Fox defends decision to axe Nimrod

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Government ministers and military chiefs today defended the decision to scrap the RAF's Nimrod surveillance planes, after a group of retired senior officers warned it would leave a "massive gap" in Britain's security.

Labour accused the Government of a "rushed" decision to get rid of the £4 billion fleet on cost grounds as part of last year's strategic defence and security review (SDSR).

But Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the Nimrod MRA4 project was massively over-budget and 10 years overdue and the Government was not willing to "throw good money after bad".

And the current head of the armed forces, Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, said that ditching the project would save Britain £2 billion over the coming decade.

Both men denied that the loss of the nine planes would leave gaps in the UK's defence.

The planes were seen yesterday on a site owned by BAE Systems at Woodford in Stockport, with their cockpit windows taped up, close to an area sectioned off by tarpaulin sheets where it is believed they will be broken up.

With contractors preparing to strip the aircraft before they are dismantled for scrap, six ex-service chiefs including the former head of the armed forces Lord Craig signed an open letter to the Daily Telegraph warning of the dangers of the move.

"Several millions of pounds have been saved but a massive gap in British security has opened," they wrote.

"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 - including over the UK - anti-submarine surveillance, air-sea rescue co-ordination, and perhaps most importantly, reconnaissance support to the Navy's Trident submarines."

But Dr Fox said that the MRA4 had still not passed its flight tests, despite years in development, and more Government spending might be needed to deal with remaining problems with its airframe.

"There comes a point, when the country is facing the economic problems we have at the moment, that you stop throwing good money after bad," he told British Forces News.

"National security is not endangered. We must always take account of cost, but we take account of risk first.

"This is an aircraft that has not passed its flight test yet and they were not even sure they could resolve some of the technical difficulties.

"If there is a risk, then we need to ensure we can use other assets to protect the country, and not depend on something that has not been able to prove that it could actually work."

Dr Fox pointed out that the MRA4's predecessor, the Nimrod M2, was withdrawn from service last year by the previous Labour administration, and its tasks have since then been covered by other military units.

Gen Richards said the decision to cancel the new Nimrods was "not taken lightly" by ministers and service chiefs.

But he added: "This project was delayed and overspent and cancelling it will save £2 billion over 10 years.

"None of the nine aircraft was operational, only one was built and it had not passed flight tests.

"Since March last year, well before the SDSR, the Nimrod MR2 has not flown and we have been mitigating the impact with other military assets and by working with allies and partners where appropriate."

The MoD said that the tasks previously performed by Nimrod had been covered by Type 23 frigates, Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, as well as joint maritime patrols with allies.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "This was a rushed decision. We have repeatedly sought reassurances from the Tory-led Government that they had properly thought through the defence and industrial consequences of scrapping Nimrod. Instead we have seen a growing burden on British taxpayers and now growing concerns over defence implications.

"Communities up and down the country will be deeply concerned at the warning by senior military figures that Britain has been left at risk.

"Liam Fox must give urgent reassurances that he has plans to cover the gaps in military capability left by his decision."