Millions wasted on jet's update

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Chief Reporter

The Ministry of Defence has wasted tens of millions of pounds on a project to upgrade Britain's Tornado fighter-bombers, say senior RAF sources involved in aircraft research.

A split has developed within the air force over the handling of the pounds 856m British Aerospace upgrade, which is running more than five years late and pounds 300m over budget. Pilots and technicians working with the MoD's Defence and Evaluation Research Agency (DERA) believe they could have completed the project years ago at a fraction of the cost. They are already flying their prototype, Night Fox, which was designed and in the air within 30 months.

RAF and DERA sources made their claims as pilots reacted to revelations in The Independent last week of shortages of engines and spare parts for Tornado F3s, Britain's front line air defence. One squadron leader said he believed the RAF was in danger of becoming a "Third World air force".

BAe said yesterday that its role in the programme to update 142 Tornado GR1s to GR4 standard was on time and on cost. However, the project as a whole, to install sophisticated navigation and laser-guided smart-weapons systems, is massively overspent and lamentably late because of defence cuts and changes in specifications.

The in-service date for the first aircraft is now mid-1998 - it should have been 1993. The last upgrade will not be completed until 2002.

Some RAF officers and DERA technicians believe the agency should be given control over future projects to save money. At the request of the MoD, the DERA has converted a Tornado to GR4 standard and is demonstrating its capabilities to other pilots who will not take delivery of the upgraded GR1 for two years. It lacks some of the elements commissioned on the BAe version - at the MoD's request - but it was completed cheaply and on time.

"The pilots love it, until they find out it has some controls they won't get," said one RAF source. A senior DERA source said it could not be compared with the version the RAF will eventually receive but he confirmed it had more sophisticated hand controls, enabling the pilot to perform more functions.

RAF sources who believe the DERA should be given design control of future programmes point to a much smaller project completed last year in which an upgrade of Jaguar aircraft used a cross between in-house expertise and outside defence contractors.

The project, UOR41/94, involved installing sophisticated navigation and laser-guided smart-weapons systems into 12 Jaguar GR1 fighters at Boscombe Down, in Wiltshire, and at the RAF engineering depot at St Athan, in Wales.

It was completed between July 1994 and July 1995 at an average cost of pounds 1m per aircraft. When Britain's remaining 48 Jaguars are upgraded, as expected, the average cost will fall to about pounds 500,000 per aircraft, or pounds 30m for all 60.

The MoD and BAe argue that the projects cannot be compared because the aircraft are different. However, RAF sources say that although the Tornado upgrade differs in some ways, it is not so radically different as to justify the cost of almost pounds 900m for 142 aircraft compared with pounds 30m for 60. Peter Tanner, head of the DERA Jaguar project, refuses to make comparisons. However, he admitted there was a comparable level of technical integration.

The Independent has obtained details of an MoD briefing note dated September 1995 in which the specifications for the Tornado upgrade are spelled out. There are nine items on the Tornado shopping list; seven were also included in the Jaguar upgrade.

Excluded from the Tornado list is terrain referenced navigation (TRN) systems which were withdrawn from the Tornado upgrade on grounds of cost. A 1993 National Audit Office report said thiswould save pounds 60m across 142 aircraft. Yet the cost of installing a simplified system in 60 Jaguars will be pounds 3m. "When we show Tornado pilots what we have done to the Jaguar, they are usually astonished, then furious," said a source involved in the project.

The MoD said last week that it was now examining the possibility of including TRN in the Tornado upgrade but said it was wrong to make comparisons between that upgrade and the Jaguar's.