Previous Section Index Home Page

4 Dec 2007 : Column 685

Nimrod XV230

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am able to inform the House today of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry on the crash of RAF Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan on 2 September 2006. First, I know that the entire House will join me in paying tribute to the 14 service personnel who lost their lives in that tragic incident. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, and with the men and women of the armed forces, who I know feel the loss of their colleagues very deeply. I would also like to pay tribute to RAF Kinloss. That close community was hit hard by the Nimrod tragedy, but it has maintained magnificent support for the Nimrod crews deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan.

I remind the House that the purpose of a board of inquiry is to establish the circumstances of the crash and to learn lessons. A board of inquiry is a statutory process under section 135 of the Air Force Act 1955 and is convened for any air accident. It makes recommendations to the chain of command on its findings; it does not seek to apportion blame. I am placing a copy of the board’s report in the Library, redacted only to withhold personal information that we are required to protect under the Data Protection Act 1998 and information that could prejudice the security and effectiveness of the armed forces.

The report is a detailed technical document. I am conscious that, in the time available for an oral statement, I will not be able to do justice to all the issues that it raises, so I am making a supplementary written statement that sets out the board of inquiry’s conclusions in more detail, along with a summary of its recommendations and the actions taken by the chain of command.

The board established that on 2 September 2006, RAF Nimrod XV230 took off from its deployed operating base at 09.13 hours, Greenwich mean time, on an essential operational flight. The initial stages of the mission appear to have gone according to plan. At 11.11 hours, approximately 90 seconds after completing air-to-air refuelling, the crew experienced almost simultaneous fire and smoke warnings. Smoke was observed in the cabin, and flames were observed from the rear of the engines on the starboard side. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft depressurised. The crew commenced emergency drills and at 11.14 hours transmitted a Mayday alert and turned to head for Kandahar airfield. At 11.17 hours, a Harrier GR7 pilot reported that the aircraft had exploded.

A combat search and rescue team confirmed that there were no survivors. Subsequently, the site of the crash was secured for as long as it was considered safe to do so by a combined force of Canadian and British units. As quickly as possible, the board of inquiry was convened and travelled from the UK to the operational theatre to begin its investigation.

The board of inquiry has conducted a thorough investigation with the material available to it. Throughout this process the board has been assisted by other independent agencies, including two air accident investigators from the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport. It has been
4 Dec 2007 : Column 686
unable to identify with absolute certainty the cause of the fire. None the less, the board has deduced the most probable area where the fire started, and the probable causes of the events and factors that led to it.

The board of inquiry concluded that the crash was not survivable. The cause was a fire that most likely resulted from escaped fuel igniting against a hot pipe in a compartment near the starboard wing-fuselage attachment—the No. 7 tank dry bay, not in the bomb bay as some have previously suggested. The fuel probably gained access to the pipe through a gap between two types of insulation. The fuel most likely came from one of two sources: a pressure-relief device in the main fuel tank, which may have released fuel during air-to-air refuelling, or a leaking fuel coupling.

It is clear that the crew of Nimrod XV230 faced a series of complex and demanding emergencies. Throughout this incident they acted in an exemplary manner, calmly performing drills initiated by their captain in an attempt to save their aircraft. All are a credit to their respective services and to their families. I am sure the whole House will join me in honouring their bravery and their professionalism.—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

This was a tragic accident, but there were a number of contributory factors that the board has identified. Both fuel and hot air components are present together in the No. 7 tank dry bay. The underestimation of that hazard was considered by the board as a contributory factor. Further possible contributory factors that could not be discounted and which are subject to further investigation include the fuel and hot air systems maintenance policy, the age of some of the component parts, the lack of a fire detection and suppression system within the No. 7 tank dry bay, and the failure to consider the cumulative effects of a number of changes to the air-to-air refuelling capability when it was formally incorporated into the aircraft in 1989.

The board found no evidence that the maintenance or servicing conducted on the aircraft was a cause or contributory factor in the loss of XV230. It also concluded that, while the continued commitment to long-term operations places pressure on the Nimrod force, there was no evidence that this was a cause or factor in the loss of the aircraft.

It is clear to me that some of the findings of the board of inquiry identify failings for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. On behalf of the MOD and the Royal Air Force, I would like to say sorry for those failings to the House, but most of all to the families of those who lost their lives.

At the time of the accident, the Department took action to ensure that a similar scenario could not occur again on the Nimrod aircraft. Those measures have been revised as the board’s findings have emerged. The chain of command has accepted the majority of the board’s recommendations and continues to pursue the outstanding recommendations made by the board to enhance the safety of our aircraft.

