The strategic defence and security review and the national security strategy

Written evidence from Dr. Sue Robertson

1 Summary


1.1 I was until October 2010 the Subject Matter Expert on the Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system for the Nimrod MRA4. I worked, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, on the evaluation of the system and advised on changes to the system. My previous role had been to carry out the same function on the Merlin Mk1 helicopter programme.

1.2 Just after the announcement that the Nimrod MRA4 programme was to be cancelled in October 2010 I wrote to the Prime Minister pointing out that none of the primary roles of the MRA4 could be carried out adequately by un-manned vehicles or by satellite surveillance, due to the complex nature of the electronic and acoustic signals which must be interpreted by highly experienced Operators with knowledge of the fine detail of the signals that they are observing. The other roles of the aircraft such as long-range maritime search and rescue, terrorist threat interception and disaster response co-ordination also require human intervention in real-time.

1.3 I did not even consider that the possibility that the MoD would try to use Merlin Helicopters, Type 23 Frigates and C130 aircraft to fulfil the roles of the MRA4. Much to my surprise the response from the MoD has been that they are planning to use these platforms, none of which acting alone or together can provide an adequate substitute for the Nimrod.

1.4 The MRA4 was not just a submarine-hunter, it was capable of a variety of roles from ship surveillance to search and rescue. It could act as a communications and disaster co-ordination platform and perhaps its most important role would have been as an ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) platform in support of operations in Afghanistan.

1.5 The production of an accurate tactical picture could have contributed hugely to the safety of our troops. We were about to undergo a step-change in the quality and quantity of Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) data recorded by the MRA4 for the population of strategically important databases for the Air Warfare Centre. A key component of the UK ISTAR capability has been lost with the demise of the MRA4.

1.6 As a nation we are now failing in our international search and rescue obligations as we have responsibility for an area of the Atlantic Ocean out to 30o West. We do not have a Search and Rescue aircraft with the range and endurance for this task.

1.7 In the section entitled "Why we needed Nimrod MRA4" I have provided a table of the roles that the MRA4 would have carried out and have indicated the deficiencies of the alternative platforms.

1.8 The government stated that the MRA4 programme was to be cancelled for cost reasons. The decision to destroy the aircraft before the Defence Select Committee had reviewed the SDSR led to protests from many different groups of people. The government then tried to give other excuses for the cancellation of the programme. I have provided information in the section "In Defence of the MRA4" to refute the government allegations that the aircraft had not flown, that it was unsafe, that it was 10 years late and that those working on the programme did not believe that the technical difficulties could be solved.

2 Why we needed Nimrod MRA4


2.1 Introduction

2.1.1 The Nimrod MRA4 was far more than just a sub-hunter. One of its most important functions would have been to provide ISTAR capability for the current operations in Afghanistan. The diversity of its roles would have included the provision of long range search and rescue, acting as an emergency communications platform and protecting the UK against ship-borne terrorist threats.

2.1.2 The government proposes to use Merlin Helicopters, Type 23 frigates and C130 aircraft to fulfil the many roles of the Nimrod. The following table shows the roles which the MRA4 would have carried out and the capability of each of the alternative platforms against each of the roles.



Nimrod MRA4

Merlin Mk1

Type 23


Submarine Detection


Yes - 6000nm range with 15 hour mission time

Yes - 200 nm range with 90 minute mission time



Shipping Surveillance

Yes - to 260nm at 40000 ft

Limited Sensors


Limited – no adequate sensors

Fleet Protection



Limited range

Limited - no adequate sensors

ISTAR (Support of Troops in Afghanistan)





ELINT data gathering










Weapons deployment





Search & Rescue

Yes - 2400nm range for 3 hours search

Limited – 300 nm range with 1 hour search


Limited - 600 nm range with 2 hours search

Emergency Communications





Overseas Maritime Patrol





Counter-pirate operations





Protection of Trident Submarines


Limited range

Limited range


Protection of Future Carriers?


