MoD cost-cutting blamed for Nimrod deaths

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The Independent Online

The Ministry of Defence was accused today of sacrificing safety in order to cut costs in a devastating report into the crash of a RAF Nimrod spy plane with the loss of all 14 servicemen on board.

Charles Haddon-Cave QC found the loss of Nimrod MR2 over Afghanistan in September 2006 had occurred because of a "systemic breach" of the military covenant.

He said financial cuts within the MoD in the wake of the 1998 strategic defence review had resulted in a "cascade" of organisation changes which had led to "a dilution of the airworthiness regime and culture with the MoD".

And he described a safety review of the ageing Nimrod MR2 carried out by the MoD in conjunction with BAE Systems and QinetiQ as a "lamentable job" which failed to identify "key dangers".

"Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism. The best opportunity to prevent the accident to XV230 was tragically lost," he said.

Mr Haddon-Cave concluded: "In my view, XV230 was lost because of a systemic breach of the military covenant brought about by significant failures on the part of all those involved.

"This must not be allowed to happen again."

Mr Haddon-Cave condemned the change of organisational culture within the MoD between 1998 and 2006, when financial targets came to distract from safety.

He quoted a former senior RAF officer who told his inquiry: "There was no doubt that the culture of the time had switched.

"In the days of the RAF chief engineer in the 1990s, you had to be on top of airworthiness.

"By 2004 you had to be on top of your budget if you wanted to get ahead."

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth told the Commons that he accepted the review's findings and would be publishing the MoD's detailed response before Parliament breaks for Christmas.

"I am sorry for the mistakes that have been made, and that lives have been lost as a result of our failure," he said.

He said that two officers still serving with the RAF who were severely criticised in the report had been moved to other posts where they had no responsibility for safety or airworthiness.

The RAF would now consider what further action they should face in the light of the report's findings.

An RAF Board of Inquiry had previously concluded that the crash had occurred shortly after air-to-air refuelling when fuel leaked onto a hot air pipe.

In his report, Mr Haddon-Cave was critical of both the culture within the MoD - which had produced a military airworthiness system that was "not fit for purpose - and of the "safety case" that was carried out on the MR2 in between 2001 to 2005.

He said that the MoD had suffered a period of "deep organisational trauma" in the wake of the 1998 strategic defence review.

"Financial pressures and cuts drove a cascade of of multifarious organisational changes which led to a dilution of the airworthiness regime and culture within the MoD, and distraction from safety and airworthiness issues as the top priority," he said.

"There was a shift in culture and priorities in the MoD towards 'business' and financial targets, at the expense of functional values such as safety and airworthiness."

Mr Haddon-Cave singled out BAE Systems for criticism for its work on the safety case, saying that it bore "substantial responsibility" for its failure.

The first two phases of the review were "poorly planned, poorly managed and poorly executed", work was rushed and corners were cut, he said, raising question marks about the "prevailing ethical culture" at the company.

Mr Haddon-Cave also said defence firm QinetiQ bore a "share of responsibility" said that it had been "fundamentally lax and compliant" in carrying out its role as independent adviser to the MoD's Nimrod integrated project team (IPT).

Within the IPT, he said that project management had been delegated to a relatively junior person "without adequate oversight or supervision".

Mr Haddon-Cave said that the IPT had been "sloppy and complacent" and had assessed the outstanding fire risks to the Nimrod MR2 on a "manifestly inadequate, flawed and unrealistic basis."

Among the senior official criticised in the report were General Sir Sam Cowan, Chief of Defence Logistics from 1999 to 2002, and his successor, Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger.

Mr Haddon-Cave said three individuals at the MoD - the IPT leader Air Commodore George Barber, the head of Air Vehicle Wing Commander Michael Eagles, and safety manager Frank Walsh - shared responsibility for the failure of the IPT.

He named three senior BAE managers - Chris Lowe, Richard Oldfield, and Eric Prince - who he said bore "primary responsibility" for the company's failings in relation to the safety case.

He also criticised two named managers at QinetiQ - Martin Mahy and Colin Blagrove.

Overall, Mr Haddon-Cave said many of the organisational causes for the loss of XV230 echoed other major accident cases including the loss of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the sinking of the Marchioness and the King's Cross fire.

BAE said in a statement that it would support the MoD in implementing the review's recommendations.

"The circumstances surrounding the tragic loss of this aircraft and its crew whilst on active duty are such that the cause of the accident will never finally be determined," the statement said.

"Following receipt of the report today, the company will consider and assess how best to support the MoD in the implementation of the recommendations for improving processes to further enhance the operational safety of aircraft in military use."

QinetiQ said it had cooperated "fully and frankly" with the review.

"We recognise that QinetiQ is included within some of the criticisms made in the Review's report," a spokesman said.

"Given the breadth and depth of Mr Haddon-Cave's report, QinetiQ wishes to take time to digest the report fully before making any detailed response. We want to emphasise that QinetiQ will seek to learn from all that the report says."