MPs blame 'fatal' defence cuts for air disasters

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Chief Political Correspondent

Fears that cuts in defence spending may be partly to blame for the string of crashes by RAF aircraft are to be raised with ministers by senior Conservative MPs.

Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, will face protests about the losses at defence questions in the Commons next Tuesday, amid growing concern that the cuts are overstretching the armed forces.

The crash of an RAF Tornado in Germany on Monday - the ninth jet to be lost by Britain's armed forces this year - led to deep unrest among Conservative MPs. Some senior Tories said the cuts in defence spending are putting lives at risk, and are proving a false economy.

The latest Tornado GR1 to crash was based at RAF Bruggen, near the Dutch border, and cost an estimated pounds 20m. Keith Mans, chairman of the Tory back-bench defence committee, wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence last year to warn about the risks to the armed forces from the cuts, and will be seeking assurances that safety will be reinforced.

Mr Mans has told colleagues he believes the crashes appear to be linked to the cuts. A former RAF Vulcan bomber pilot, Mr Mans has evidence from RAF contacts that pilots are getting less-regular flying training to save money on flights; spare parts are in short supply; and ground crews are working longer hours.

His intervention will reinforce Labour demands for a full inquiry by David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, into the crashes. The Ministry of Defence has insisted there is no common factor in the accidents.

A warning that the RAF was being overstretched with peace-keeping operations in Iraq and Bosnia was given in May last year by the cross-party Commons select committee on defence. "We are disturbed at the extent to which decisions on UK participation in military operations are henceforth to be distorted by the availability of scarce resources," it said.

The RAF has lost seven jets: four Tornadoes, a Jaguar, a Harrier and a Hawk; the Royal Navy lost a Sea Harrier last week near Taunton, killing two servicemen, and a Navy Sea Harrier crashed in the Adriatic earlier this month following a mission over Bosnia.

The combined cost of the losses in equipment alone is estimated at pounds 190m. The losses for the first two months of 1996 are equivalent to the losses for the whole of 1994. There were seven losses in 1993 and 10 planes were lost in 1995.

Mr Clark said the MoD had cut defence spending by about 30 per cent despite increasing the commitments of the armed forces. Air accident inquiries have been launched into each of the crashes, but the MoD said yesterday it is too early to know whether there is a "common thread" in the accidents.

The report on the first crash this year is about to be studied by the MoD, and a spokesman said an overall picture would not emerge until all the air-accident investigations had been completed. It would include exhaustive checks on maintenance records, pilot training, and issues such as overstretching.

There was scepticism in the MoD that cash shortages were to blame for the crashes. A spokesman said: "How can they know? The Tornado might have gone down as a result of a bird strike."