Limited range

Limited range


Table 1; The Roles of the Nimrod

2.1.3 Some of the roles listed above were carried out by MR2, some by Nimrod R1 (which is to be retired in March 2011).

2.2 The "traditional" threat - Submarines – the ASW role of the Nimrod

2.2.1 Over 40 countries have submarines in service and many, such as China, North Korea and Iran are still building them. Here are some examples of the numbers of submarines which are currently in service.

Iran (21) N Korea (70)

China (>70) Egypt (8)

Pakistan (5) Russia (> 80)

Argentina (3) Algeria (4)

2.2.2 It was reported in the Daily Telegraph (27-aug-10) that Russian submarine activity around UK waters had reached levels not seen since 1987. Russian Akula submarines were attempting to track Vanguard class submarines which carry the UK nuclear deterrent. It is understood that the Russians stood off Faslane, where the British nuclear force is based, and waited for a Trident-carrying boat to come out for its three-month patrol to provide the Continuous At Sea Deterrent.

2.2.3 Within days of the cancellation of the MRA4 there were two more publicly acknowledged "submarine incidents":

· The submarine "Astute" went aground in full view of any ship, foreign submarine or aircraft who cared to look and we have no idea who was looking!

· A Russian submarine was "lost" during an exercise involving Nato aircraft. The Akula submarine disappeared after being sighted in the North Sea. Two US Orion P3 aircraft which were taking part in the Nato Joint Warrior exercise tried to find the submarine, but failed to locate it.

2.2.4 Here is what a Royal United Services Institute analysis report (by Lee Willett, January 2011) has to say about the loss of the MRA4 ASW capability:

"The submarine threat is a significant national security issue, not just a Cold Warrior's hangover. "

"Despite MoD statements that Nimrod's roles will be covered by other assets, no other assets deliver its specific capabilities. The UK's ASW web hence has a particular, and significant, hole in it.

"In Nimrod, the refined sensor capabilities - both actual in the MR2 and planned in the MRA4 - together with the aircraft's range, speed and endurance, gave the UK an asset which could operate from strategic to tactical levels. Operating in all three environments - air, surface and sub-surface - it could reach targets, even distant ones, quickly and could maintain pressure on the target while vectoring in other assets."

"The Type 23/Merlin package does not match Nimrod's capability. "

2.2.5 Here is what the National Audit Office Report HC489-I, Session 2010-2011 published on 15th October 2010 stated about capability risks: 

"Loss of the capability offered by the Nimrod Maritime Reconnaissance and Attack Mk4 would have an adverse effect on the protection of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the provision of which is one of the Ministry of Defence’s Standing Strategic Tasks. In addition, the maintenance of the integrity of the UK through detection of hostile air and sea craft would be compromised."

2.3 ISTAR and ELINT Data Gathering

2.3.1 One of the most important roles of the Nimrod MRA4 would have been as an ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) data gathering platform. The aircraft could perform long-range communication monitoring and image capture. The ESM system was capable of detecting, locating and identifying radar signals (from fixed sites and moving platforms) at a range of over 200 nautical miles. The fusion of data from multiple sensors meant that an excellent tactical picture of the operational environment could be built up, a vital requirement in support of current operations in Afghanistan.

2.3.2 The very capable recording equipment on the aircraft meant that valuable ELINT data could be made available for detailed post-flight processing by the Air Warfare Centre to enable the population of strategically important databases and the projection of future threat trends.

2.3.3 The importance of ISTAR had been recognised in the Defence Committee – Eighth Report – "The contribution of ISTAR to Operations" – March 2010, which states:

"ISTAR will remain a vital capability. It will be central to dominating the battlespace for the foreseeable future."

"ISTAR is at the heart of flexibility and effectiveness in operations, maximising efforts and concentrating the impact of other existing capabilities. This vision of the centrality of ISTAR to overall defence capability needs to be taken into the Strategic Defence Review. "

"There is the possibility that plans for the development of ISTAR capability might be put to one side or slowed during the process of the Strategic Defence Review, not just on account of financial constraints but because of the cross-Service nature of the capability. This should not be allowed to happen. "

"This would imperil the UK's ability to maintain the technological/intelligence edge over current and future adversaries."

