How cost of Tornado project rose to pounds 850m

Defence cuts, bureaucracy and specification changes led to five- year delay. Steve Boggan reports
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The Independent Online
"This is more than the total sum of all the incompetencies and errors that I have come across in the five years I have been on this committee ... We are getting to a stage where accountability is almost meaningless."

That is how Alan Williams, a Labour member of the powerful Public Accounts Committee, described overspending on a Ministry of Defence project to update the RAF's ageing fleet of Tornado GR1 fighter-bombers.

The man to whom he was speaking, at a hearing in June 1994, was Dr Malcolm McIntosh, the MoD's Chief of Defence Procurement, and the incompetence to which he was referring was the anticipated increase in the cost of the project by pounds 267m. Since then, the cost has increased by at least pounds 50m - to more than pounds 850m - and the delivery date of the first upgraded Tornado has fallen back by more than five years.

The Tornado mid-life update (MLU) has been a constant source of bewilderment among Tornado pilots since its conception in 1989. It was to have provided Britain's ground attack Tornado GR1s with up-to-date navigation and smart weapons systems and it would have replaced what some pilots have described as "1960s technology" with equipment good enough to see the aircraft well into the next century.

But defence cuts, cumbersome procurement bureaucracy and repeated changes in specifications - developments often beyond the control of BAe - led to delay after delay. To date, not one of the 142 GR1s in the scheme has been delivered.

Meanwhile, Jaguar pilots, long considered the Tornados' poor relatives, have been flying similarly advanced technology for more than a year because of a successful DERA-controlled project last year to update Jaguars at a fraction of the Tornado costs.

After the Gulf War, in which thermal imaging airborne laser designation (TIALD) systems were used to guide smart weapons to targets, the MoD decided that Jaguars overflying Bosnia ought to be given the system as a matter of urgency. This was seen as an enormously difficult task because the Jaguar is a one-man aircraft, whereas the Tornado has a two-man crew.

The MoD and BAe argue that the two projects can't be compared because the aircraft are different; because the Tornado is more sophisticated, integrating the systems is more complex and costly.

A BAe spokesman said the Jaguar project also benefitted because it used "off the shelf" technology developed for the Tornado programme by BAe.

However, one senior RAF source who evaluated the Jaguar upgrade said: "That's true to a certain extent, but if the technology is already on the shelf, how come the DERA team managed to pull it off the shelf and get it into the aircraft while the Tornado team were still talking about it?"

Peter Tanner, the head of the DERA's Jaguar project, said: "In a way, we developed the system first, and then gave the manufacturers their specifications afterwards."He refuses to criticise the Tornado upgrade, the lengthy procurement process or BAe's involvement but when asked whether DERA could have improved on it, he replied: "Yes. I don't think anyone could expect us to do on the Tornado what we did on the Jaguar, but that is not to say we could not have done it quicker and cheaper."

The MoD says comparisons should not be made, but that serves only to annoy pilots. One senior pilot who has flown both aircraft said: "The equipment in the Jaguar is the stuff we have been waiting for for years. We are sick of hearing about procurement civil servants at Whitehall making careers out of dragging on projects when there are people out there who can get the job done.

"We still have great pilots and ground crew, but we're in danger of becoming a Third World air force. At the moment, engines for the Tornado F3 are in very short supply. Recently, two F3's collided and we heard about it in the mess. The usual reaction is to ask whether the pilots ejected safely. This time, someone said: `Did the engines get out ok?' He regretted what he said immediately. But we all knew what he meant."