|The Nimrod MRA4 production line yesterday|
The first version of the Nimrod, the MR1, was originally developed in 1964 when the deHavilland Comet 4 was getting on a little as an airliner design, but still reasonable to use as the base of a military aircraft. Unfortunately the MR1's radar was quickly outdated, especially as this was during the Cold War when the search for Soviet subs was vital to defence. So, they spent a lot of money upgrading everything in the mid-seventies to create the MR2 from the original airframes of the MR1s.
The MR2 proved itself to be a very successful, if expensive, maritime patrol aircraft; providing capabilities that were still largely unsurpassed when it left service.
In the Seventies eleven airframes were also taken out of service to (try to) create the Nimrod AWACS - quite possibly the biggest, most spinniest, bow-tie-iest extravaganza of all and a plane that never actually entered service.
Cake and Arse Party, Bring Your Own Spoon
Eventually though, the MR2 got a bit elderly and the engines were on their last legs, so a programme was announced to replace it. After four years of looking at every available plane on the market, what did the MOD decide on? That's right, the BAe Systems option - rebuild the Nimrod again!
Basically, the intention of the MRA4 was to take an airframe that was designed in the Forties and built in the early Sixties and has been extensively refitted twice already, and shoehorn brand new avionics, wings, engines and radar into it. Five new heads and two new handles...
The order for these upgrades was placed in 1996, allowing a generous 7 years to bring it into service by 2003.
Unfortunately, owing to the way aircraft were built in the Fifties & Sixties and the huge amount of modifications carried out over the years, the airframes bear little resemblance to the blueprints that BAe Systems had used to design the modifications. The position of the wings, for instance, varied by up to a foot from one airframe to another.
In the end they had to hand the whole thing over to the guys at the former Hawker Siddley/Avro facility at Woodford Aerodrome who'd built it in the first place.
The original order for the original Nimrod was for 40+ aircraft, 21 were planned to be converted to MRA4 spec. Presumably this was deemed a useful number of Nimrods to have: this was reduced to no more than nine (9!) MRA4s being delivered at around £400,000,000 each, which was a lot of money when I was a kid.
Mind The Gap
For budgetary reasons the MR2s were retired in March 2010. This was before the first finished MRA4 had even been painted, never mind fully tested and the crews trained up! Apparently the resulting massive gap in Britain's defence can be temporarily covered by that renowned (and underutilised) ASW aircraft the Hercules.
The MRA4 was scheduled to finally enter service in 2012 although that could easily have been delayed (2013? 2014? 2525?) It was however undoubtedly going to be very good. At finding Soviet subs. D'oh!
This Is The End, My Only Friend, The End...
Following the 2010 Rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic the decision was made to cancel the MRA4 entirely, before it entered service. It's deja vu all over again.
This means that the nine pretty-much-finished planes are being scrapped at the cost of £4.1bn of taxpayer's money to save on the cost of operating them. This scrapping commenced on 26 January 2011 and included £200 million pounds of compensation to BAe Systems (!!!) for early cancellation of the contract.
What a great use of public money all round, well done everyone who had a hand in this almighty... ...words are starting to fail me... ...I need to go and lie down in a darkened room...
The above gap and its "temporary" fix will therefore continue until we've got some money again, at which point they'll undoubtedly come up with another vastly expensive merry-go-round to create a new maritime reconnaissance aircraft - how about using a BAC 1-11 this time? Or a rebuild of the Shackleton? Maybe a completely rebuilt ASW version of the Hindenburg? Or perhaps (perish the thought) buying into the Yanks' P-8 program, which looks close to putting a finished aircraft into service. Of course, if we did buy the P8, we'd just have to have our own variant built under license by BAe Systems at further enormous expense.
The Nimrod MRA4's land-based relative, the R1, was due to be retired in March 2011, but has been kept going to support the ongoing goings-on in Libya. They will, however, be put out to grass soon to be replaced by three Boeing RC-135s at a cost of about a billion pounds, not much of which will be spent on this side of the Atlantic. This money will (possibly) be raised by the entire cabinet crossing their fingers and wishing very hard, or by David Cameron finding what his predecessors buried in the back garden of No. 10.
By the way, if any foreigners are reading this and are planning on attacking us by sea, please avoid disappointment by remembering to make an appointment first - thanks (please take a ticket from the dispenser near Jutland and wait until your number appears on the board).