2.3.4 During MRA4 Mission Systems tests it had already been demonstrated that the capability of the MRA4 to carry out ELINT tasks far out-shone that seen on any of the UK other ISTAR platforms.

2.3.5 Other aircraft operated by the UK, the AWACs E-3 and Nimrod MR2 shared the same type of ESM system, which was not good enough for serious ELINT data gathering and they had limited recording facilities. The Nimrod R1, which is about to be retired, had limitations in coverage for Electronic signal processing. The UK is to take delivery of 3 Rivet Joint aircraft in 2014, re-fitted (not re-built) Boeing 707 aircraft which are over 40 years old and are to be operated as joint fleet with the US – they will probably provide us with some ELINT data.

2.3.6 However, with the introduction into service of the MRA4 and its subsequent wider operational coverage, the UK was about to undergo a step-change in the quality and quantity of ELINT data which would have been available.

2.3.7 A key component of the UK ISTAR capability has been thrown away with the cancellation of the MRA4 programme.

2.4 Ship Surveillance

2.4.1 The increase in the possibility of terrorist attacks means that we need to protect our shores more now than at any time in recent years. The platforms which have been proposed to carry out the MRA4 roles do not have the coverage to be able to effectively monitor shipping around the UK. The Nimrod sensor operators are experts at recognising patterns in shipping movements and the sensor range of the MRA4 would have given the best chance of identifying and countering threats.

2.4.2 Here is another quote from the Defence Committee Report, this time concerning the preservation and enhancement of ISTAR skills:

"ISTAR will remain a vital capability. It will be central to dominating the battlespace for the foreseeable future. The MoD must therefore look to reconfigure some of its trades to create more flexibility and greater opportunities for advancement for those with skills relating to ISTAR use. A supply of sufficient appropriately skilled people to undertake the demanding roles within ISTAR is vital."

2.4.3 The skills of the excellent RAF sensor operators who undertook the testing of the aircraft and who were to be the instructors of the MRA4 operational crews are shortly to be lost. They are expecting to be made redundant later this year. The interpretation of Sensor data is complex and it takes years of practice to be able to extract the important features from a complicated picture.

2.4.4 The Merlin helicopter has an ESM system that is not capable of producing an accurate picture of the electromagnetic environment when operated over-land or in littoral waters.

2.5 Search and Rescue

2.5.1 It is stated in a 2008 report by the Maritime and Coastal Agency ("Search and Rescue Framework for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland") that:

"The UK organisation for civil maritime and civil aviation search and rescue is derived from the UK Government’s adherence to the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) (1974), the Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (1979) and the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago 1944) (Annex 12)."

2.5.2 The Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (1979) allowed the definition of Search and Rescue regions for each country which was a party to the agreement. It states:

"2.1.4 Each search and rescue region shall be established by agreement among Parties concerned. The Secretary-General shall be notified of such agreement."


" 2.1.9 On receiving information that a person is in distress at sea in an area within which a Party provides for the overall co-ordination of search and rescue operations, the responsible authorities of that Party shall take urgent steps to provide the most appropriate assistance available. "

2.5.3 The Search and Rescue Region for which the UK is responsible is shown in the following picture.

Figure 1; Map of UK Search and Rescue Region © Queen’s Printer and Controller, 2008

2.5.4 The region for which the UK is responsible extends from 45 to 61 degrees North and from 3 degrees East to 30 degrees West, the UK should be able to offer assistance to vessels which are up to 1200 nautical miles from our coast.

2.5.5 The Merlin has an effective search and rescue range of 300 nm (with 1 hour search) and the C130J has a range of 600nm (with 2 hours search). The C130J does not currently have adequate sensors to perform efficient search and rescue operations. Neither platform can be effective for long-range search and rescue as the endurance of these aircraft is insufficient to allow for search patterns of useful duration to be carried out.

