Written evidence from Dr Sue Robertson |
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 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 30° 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
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.
THE ROLES OF THE NIMROD
|Nimrod MRA4||Merlin Mk1
|Yes6000nm range with 15 hour mission time
||Yes200 nm range with 90 minute mission time
|Shipping Surveillance||Yesto 260nm at 40,000 ft
||Limited Sensors ||No||Limitedno adequate sensors
|Fleet Protection ||Yes
||Yes||Limited range||Limitedno adequate sensors
|ISTAR (Support of Troops in Afghanistan)
|ELINT data gathering||Yes
|Search & Rescue||Yes2400nm range for three hours search
||Limited300 nm range with one hour search
||No||Limited600 nm range with two hours search
|Overseas Maritime Patrol||Yes
|Protection of Trident Submarines||Yes
||Limited range||Limited range
|Protection of Future Carriers?||Yes
||Limited range||Limited range
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" threatSubmarinesthe
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
|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 August 2010)
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":
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!
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 capabilitiesboth
actual in the MR2 and planned in the MRA4together 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 environmentsair, surface and sub-surfaceit
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
2.2.5 Here is what the National Audit Office
Report HC489-I, Session 2010-11 published on 15 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
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 CommitteeEighth 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
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
USthey 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.
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 1,200 nautical miles from our coast.
2.5.5 The Merlin has an effective search and
rescue range of 300 nm (with one hour search) and the C130J has
a range of 600nm (with two 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 6,000 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
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
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:
implication that the Nimrod had not flown.
assertion that MRA4 was unsafe.
claim that the Nimrod was 10 years late.
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 January 2011
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 26 August 2004. It had
no mission system, but was used for air-frame testing for the
next five years.
3.2.3 PA02 first flew on 12 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 29 December 2005. It
was used for Mission System Testing and had completed over 60
3.2.5 PA04 first flew on 10 September 2009. It
was delivered to, and accepted by, the RAF on 19 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 8 March 2010. Mission
system data was recorded during flights of this aircraft.
3.2.7 The original plan was for PA01, 02 and
03 not to be used in service, however, it should have been possible
for PA02 and PA03 to have been put into operation with relatively
little extra cost, so there would have been four 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 text in
italic 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"
forever, 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
failures of the landing gear to deploy
3.3.5 The landing gear never failed to deploy/retract.
There were two instances of nose wheel door indication failure
due to incorrectly positioned nose wheel door micro-switchesthis
had been fixed.
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 inches x 4 inches 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 2 September 2006,
near Kandahar airport in Afghanistan. A three-page summary of
the faults, labelled "restricted" and written on 17
September, last year, stated: "The work being undertaken
by the MoD to validate the BAE Systems aircraft's safety case
during the week of 13 September 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
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 PROGRAMME DURATIONS
|First Flight of Development Aircraft||2004
|First Aircraft accepted into service||2010
|Fleet In-service Date||2011?
|Time from start of development to first flight
||7 years||7 years||15years
||5 years||6 years||8 years
|Time from start of development to in-service
||14 years||15 years||18 years
||15 years||19 years||12 years
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 three years after development had begun. In fact the
original in-service date for the MRA4 was 2003, which was in itself
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
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 (3 February 2001)
3.5.1 BAE Systems are quoted as saying (The Sunday Times 30
"At the time of the cancellation of the MRA4 programme, we
were working with the Ministry of Defencein the normal
wayto 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
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
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 1 February 2011.
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. 
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
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
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 six 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.