In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, they said the decision to shelve the programme for nine MRA4 Nimrods to save money is “perverse” and could inflict serious long-term damage to Britain’s interests.
Ministers took the decision last year to scrap the 4-billion pounds ($6.4 billion, 4.6-billion-euro) fleet of planes, the latest version of the veteran sub-hunter, as part of deep defence cuts.
The Nimrods can detect and sink submarines and play a key role in drug-smuggling and counter-terrorism operations.
The ex-military chiefs said: “Machine tools have been destroyed; several millions of pounds have been saved but a massive gap in British security has opened.
“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 coordination, and perhaps most importantly, reconnaissance support to the Navy’s Trident submarines.”
The signatories of the letter included David Craig, a former chief of the defence staff who now sits in the House of Lords, and Major General Patrick Cordingley, the commander of the Desert Rats in the Gulf War.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman denied that scrapping Nimrod undermined Britain’s defences.
The spokesman said: “The role of maritime patrol will continue to be carried out and we will use a range of other military assets to do that.”
He said the defence cuts were made against the backdrop of Britain’s record budget deficit and “a significant black hole” in the defence ministry’s budget.
“This particular project was overspent, it had been delayed and none of the aircraft were actually operational,” he added.
General David Richards, the current chief of the defence staff, said in a statement that “severe financial pressures” led to the decision to axe Nimrod.
“This project was delayed and overspent; cancelling it will save 2 billion pounds over 10 years. None of these nine aircraft were operational, only one was built and it had not passed flight tests,” he said.