Expert Witness: Did Nimrod report protect ministers?

A Nimrod  MRA4 "ZJ518". <em>Picture: MilborneOne</em>
A Nimrod MRA4 "ZJ518". Picture: MilborneOne

James Jones was a Nimrod engineering officer, responsible for carrying out flight trials at A&AEE Boscombe Down (now QinetiQ), prior to aircraft entering service in 1968. He flew in XV230 (the aircraft lost over Afghanistan) in 1969. Since the accident in 2006 he has acted as a technical advisor to the families who lost loved ones in the crash and advised their legal counsel during the inquest.

The recent publication of Charles Haddon-Cave QC’s report into the loss of a Nimrod over Afghanistan in 2006 brought much justified acclaim for its condemnation of Government cost-cutting, bad management and the naming of those considered to be responsible.

However, his attack on the coroner, Andrew Walker, was unjustified and unbecoming of a prominent QC. References to the coroner’s findings were inaccurate and selective and seemed to discredit someone, who actually called for the grounding of the Nimrod aircraft. In fact, the attack has raised doubts regarding whether “selective” evidence was used throughout the report in order to protect prominent ministers, at the expense of others.

Two retired military commanders have already hit back at “unsubstantiated vilifying allegations” against them. General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger were among ten people named in the report in October by Haddon-Cave.

General Cowan was accused of ordering logistics cuts that contributed to the lack of maintenance given to the Nimrods and the failure to spot a design flaw in the aircraft. (It is worth pointing out that design flaws should have been picked up by A&AEE Boscombe Down in 1969 and 1982 when they carried out release to service trials).

Speaking for the first time about the accusations, General Gowan said it had been ministers who had “decreed” all the cuts and that it was totally unjustified to single him out. He also denied that the cuts had led to the crash.

“There is not a shred of evidence in Mr Haddon-Cave’s report that anything I did or did not do as CDL [chief of defence logistics] from 1999 up until I retired in August 2002, four years before the accident, contributed to this tragic crash,” General Cowan said.

Air Chief Marshal Pledger, who succeeded General Cowan as chief of defence logistics, said the accusations against him were “totally unfair”. Mr Haddon-Cave had not published any of the evidence he had given. “I’m absolutely furious,” he said.

General Cowan said: “This is a poor message to send to the Armed Forces — that senior officers can be traduced for carrying out ministerial directions.”

He was backed by the Labour peer Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, who said “Two excellent public servants have been traduced in this report. They are both innocent of the specific charge of imposing in any targeted way an extra piece of cost-cutting.”

Baroness Cohen served as a non-executive director on the board of the newly formed Defence Logistics Organisation in 1999 and worked with both General Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Pledger.

General Cowan pointed out that he had repeatedly told Mr Haddon-Cave that all the changes enforced at the Defence Logistics Organisation had been decreed by ministers. The Defence Secretary throughout that period was Geoff Hoon.

Air Commodore Baber is another “named” party in the report and whilst it is evident that he made mistakes in managing his organisation a number of significant points, which came out at the inquest, are “missed” by Haddon-Cave.

Whilst the Nimrod Safety Case, conducted between 2002 and 2004, was not the best that could have been carried out, there was in fact no requirement to undertake such a task for a legacy aircraft with an imminent Out Of Service Date, such as Nimrod. This is made clear in Baber’s inquest statement and is confirmed by Defence Equipment and Support. Furthermore, Baber states that the exercise was carried out in an “economic manner”, and “clearly if we made it far too complicated the whole aircraft would be out of service by the time we finished”. A fair and balance report should have mentioned this fact.

The Haddon-Cave report devotes some 161 pages to the Nimrod Safety Case, and yet fails to mention the fact that two important recommendations were made in 2004 by BAE Systems (another castigated organisation) with regards to fire/explosion assessment:

(a) That the “special use” fire suppression system in the bomb bay should be used in normal operations. Failure to do so could lead to the loss of the aircraft if a fire broke out in that area, and;

(b) That aluminium alloy unions in hydraulic pipes should be replaced with a stainless steel type to avoid heat damage.

Neither recommendation was implemented because of costs and the imminent Out Of Service Date. The Nimrod was lost over Afghanistan, having reported a bomb bay fire and when the pilot lost control as hydraulic couplings failed just 20 miles from Kandahar airport.

It is now becoming, clear from many of the statements made by witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry that during the time that Geoff Hoon held the senior defence position tight financial constraints were being imposed by the Treasury, at the time headed by Gordon Brown.

So why didn’t Haddon-Cave name ministers in his report, or at least interview them? Well seeing as the review/report was commission by the Defence Secretary, and cost £3.5 million, is it just a simple case of “He who pays the piper calls the tune”? No wonder Bob Ainsworth was so happy to accept it rather than the Coroner’s “legal” findings. It named people, which is what the families wanted, it protected ministers and it brought closure to an unfortunate accident.

  • Paul Spencer

    What an excellent piece of reporting, I have a pal who was a maintainence officer at Lossiemounth with many years service, and he frquently told me just how unsafe the Nimrod was, it didnt surprise me given that the airframe was a rejigged Comet (entered service 1949 modified for military use 1967). Of the aircraft at Lossiemouth the majority were on the ground either undergoing maintainence or awaiting a modification, those that do fly were often using canabalised parts to keep them in the air. The term “accidents waiting to happen” is alas something that all to readily comes to mind.
    The enquiry as per normal points the finger at the incident but also as per normal does not point the finger at the policy, of defence cuts that impact on existing equipment.We fight wars with weapons that are ill suited to the theatre where the fighting takes place and if we do get there then there is a substantial amount of weaponory that is just not fit for purpose.
    The fact is defending the nation costs money and until there is a proper analysis of what we are NOW capable of, rather than what we would LIKE to do then Im afraid another Nimrod/Chinook/Bowman/SA90/Boots scenario with the resultant loss of life is going to happen.