2.5.6 MRA4 had a 6000 nm range and a 15 hour potential mission time, so it would have been able to fulfil our international obligations for search and rescue.

2.5.7 Here is another quote from "Search and Rescue Framework for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland," Maritime & Coastal Agency, April 2008.

"The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) provides a comprehensive search and rescue service for those reported in trouble either on land, on water or in the air and for those reported missing."

2.5.8 This can no longer be said to be true.

3 In Defence of the Nimrod MRA4


3.1 Introduction

3.1.1 When the Nimrod MRA4 programme was cancelled in October 2010 the government stated that the decision had been taken to save money. Although many people were worried about the lack of Maritime Reconnaissance, the need to cut back on all areas of government spending meant that the UK may have had to accept that we would be without effective Maritime Surveillance for the time being.

3.1.2 I, like most people, assumed that the aircraft would not be completely destroyed until further consideration had been given to the capability loss and that it should be possible to "mothball" the aircraft in case the requirement changed in the future. The contract that MoD had with BAe Systems was terminated "for the Convenience of the Customer".

3.1.3 However, despite appeals from many people, the government ordered the immediate destruction of the aircraft. The considerable opposition to this action led to claims by the Defence Secretary that the aircraft had not flown, that the aircraft was unsafe, it was more than 10 years late and that those working on the aircraft did not believe that the "technical difficulties" with the aircraft could be overcome.

3.1.4 There are four issues here:

1. The implication that the Nimrod had not flown

2. The assertion that MRA4 was unsafe

3. The claim that the Nimrod was 10 years late

4. The implication that those working on the aircraft did not believe it was viable

3.2 "The Nimrod had not passed its flight tests yet" – quote by the Secretary of State for Defence in a BBC TV broadcast on 27-jan-11.

3.2.1 Here is a summary of the flight history of the five MRA4 aircraft that had been flying.

3.2.2 PA01 first flew on 26th August 2004. It had no mission system, but was used for air-frame testing for the next 5 years.

3.2.3 PA02 first flew on 12th December 2004. It was used extensively for Mission System Testing and had completed over 230 flights, including testing in the McKinley Climatic Facility at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and airfield performance trials at Istres in France.

3.2.4 PA03 first flew on 29th December 2005. It was used for Mission System Testing and had completed over 60 flights.

3.2.5 PA04 first flew on 10th September 2009. It was delivered to, and accepted by, the RAF on 19th March 2010. At the time of cancellation of the programme the aircraft was cleared for flight and had recently been flown by BAe Systems personnel.

3.2.6 PA05 first flew on 8th March 2010. Mission system data was recorded during flights of this aircraft.

3.2.7 The original plan was for PA01, 02 & 03 not to be used in service, however, it should have been possible for PA02 & PA03 to have been put into operation with relatively little extra cost, so there would have been 4 aircraft ready for immediate use.

3.3 The MRA4 was "Unsafe"

3.3.1 A document "leaked" to The Sunday Times led to the following Newspaper Article:

"MoD Documents reveal that Nimrods had ‘critical fault"

By Simon McGee in The Sunday Times on 30 January 2011

3.3.2 In the following paragraphs the red font indicates the text of the Newspaper article. I have interspersed the text with comments on each of the "issues" which are mentioned in the article.

The nine Nimrod aircraft cancelled amid a storm of condemnation and at a cost of £4 billion were designed with the same critical safety fault blamed for the downing of an RAF Nimrod in 2006 with the loss of 14 lives. Liam Fox, the defence secretary, has been accused of leaving a "massive gap" in the nation’s security by scrapping the fleet of maritime patrol planes. But classified documents seen by The Sunday Times reveal Ministry of Defence (MoD) safety tests conducted last year on the first Nimrod MRA4, built by BAE Systems, found "several hundred design non-compliances".

3.3.3 There are always non-compliances which emerge through a development cycle as complex as that of a military aircraft. They are either fixed, or it is agreed that they can be accepted into the Design. Either way, they remain on the "list" for ever, forming part of the record of the development process.

