April 18, 2024


8:19PM GMT 27 Jan 2011

 There can be few images more damaging to defence planning than bulldozers cutting off the wings of a new, hi-tech aircraft just a year before it was due to go into service. The Nimrod Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft (the MRA4) has become a classic in the annals of defence controversy. The programme is £800 million over budget, nine years late, and has now been cancelled in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), in order to save around £2 billion over the next decade.

Three of the nine planned Nimrod aircraft have so far been constructed; costing around half a billion a copy to build, and worth about £1 billion each in service. Scrapping the project will, in itself, cost around £200 million. As they say in the US, “a couple of billion here and there and pretty soon you are talking about serious money”.

Nobody emerges from all of this with much credit; not the Ministry of Defence, not the Royal Air Force, nor the manufacturers. No wonder that the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, has said that this was genuinely one of the most difficult decisions the review had to take; nor that it has former defence chiefs and commanders rushing back into the trenches over it. Emotions are high and the planners are accused of rank stupidity over the Nimrods – “absolutely bonkers”, said one former commander yesterday.

The MoD and the military are not populated by stupid or dull people, but the logic of the UK’s current defence situation can nevertheless lead rational people into perverse decisions. And this one, more than most, is a matter of political, not military, judgment.

It is true, but not necessarily relevant, that the Nimrod programme and the Astute attack submarine programme have been the two acquisition horror stories in the MoD for a decade now. Astute has been restructured and rescued; Nimrod has been a prime candidate for cancellation since about 2006. The sorry story of the Nimrod MRA4 should be required reading for a new generation of defence officials, military planners and industrial executives, as a warning of how everything that might go wrong could somehow conspire to go wrong at the same time, on a single programme.

As the Prime Minister himself implied in Parliament when he launched the defence review, there was nothing but exasperation over Nimrod inside the MoD. It had already cost too much and a fleet of nine fully equipped aircraft was going to cost a lot more over the coming decade.

However, this is not a good reason in itself to cancel a programme that is nearly complete if it performs a role that the military desperately needs. This is where the real calculation comes in. The SDSR was undertaken in the midst of a financial crisis, a long-term reduction in government spending, and in a political atmosphere where there seems to be little public appetite to make defence a special case ahead of health, education or welfare. So military planners were involved in judging a series of calculated risks with our defence forces. Of course, there is lots of equipment and capability it would be good to have if circumstances were different. But they are not. So where are we prepared to take some risks over the capabilities we can downgrade and for how long?

This is the essence of the Nimrod calculation and everyone will have their own judgment on it. The scrapping of the MRA4 does not suddenly deprive the country of air and sea-based electronic reconnaissance. These functions can still be performed from existing ships, supplemented from land-based facilities and from a cheaper version of US off-the-shelf aircraft, such as new variants of the Orion P3, that we can buy during the coming decade. It’s an alternative; less good, more messy, more vulnerable. But it’s an alternative.

The Trident nuclear patrols can still be covered. Indeed, the existing MR2 maritime reconnaissance aircraft have not flown for almost a year so the country has already been improvising without the airborne electronic reconnaissance. The anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability is undoubtedly diminished severely, but ASW is not an immediate concern in any British operations and is not likely to be so for a few years yet.

The MRA4 might have played a big role in counter-piracy operations, but the truth about piracy is that the rich world – and in particular the maritime industry – really doesn’t care very much about the problem. It would be easy to control piracy if there were a genuine will to address it, but there isn’t; so the argument is a hollow one in the case of Nimrod. Of course, there is always the Olympics and the role that aerial reconnaissance will play in the security around that. But a three-week festival of sport is hardly a key argument for a major defence system.

There is a better argument for keeping all the necessary skills alive, both in industry and among the aircrews who operate maritime reconnaissance. There is some detailed forward planning to be done if other aircraft in this role are to be introduced some time later, though this is not much help in the immediate decision. Loss – or transfer – of skills is always one of the hidden costs of equipment cuts and governments have to keep faith in the ability of workers and military personnel to be adaptable.

The truth is that all the decisions in the defence review are based around a vision for UK forces in the year 2020. “Ten year rules” have had a bad press after the Thirties but that is, in effect, what defence planners are faced with. They have a general design for the forces in 2020, and though we have a somewhat eccentric force structure as a result of the review – aircraft carriers without aircraft for a while; Army-heavy forces while the Afghanistan operations continue; modern fast jets but an air transport fleet that is close to collapse – the plan is that these anomalies all spin out by 2020 and we arrive at a “balanced force structure” that will then be adaptable for the long-term future. So during that time, we will look for better ways of having the maritime reconnaissance we need for the operations we really expect – as opposed to those we only theoretically contemplate – and maybe buying a new, cheaper system that will be properly developed.

All this is possible, but the MoD also knows that this relatively rosy view rests on some heroic assumptions. One is that the combat role in Afghanistan really will come to an end around 2015 to allow some headroom for other priorities. Another is that the cheaper and not-so-cheerful alternatives remain operational and feasible over a decade and that international events do not spring a nasty surprise on our other capabilities performing in the maritime reconnaissance role.

That, of course, is what risk management is all about. Not least, the ability to get to “Force 2020” depends on a real-term increase in defence spending after 2015 in the order of 2 per cent a year – twice the level of real-term increased spending on defence during the past decade. And even getting to that will require defence to find another £1 billion or more a year from now to 2015, on top of the cuts announced in the defence review.

It’s a pretty daunting prospect. But that is the context for defence if Britain really wants to remain a significant player in global military terms. Of course, the MRA4 was a mess of a programme. Of course, it would be nice to clear it up and have it run ahead, like the Astute submarine programme. But “nice to have” is not now part of the “how much can we still afford?” dialogue inside the MoD. And the difference between the two dialogues is the space between 2011 and 2020; the assumptions we choose to make and the risks we are prepared to run. It’s going to be an edgy decade.

Professor Michael Clarke is Director of the Royal United Services Institute.