme been on time, or at least on budget, Nimrod might not have been singled out for cuts in the first place. That the RAF is left with a politically driven rather than a needs driven solution which diminishes its effectiveness is testament to the lengths that the coalition government is prepared to go to in order to reduce military spending. The interim RC-135 programme is also a political compromise, accepting openly that US defence policy to some extent drives UK procurement, especially when domestic solutions to requirements cannot meet budget and planning constraints. 
Laurent Rathborn Contributor:   Laurent Rathborn

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