- problems opening and closing the bomb bay doors,

3.3.4 There was no problem with the bomb bay doors.

- failures of the landing gear to deploy

3.3.5 The landing gear never failed to deploy/retract. There were 2 instances of nose wheel door indication failure due to incorrectly positioned nose wheel door micro-switches – this had been fixed.

- overheating engines

3.3.6 There are no recollections of any engine overheating during flight trials.

- gaps in the engine walls

3.3.7 Gaps were found between the engine bay fire wall and surrounding structure. A temporary fix enabled flight test to continue and a permanent fix was later found.

- limitations operating in icy conditions

3.3.8 There were limitations at the time of cancellation of the programme as Qinetiq had not finished its final testing. As Qinetiq provided wider clearances the limits on operating conditions would have been expanded.

- concerns that "a single bird-strike" could disable the aircraft’s controls

3.3.9 If a bird had flown into the open bomb bay and hit an area 6 ins x 4 ins there may have been an effect on the aileron system A cover guard was to be introduced to mitigate against this remote possibility.

- the most serious problem discovered by Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) inspectors at MoD Abbey Wood in Bristol involved a still unresolved design flaw. It concerns the proximity of a hot air pipe to an uninsulated fuel line, widely blamed for an explosion on board Nimrod XV230 on September 2, 2006, near Kandahar airport in Afghanistan. A three-page summary of the faults, labelled "restricted" and written on September 17, last year, stated: "The work being undertaken by the MoD to validate the BAE Systems aircraft’s safety case during the week of September 13, 2010, identified a potentially serious design defect: a small section of a hot air pipe was discovered to be uninsulated in an area that also contains fuel pipes, which is outside the design regulations."

3.3.10 All the control, fuel, engine and mission systems on the MRA4 were new design, the only parts carried over from the MR2 were the fuselage and empennage.

3.3.11 The hot air pipe which is referred to in the Newspaper article was insulated along its length of more than 8ft, apart from the last 4 inches, where it went through a bulkhead into the intake nacelle. The fuel feed pipe from the No. 1 tank travels through the same space between the fuselage and the inboard engine fire wall. Analysis looked at the likely failure rate of the fuel pipe, the maximum temperature of the engine intake anti-icing off-take and the likely usage time of the engine anti-icing system and concluded that a design solution would be needed. This was being worked on and a temporary solution was to isolate the No. 1 tank which would have resulted in a temporary reduction in flight duration. The loss of XV230 in Afghanistan was caused by fuel leakage into the bomb bay.

3.3.12 At the time that the programme was cancelled the MRA4 was cleared for flight by BAe Systems flight crew, but the process of flight clearance for RAF crews had not been completed by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA). The MRA4 was the first aircraft to undergo the process of release-to-service by the newly-established MAA.

3.4 Length of Programme - Quote by Dr Liam Fox "The programme was 10 years late"

3.4.1 The initial contract for the development of the MRA4 was signed by the then Conservative government in December 1996. The in-service date for the aircraft fleet was slipped (to the surprise of those of us working on the project) last year by a year to autumn 2011. This would have given a total development time of 14 years. Whilst not ideal, this does not compare unfavourably with other aircraft development programmes, as shown in the following table.

Aircraft Type


Typhoon (UK)

Merlin Mk1 (UK)

F-35 (USA)

Rafale (France)

Atlantique 2 (France)

P-8 (USA)

Development Started








First Flight of Development Aircraft








First Aircraft accepted into service








Fleet In-service Date








Time from start of development to first flight

7 years

7 years


5 years

6 years

8 years

5 years

Time from start of development to in-service

14 years

15 years

18 years

15 years

19 years

12 years

9 years?

Table 2; Aircraft Programme Durations

3.4.2 It seems that the government has a naive view of how long it takes to develop and commission military aircraft, given the time-scales of other military aircraft programmes listed above.

