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.