The hot air system remains switched off so that there is no hot pipe against which any fuel could ignite, and we have an enhanced inspection regime to examine for any sign of fuel leakage. QinetiQ has conducted an independent investigation into the fuel system and confirmed that, in light of the measures taken since the
4 Dec 2007 : Column 687
crash, the fuel system is safe to operate. Air-to-air refuelling has also been suspended subject to further investigation. The Chief of the Air Staff’s professional judgment is that the Nimrod fleet is safe to fly. I have accepted his advice.

By its nature, the board was not in a position to go into the history of those arrangements or to assess where responsibility lies for failures. I do not underestimate the difficulties that face those responsible for assuring aircraft safety. Flying will never be risk-free. But I do believe that the families of those who died are due more of an explanation of the history than the board of inquiry could be expected to provide. I have therefore decided to put in place a review of the arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod aircraft over its service life; to assess where responsibility lies for any failures; to assess more broadly the process for compiling safety cases, taking account of best practice in the civilian and military world; and to make recommendations.

I intend that the review should be led by a senior Queen’s counsel assisted by technical experts on aviation systems, who will examine all relevant papers and interview all those in a position to assist. BAE Systems, the aircraft designer, and QinetiQ, which supported the Department in consideration of the safety case findings, have agreed that the review will have their companies’ full co-operation. The review will be able to recommend a full public inquiry if that is considered necessary and will keep the families of those who died informed of progress. We will publish the findings of the review, subject to considerations of operational security. I shall make a statement shortly confirming the membership and terms of reference of the review.

All the families have already received lump-sum payments through the armed forces pension scheme or the armed forces compensation scheme and, where appropriate, ongoing pensions are now in payment. However, we are also in contact with lawyers representing a number of the families over additional claims for common law compensation. I have directed that those claims be assessed and settled as quickly as possible and I have directed that substantial interim payments be made to those families where appropriate.

I recognise that the board of inquiry report will be painful reading for many, but I hope that the families and friends will take some comfort in finding answers to many of the questions that arise after an incident such as this.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for the briefing earlier today.

This is a grim day. I echo the Secretary of State in conveying the profound condolences of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and all Conservative Members to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragic incident, and in paying tribute to the immense courage and professionalism of the crew of Nimrod X-ray Victor 230, who gave their lives in the service of our country. Their role, and that of their fellow Nimrod crews, continues to be vital for military operations.

4 Dec 2007 : Column 688

The tragedy should bring home to the nation the very real sacrifices being made on its behalf by the men and women of our armed forces, not least in the Royal Air Force, whose fixed-wing and helicopter crews are constantly exposed to danger on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also thank the board of inquiry for completing an extremely thorough job in very demanding circumstances. Although it is clear that the board has been unable to establish definitively the cause of the crash, its analysis would seem to be as accurate as it is possible to be.

Two key issues arise. First, although the age of the aircraft itself may have been ruled out as an issue, the systems failures are clearly a factor of age and maintenance. With on average 40 fire-related incidents a year for the past 20 years and 52 fuel leaks in a six-month period last year, both the Royal Air Force and the manufacturer were acutely aware of the potential hazards arising from the Nimrod’s ageing systems. Secondly, the aircraft should have been replaced by the MRA4 four years ago. It is nothing short of a scandal that the new aircraft will not enter service for at least another four years.

As the Secretary of State confirmed, the report is detailed. Many detailed technical questions arise, but I shall confine myself to just six. First, why was the recommendation, made by BAE Systems in 2004, to install a hot air leak warning in the location of the hot air ducting rejected following an earlier incident involving another Nimrod? Secondly, is it true that the investigation carried out last year by QinetiQ found that repair teams were using out-of-date manuals and equipment, and that there was

If so, is not that an example of the dangerous run-down in Royal Air Force numbers, which are now 1,500 below strength?

Thirdly, since the hot air pipe running past the No. 7 fuel tank was effectively redundant because the requirement for an on-board systems cooling had reduced, why was not it removed or rendered inoperable before now?

Fourthly, the board finds that the fuel and hot air systems maintenance policy was a contributory factor to the loss of the aircraft. Why has guidance on ageing aircraft systems, which was recommended in 2006, not been issued?

Fifthly, if all air-to-air refuelling involving Nimrod aircraft is suspended, does not that seriously inhibit the aircraft’s ability to carry out its vital role in Afghanistan?

Sixthly, how does the Secretary of State intend to manage with the elderly fleet for the next four years, as fuel leaks continue to increase?

