After a year in which the BAE Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft has received unprecedented negative publicity in the UK, it’s hardly surprising that BAE Systems and the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) are not showing the new MRA.4 version here at Farnborough. Four years after it first flew, the Nimrod MRA.4 has still not made a public debut.
The negative publicity centered on the aging MR.2 version in Royal Air Force service, after a fatal crash in Afghanistan in September 2006 that killed all 14 onboard. The accident report concluded that the mid-air explosion was probably caused by fuel leaking onto a hot crossfeed air pipe in the starboard Number seven tank dry bay.
The RAF suspended air-to-air refueling of the Nimrods, and stopped using some of its hot-air systems in flight. But a heated technical debate and blame game has continued. A coroner who led the inquest into the death of the 14 servicemen said the entire Nimrod fleet had “never been airworthy from the first time it was released to service.” The MoD disputes this finding.
BAE Systems has escaped serious media criticism throughout this episode, despite the fact that if the company had performed properly on the Nimrod MRA.4 program, the earlier MR.2 would have been retired years ago. Instead, the new version will be more than seven years late entering service. The cost of developing and producing the 12 aircraft that are now currently required will be at least $7 billion.
The MRA.4 contract was renegotiated in February 2003 after serious technical difficulties and cost overruns. As things stand, BAE Systems is under contract to complete the development program with three aircraft and to produce nine more. BAE said development should be complete by the end of this year. That is nine months behind the schedule established in 2003, caused by the need to develop a stability augmentation system and stall identification device.
Earlier this year, the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) slammed BAE’s performance on the MRA.4, and suggested that the MoD cancel the program. In BAE’s defense, Nigel Whitehead, group managing director, Military Air Solutions, told Aviation International News here this week that the data that the MoD supplied, and upon which the HCDC reached its conclusion, was wrong. “Now we have a common understanding,” he said.
Further, Whitehead said that the SAS is working exactly as planned, and that the production program is achieving all the required milestones. The company told AIN that the formal in-service date (defined as five aircraft and six combat-ready crews) was now “the end of 2010”–five months behind the 2003 schedule. BAE still has not received a supplementary contract to convert the three development aircraft to production standard. There are rumors that the MoD is unhappy with the cost of BAE’s quote to do this work. BAE declined to comment.
Other consequences of the delays to the MRA.4 program include:
• The MoD reduced the requirement from 21 to 18, and then to 12, but 15 mission systems were ordered from Boeing, delivered and tested on the ground. BAE told AIN that the surplus equipment are now “risk reduction assets” that will likely be used for spare parts in the future
• Although the Nimrod MR.2 carries the Harpoon anti-ship missile, BAE told AIN in 2006 that although flutter testing had been done on the MRA.4, the MoD would have to order a more modern version before Harpoon could be integrated
• An RAF officer from 2 Group told AIN recently that the Northrop Grumman Night Hunter electro-optical system specified for the MRA.4 years ago, was less capable than the L-3 Wescam MX-15 system that was fitted more recently to the MR.2 under an urgent operational requirement. BAE admitted to AIN that the Wescam was more modern, but the Night Hunter in its centerline turret has certain advantages.
How To Replace the RAF’s SIGINT Nimrods?
In addition to the maritime patrol fleet, the RAF flies three Nimrod R.1 versions that are dedicated to SIGINT (signals intelligence). They were converted from MR.2 airframes, and their sensors have been regularly upgraded to monitor emerging new threats and signals.
The MoD developed a plan for a complete replacement of the aircraft’s SIGINT suite, Project Helix, and chose L-3 Communications to provide it. But now that the aging airframe issues relating to the Nimrod MR.2 have become so controversial, the MoD is seeking alternatives.
It has explored joining the U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT operation, perhaps in similar fashion to the Joint Predator Task Force that was set up in 2004.
Now AIN understands that the U.S. is close to selecting three suitable USAF KC-135R airframes for conversion to the SIGINT role for the RAF. L-3 Communications UK told AIN that its design for the Helix system would fit on the R.1 or other aircraft of similar size. BAE told AIN that supporting the three unique R.1 aircraft in future years “could be very expensive.”