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Nimrod U-turn blunder set to cost UK hundreds of millions

THE UK Government is considering plans to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a replacement for the Nimrod spy planes that were axed last year.

The Sunday Herald understands the Ministry Of Defence may buy Boeing P-8s from America to solve the capability gap left by the cancellation of the Nimrods – a move that has already cost the country billions.

SNP MP Angus Robertson accused the MoD of presiding over a “cack-handed” defence policy.

MoD officials are discussing the move following the decision in the Strategic Defence And Spending Review to scrap nine Nimrod MR4 surveillance aircraft.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox pulled the plug on the £4 billion procurement deal after the project ran over budget and fell behind schedule. Private contractors for the MoD have since started the dismantling job at the BAE Systems site in Stockport, Lancashire.

However, the decision caused fury because it effectively spelled the end for the RAF base at Kinloss.

It also provoked elements of the defence establishment to claim that scrapping the Nimrods left a hole in the UK’s national security.

Nimrods can carry out a variety of duties, the most important being the protection of the UK’s Trident nuclear submarine fleet and the interception and destruction of enemy submarines. The aircraft’s range and flying capabilities also give it a vital role in air-sea rescue operations. It can also be deployed as a communications aircraft in support of operations by special forces.

The cancellation of the Nimrods means the UK has no maritime patrol aircraft which, critics believe, leaves the country at risk.

A joint letter condemning the decision was recently signed by former senior officers, including Lord Craig, Gulf War commander Major General Patrick Cordingley, Falklands naval task force commander Admiral Sir John Woodward, and Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason.

They wrote: “Machine tools have been destroyed; several millions of pounds have been saved but a massive gap in British security has opened.

“Vulnerability of sea lanes, unpredictable overseas crises and traditional surface and submarine opposition will continue to demand versatile responsive aircraft.

“Nimrod would have continued to provide long-range maritime and overland reconnaissance ... and perhaps most importantly, reconnaissance support to the Navy’s Trident submarines.”

The Sunday Herald has now learned, however, that the Ministry Of Defence is considering buying replacement aircraft, despite spending billions on the ill-fated Nimrod project,

A briefing at RAF Kinloss at the end of May asked pilots and sonar operators to volunteer to test Boeing P-8s in America. We understand the MoD may be looking at buying five of the aircraft.

The P-8 specialises in conducting anti-submarine warfare and can perform some of the functions of the Nimrod.

Last year, the Indian Ministry Of Defence signed an agreement to buy eight P-8s at a cost of $2.1 billion.

The P-8 is also due to go into service with the US Navy, which has ordered 117 models.

However, supporters of RAF Kinloss said that even if the new P-8s were bought the arrival of the planes would not be enough to save the base. They also fear the planes will go to an RAF base in England.

MPs on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee are expected to ask Fox about the P-8 issue at an evidence session this week.

Fox, a Scot who represents an English constituency, has conceded scrapping the Nimrods incurs a “calculated risk”.

In a leaked letter to the Prime Minister, Fox made clear his private misgivings about having to axe the spy planes.

“Deletion of the Nimrod MR4 will limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly into high-threat areas, increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime CT (counter terrorism), remove long-range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan,” he wrote.

The SNP’S Angus Robertson said: “People will rightly ask themselves why the taxpayer has been shelling out nearly £4bn on the excellent Nimrod aircraft, only to see them scrapped and then replaced at extra cost.

“Clearly, the maritime reconaissance capability is essential, but the way Whitehall has gone about this is totally cack-handed.”

Jim Murphy, Labour shadow defence secretary, said: “The Government’s rushed defence review left gaps in our military capability and holes in the defence budget.

“People will be staggered that the Government is considering spending millions of taxpayers’ pounds on replacing Nimrod just months after the programme was axed, a decision which itself cost millions.”

The MoD did not comment.

l Leader comment: page 34

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