LONDON: The British Ministry of Defense, faced with budgetary shortfalls, has placed five existing equipment programs on the chopping block in order to save money. The cancellation, reduction, or postponement of these programs is expected to save the MoD roughly GBP1.12 billion and has been approved by the defense council, which is chaired by Defense Secretary John Hutton. The gap in defense funding is estimated at around GBP2 billion.
While cuts have been expected due to the porous state of the British economy and the budgetary crunch facing the MoD, the nature of the programs being cut has elicited criticism among those claiming that by moving forward with its plan, the MoD will be placing British forces’ lives at risk in Afghanistan. The programs placed on the chopping block are all involved with intelligence-gathering and seen as vital for replacing outdated equipment used to track the massing and movements of enemy Taliban forces in the Afghan theater.
Among the programs being reduced in number is the Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft project. Perhaps the program most emblematic of the often dysfunctional British procurement system, the Nimrod MRA4 project has experienced cost overruns of some GBP789 million ($1.277 billion) and is approaching 96 months behind its originally-planned in-service date. Meanwhile, the aging Nimrod MR2 and R1 aircraft – which were to be phased out of service in 1995 – continue to fly. After one of these Nimrods exploded mid-air over Kandahar, Afghanistan, in September 2006, the investigating coroner tartly commented that none of the Nimrod fleet had been airworthy since originally coming into service in 1969. However, due to their vital intelligence-gathering importance in Afghanistan, the aircraft have been kept flying – though with crucial safety upgrades recently undertaken in March 2009.
The decision to reduce the Nimrod order by three aircraft will bring the overall total being procured down to nine MRA4 replacements. It should also be noted that when it was originally signed in 1996 with BAE Systems, the contract involved in the Nimrod replacement program called for 21 aircraft. This reduction is expected to save around GBP100 million. In addition to that cut, the replacement for the Nimrod R1 radio monitoring version of the Nimrod has been postponed to save a further GBP400 million.
Other areas that will see cuts include the Project Eagle upgrade program for the Royal Air Force’s E-3D AWACs aircraft and the use of the Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Together, these are expected to save GBP500 million. Also, the Soothsayer communications intelligence program is being axed to save about GBP120 million. Soothsayer, considered a crucial upgrade to British Army intelligence-gathering capabilities on the ground in Afghanistan, allows for troops to listen in on enemy communications.