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RAF offers to cancel Nimrod MRA.4 programme as part of defence cuts
Tim Ripley JDW Correspondent

UK Royal Air Force (RAF) chiefs have offered to cancel the GBP3.65 billion (USD5.57 billion) BAE Systems Nimrod MRA.4 programme just weeks before the first production aircraft are due to be delivered to the service.

The offer, made in the RAF submission to Phase 2 of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) earlier this month, also includes the early retirement within five years of all of the service's Panavia Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft and the closure of three main operating air bases.

It is hoped these cuts would allow the RAF to reduce its payroll by 5,000 personnel and cancel long-term support contracts with BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce worth in excess of GBP3 billion, according to UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials involved in the SDSR process. Hundreds of millions of pounds would also be saved by reduced aircrew and groundcrew training requirements for the slimmed-down RAF.

The Nimrod cut would not save significant amounts of money from the GBP3.65 billion procurement costs of the aircraft because almost all of this amount has been spent, except for around GBP200 million to cover the final delivery of the nine aircraft during the next two years. Possible future savings include up to GBP50 million a year on maintenance and support costs, as well as GBP100 million in the annual salary costs of 1,800 military and 300 civilian staff at RAF Kinloss in Northeast Scotland, the proposed Nimrod MRA.4 main operating base.

RAF personnel involved in the Nimrod MRA.4 programme have told Jane's that the project has been "on borrowed time" since last December, when then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth ordered a two-year delay to the aircraft's initial operating capability being declared. Since then, the scheduled arrival of the first MRA.4 at RAF Kinloss has slipped from the proposed July target to September. The GBP18 million interim support contract to sustain the much reduced flying programme over the next two years is being run on a month-by-month approval basis, a ministry spokeswoman told Jane's .

The accelerated run-down of the Tornado GR.4 force of 130 aircraft would aim to save nearly GBP1.5 billion in support and personnel costs, as well as allowing the cancellation of the future upgrade and Mid-Life Fatigue Progamme (MLFP), expected to cost between GBP500 million and GBP1 billion, to see the fleet through to its original 2025 out-of-service date.

Other savings proposed include scrapping plans for the opening of a second Eurofighter Typhoon base at RAF Leuchars in Fife, Scotland, and the closure of RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to allow the relocation of the Red Arrows air display team.

The proposals are part of a series of detailed studies or workstrands of capabilities, structures and risks made by the RAF's Air Staff and are in the process of being used as the basis of recommendations for provisional ministerial approval.

Once this is achieved, the MoD central staff is to hold what is called a Military Judgement Panel to produce a costed force structure based on these decisions, with a risk assessment against the policy baseline. This is expected to be completed by the early autumn and will be followed by the final ministerial and National Security Council decisions and announcements, with formal implementation thereafter.

Wing Commander Andrew Brookes, director of aerospace campaign group the Air League, told Jane's there was a possibility the Royal Navy may defeat the RAF's Nimrod MRA.4 proposal when it comes to the next stage of the SDSR process because of the contribution the Nimrod forces could make to maritime operations, particularly protecting the submarines constituting the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. "It is cunning to offer up MRA.4 because the Royal Navy will be morally bound to support the RAF case," said Brookes. "Retiring the [Tornado] GR.4 in five years is to be expected because the aircraft will be pretty time-expired long before their nominal end-of-service date."

An MOD spokesperson told Jane's that "the future configuration of our armed forces will be based on the findings of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which is under way. Final decisions will depend on the outcome of the SDSR and discussions with the service chiefs".

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