  • Holebender

    What a surprise; a report commissioned by the government points fingers at everyone except ministers. Are these people actually responsible for ANYTHING? If not, why are they there?

  • It is now time for these people to face the court,s.as long as it is not new labour that run,s the next government they must look at the last ten year,s of corruption. from war criminal,s and cover up,s it would keep at least twenty people in work for year,s.but as the country has no more money because of new labour their is not much chance of it happening.

  • John MacLeod

    It’s hardly a surprise that a government-commissioned report blames anyone but the government!

    Much has been made, quite rightly, of the fact that the plane in question is a military adaptation of a 60-year-old design for a commercial aircraft. A flying antique, with elementary design flaws in the conversion.

    Much less attention has been given to the question of who, in these circumstances, authorised deployment of the Nimrod to Afghanistan without adequate checks to ensure that 38(plus)-year-old airframes were sound and all systems were fit for operation in the service conditions likely to be experienced, and without adequate arrangements for enhanced maintenance provision in view of the intensive operating schedules likely to be encountered.

    Should it not have been doubly obvious, bearing in mind the history of the Comet, that planes, not unlike other pieces of machinery, tend to have differing reliability at different points in their lifespan? A ten-year old design is likely to be one in which the major design problems have been sorted out, or at least known. A forty-year-old plane, however, is one in which, short of a ground-up rebuild, all systems are to be regarded as (at best)suspect and the plane unfit for critical service operations except in dire emergency, and then only with very-greatly-increased maintenance provisions at very much shorter intervals.

    Precisely who authorised the deployment of the Nimrod to Afghanistan?
    Who specified and who implemented the maintenance provisions in connection with that deployment?

    • James Jones

      Nimrod was deployed to Afghanistan, because that is all we had. The ideal piece of equipment would has been the Predator UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle), but the purchase of such vehicles had been thwarted in 2005 “on cost grounds”, according to a senior ministerial official.

      The Nimrod task was complicated because it involved Air to Air Refueling on a regular basis; the upper operating temperature clearance had been extended based on extrapolated old data; and there were insufficient aircraft for the task. On the day that XV230 crash it had flown some 120 hours in the previous month, when 50 hours is the norm.

      To complete the story, after the accident, the a US Air Force Preditor (UAV) was deployed to protect the crash site. Our American friends were aware of the dangers.

      • John MacLeod

        Precisely. Nimrod was deployed “because it was all we had.” But if it was not safe to be deployed, then “we” had not really “got” it at all in terms of having anything fit for deployment in that particular environment under these conditions of operation.

        So the upper operating temperature clearance had been extended on the basis of an extrapolation of old data. That I was unaware of, but I’m not surprised. So who was culpably negligent in recommending the extension of such clearance?

        The most telling of all the factors, however, is the one in respect of which you have provided the relevant data — a duty cycle of 120 hours during the previous month, as opposed to the norm of 50 hours. Even with a duty cycle of 50 hours per month there was a problem in keeping those 40-year-old planes operational in UK conditions which were not particularly demanding. Clearly more than one of those planes sent to Afghanistan was in less than optimal condition. So who was responsible for deploying planes to Afghanistan in such poor condition? What changes were made to the maintenance and inspection schedules for that deployment in Afghanistan? Were the specified maintenance and inspection schedules adequate? Were they adhered to strictly?

        Elderly aircraft may have their place in the battle zone, as was evident in the case of Blackburn Buccaneers in the 1991 Gulf War, but quite manifestly the Nimrods were not fit for deployment to Afghanistan and further appear to have been deployed without an appropriate inspection and maintenance schedule.

        The situation was not that of a last-ditch struggle to defend home territory — it was deployment in pursuit of overseas political aims. As such, the deployment of those Ninrods and the detailed arrangements pertaining to the maintenance of them would seem to amount to criminal recklessness in pursuit of political goals.

        • James Jones

          John, it does get worse.

          In early 2006 a new type of servicing was introduced call Equalized Maintenance. Its aim was “to deliver savings on labour and spares” and delivered “Nimrod budget savings in excess of £2 million”. The first aircraft to complete this new kind of servicing, at the end of July 2006 was Nimrod XV230; the aircraft lost over Afghanistan on 2nd Sept.

          On completion of its servicing the aircraft had just one “shake down” flight before deployment “earlier than anticipated”. It appears that “there was insufficient time within the allocated maintenance period to rectify all of the leaks [fuel]as they did not affect aircraft safety”

          Criminal recklessness in pursuit of politcal goals, is a good way to sum the whole thing up. So where are the “named” politicians in the Haddon-Cave report?

  • My son was one of those killed aboard XV230, along with 13 other innocent men. What i find to be an absolute disgrace is that, to date, no action/disciplinary action has been taken against anyone for the dreadful loss of life aboard XV230. It may have been an accident, but all accidents have a cause and there are people responsible for those deaths. I hope eventually justice will be done and someone will be brought to account for killing my son. But i am not holding my breath.