Does this tragic incident reveal the underlying truth: our armed forces are operating at a tempo well in excess of that for which they are resourced? I hope that the Secretary of State can dismiss as wholly untrue today’s press reports that the Prime Minister is looking for a further £15 billion of cuts to the defence budget.

4 Dec 2007 : Column 689

Today, every serviceman and woman, together with their families, will look to the Secretary of State, in exercising his duty of care towards them, to stand up for them and demand that they have the resources to do the job.

Des Browne: First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has an appreciation from his own service of the challenges that the Royal Air Force faces and the risks that are associated with the job that it does? His words will be welcomed by the RAF and especially by the families and communities that support it. They are appropriate words to recognise the scale and nature of the sacrifice that people are prepared to make and the challenges that they are prepared to face. I thank him for them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the age of Nimrod, which, as he knows from the detailed briefing that he received, the board of inquiry raises and believes to be, in a limited respect, a contributory factor. The key issue, as I am sure he knows, about an aircraft is whether it is fit to fly. The board of inquiry confirmed that the Nimrod has a very good safety record overall. That is incontrovertible. As I said, the board of inquiry identified age as a contributory factor, but we need to consider that in the context of the whole report. It identified two components, whose condition may have been affected by age. Since the incident, the important thing is that we have removed the hazard by turning off the source of ignition, without which a fire is not possible.

I did not recognise the circumstances that informed the hon. Gentleman’s first question, but that may be a failing on my part. As with several questions that he poses, I am sure that he accepts that it falls squarely in the remit of the review that I have announced today. Those questions are entitled to an answer. They cannot be answered by the BOI and should be answered by a process of independent investigation, and I have therefore set up the review. The questions will be passed on directly to the principal reviewer when he is appointed. Indeed, any other questions that Opposition Front Benchers identify as needing to be asked should be fed into the process in due course.

In dealing with the comprehensive questions that the hon. Gentleman posed, let me deny that there is any truth in the story in the media this morning to which he referred. There is no truth in it.

On the basis of the BOI report and its conclusions, the three matters that one could have identified as contributory factors as a consequence of resources were considered and specifically said not to be contributory factors to the accident. They were: maintenance—not the system or policy of maintenance, but maintenance itself; servicing the aircraft; and operational pressures, about which the hon. Gentleman made, with all due respect to him, inappropriate observations. Those matters were all considered by the BOI, in an entirely independent fashion, not to have been contributory factors in the accident.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of operational effectiveness in the absence of air-to-air refuelling. That will of course restrict the amount of time for which the Nimrod can fly, but it can fly for nine hours without such refuelling. As he knows, other ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition
4 Dec 2007 : Column 690
and reconnaissance—resources are being deployed to the operational theatre that could be used to gain the information that operations require.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I wish to express my condolences and sympathy to the family and friends of the fallen servicemen. The 14 men deserve our utmost gratitude and admiration for their service to the country.

I commend the Secretary of State for the way in which he delivered the statement: he always gets these situations right and strikes the appropriate tone.

I welcome the statement and the board of inquiry report, which is comprehensive and detailed. However, 14 months is far too long to wait, especially given that there is to be a further inquiry into this incident. That has not been fair on the families, who wanted earlier answers. Can the Secretary of State assure us that such delays will not be repeated in future?

Why were the warning signs—the significant increase in coupling and seal leaks in recent years, the blow-off fuel from tank No. 1 draping the side of the aircraft in previous sorties, and the gaps in insulation of the hot air piping—not heeded? Is not that a failure of the process rather than individual judgments?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a review, which should help to provide some of the answers that the board of inquiry was unable to provide. Fundamentally, however, why are we still relying on an aircraft design that is almost 40 years old, is based on a failed civilian version and was originally intended for hunting Russian subs? Was the in-service date for the new MRA4 delayed because of failures by Ministers to make a decision? Are not the Government forcing the ethos of the armed forces to change from “can do” to “make do”?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of condolence and support for our armed forces, particularly for those most directly associated with the Nimrod force, who will find them welcome.

As I explained, the board of inquiry process is a creature of statute. It is required to take place, it is instructed by the commissioning authority, which is the command of the RAF, and it is entirely independent of Ministers and should continue to be so. It is an important process as it stands in that environment, uninfluenced by Ministers. I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman assurances in relation to the length of time that the board of inquiry has taken—about 14 months, as he said. As he will be aware, the commissioning authority reconvened the board when it had reported because there were unanswered questions that it wished to have answered. That is entirely how the process is intended to work. It is self-contained and does not report until it is complete. That is in the control of the board, and so it should remain.

Next Section Index Home Page