3.4.3 If the MoD believe that the MRA4 was 10 years late, the aircraft would have been expected to have been delivered in 2000, only 3 years after development had begun. In fact the original in-service date for the MRA4 was 2003, which was in itself unrealistic.

3.4.4 For example, the Atlantique 2 was a re-fitted version of Atlantique 1 and took 12 years to be put into service after its re-fit.

3.4.5 The MRA4 is a not a re-fit of the MR2, it is a re-built aircraft and it could have met its in-service data of 2011.

3.5 "....they were not even sure that they could resolve some of the technical difficulties..." quote by the Secretary of State for Defence on British Forces News (03-feb-11)

3.5.1 BAE Systems are quoted as saying (The Sunday Times 30-jan-11):

"At the time of the cancellation of the MRA4 programme, we were working with the Ministry of Defence - in the normal way - to resolve a number of issues relating to the aircraft. We are confident that these would have been resolved to enable the aircraft’s entry into service as planned."

3.5.2 Having worked on the Mission System, I am also confident that the remaining issues would have been resolved sufficiently for the aircraft to have provided adequate capability on its entry into service.

3.5.3 It is unrealistic to expect that any military aircraft will be perfect in every respect at the start of its service life. I would have expected that, in common with other aircraft programmes, the optimisation of the mission system would have been an on-going activity throughout the life-cycle of the aircraft fleet.

4 Comment on Possible replacements for MRA4


4.1 Introduction

4.1.1 There have been many written parliamentary questions concerning the MRA4 and how its roles can be undertaken in the future. Here is an example from Hansard on 01-feb-2011.

Military Aircraft


Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to (a) lease and (b) purchase (i) P-3 Orion, (ii) Airbus A319 MPA and (iii) P-8 Poseidon aircraft. [37263]


Peter Luff: We currently have no plans to lease or purchase P-3 Orion, Airbus A319 MPA or P-8 Poseidon aircraft. However, following the decision not to bring  the Nimrod MRA4 into service we are keeping our future requirement for maritime patrol aircraft under review.

4.1.2 The three aircraft mentioned in Mr Robertson’s question are the only options which could be considered in the immediate future. Here is a brief description of each of them and their suitability as a replacement.

4.2 Boeing P-8 Poseidon

4.2.1 This is a variant of the Boeing 737, possibly in service in 2013, it will be operated by the US, Australia and India. The Australians have been testing the Mission System on the P-8 and placed this on their "Projects of Concern" list in October 2010.

4.2.2 The Mission system is the same as that on the MRA4, but much work had been done in the UK to optimise it. If the UK were to buy the P-8 this work would have to be re-done, so this option will not result in an "Off the Shelf" solution to the procurement of a replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

4.2.3 When the MRA4 was cancelled there was no attempt made by the MoD to preserve the records of the work which had been done on the Mission System, even though everyone working in the field should be aware that the Mission System is the same as the P-8 Mission System and it seems likely that this would be seen as a replacement.

4.3 Second-hand Lockheed P-3 Orion

4.3.1 Over 700 P-3s have been built. It first flew in 1959 with the last one appearing in 1990. This aircraft is operated by the US, New Zealand and Australia. The version operated by the RAAF has a mission system with some components in common with MRA4 and P-8 mission systems. However, as with the P-8 there would need to be an optimisation process before the mission system was satisfactory for UK use. The US P-3 aircraft which were operated over UK waters in October 2010 failed to keep track of a Russian submarine, so this does not inspire confidence in the capability of the aircraft.

4.4 Airbus A319 MPA

4.4.1 The mission system for this aircraft includes some of the features which would be required by the UK to carry out the roles of the MRA4, such as surveillance radar, IFF interrogator, Acoustic system, Magnetic Anomaly detector and the FITS (Fully integrated tactical system). The "Off the Shelf" version would provide crew positions for 6 operators and to match the capability requirements of the UK, the sensor-fit would need to be customised. There have been no customers for this aircraft type as of January 2011, so if the UK were to choose this aircraft type there would undoubtedly be unforeseen issues arising in bringing the aircraft into operation.

February 2011