Cost Cuts Led to 2006 RAF Nimrod Crash In Afghanistan

Cost Cuts Led to British Jet Crash, Study Says

Published: October 28, 2009

LONDON — An inquiry into an air crash that caused the British forces’ worst loss of life in decades concluded Wednesday that corner-cutting on safety led to the fiery explosion of a Nimrod surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan in 2006 that killed all 14 crewmen aboard.

The report was severely critical of the Defense Ministry, the Royal Air Force and two of Britain’s largest defense contractors, BAE Systems and QinetiQ, for failing to correct longstanding design flaws in the Nimrod aircraft. A variant of the Comet, a British-built aircraft that became the world’s first jetliner in the early 1950s, the Nimrod was built for an antisubmarine role but has been used in Afghanistan and Iraq for patrolling over battle zones and aiding communications among ground troops.

Reaffirming the findings of earlier inquiries, the latest review concluded that midair refueling had put fuel aboard the Nimrod in contact with a hot-air duct while the aircraft was patrolling at high altitude over southern Afghanistan, causing it to catch fire and plunge to the desert near Kandahar.

But the aviation law specialist appointed by the government to conduct the inquiry, Charles Haddon-Cave, went beyond previous reviews by using his 582-page report to deliver a scathing indictment of the defense policy of the Labour government. His principal conclusion was that cost-saving measures instituted after a defense review in 1998, the year after the Labour Party came to power in the first of three successive general election victories, were at the root of the crash.

The report said the 1998 defense review had introduced “a shift in culture and priorities” in the armed forces, substituting “business and financial targets” for “functional values such as safety and airworthiness.” The report quoted one senior Royal Air Force officer as having told the inquiry that while concern for air safety had been a major criterion for promotion up to the 1990s, under Labour policy “you had to be on top of your budget if you wanted to get ahead.”

The report’s conclusions made headline news in Britain, compounding a controversy over Labour’s defense spending that has contributed to the plunge in the party’s popularity before a general election expected in May. The Conservatives, with a double-digit lead in the polls, have accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of underfinancing Britain’s forces during a decade in which they have had major combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The inquiry also showed that the R.A.F., BAE Systems and QinetiQ, as well as the Defense Ministry, had been aware for years of the fire risk to the aircraft after midair refueling, but had failed to take effective steps to eliminate it.

The report identified 10 individuals as sharing responsibility for the failure, including a general and an air marshal, and five officials working for the defense contractors. And it described as “lamentable” a safety review that the Defense Ministry and the contractors conducted a year before the Nimrod crash. That safety review, the report said, was “a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism.”

The report concluded that the changed priorities from the 1998 defense review had led to a “systemic breach” in the “sacred and unbreakable duty of care” that Britain’s armed forces owed to its service members. That prompted a quick apology in the House of Commons from the defense minister, Bob Ainsworth. “We failed,” he said. “Nothing can bring back these 14 men,” he said, adding, “I will do everything in my power to prevent anything like this happening again.”

Although Britain’s last combat forces withdrew from Iraq this summer, the country has more than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, where 223 British service members have died. The Conservatives, calling Britain’s $60 billion defense budget inadequate for the demands, have forced a number of recent defense policy reversals on Mr. Brown, including an announcement on Wednesday that he was scrapping a $33 million cut in the training budget for military reservists that he announced only last week.

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