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RAF Fast Jets

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the safety of Royal Air Force fast jets, a subject that concerns the safety of RAF personnel, civilian air traffic and all those who use it, as well as communities under the flight paths of RAF fast jets.

At present the RAF operates three types of fast jet: the Hawk trainer, which flies from RAF Valley on Ynys Môn, or Anglesey; the Tornado, which flies from RAF Marham in Norfolk and RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency of Moray; and the Typhoon, which is operating from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. In the near future, the RAF and the Royal Navy will operate the F-35 Lightning from RAF Marham.

As anybody who has seen any of those aircraft in flight will attest, they operate at incredible speeds, which can reach over 1,000 mph. The cost of a single fast jet ranges from around £20 million each for a Hawk to around £100 million each for an F-35. RAF personnel are trained to exceptionally high standards over a long and sustained period and on an ongoing basis throughout their entire career. I have had the good fortune while representing Moray to get to know a great many of those personnel, and I hold them in the highest regard, both personally and professionally.

There are many aspects of fast jet safety that I could highlight, but in the time available this evening I will concentrate my remarks on the risk of mid-air collision. Sadly, air proximity risks are all too common in UK airspace. Official statistics from the UK Airprox Board show that between 1998 and 2013 there were 361 airprox events involving Tornado jets, of which at least 46 were in the most dangerous “Risk Category A”, meaning that a risk of an actual collision occurred, and of those at least eight involving two Tornadoes. Data on airprox incidents between 2000 and 2012 reveal that the number of airprox incidents involving Tornado jets was higher than for all other types of aircraft, both civilian and military, and that Tornadoes have been involved in 12% of all incidents.

Of course, there have also been airprox incidents involving other types of fast jet. One year ago, there was a detailed report on Wales Online about a near collision between Hawk jets above Aberystwyth. The pilots had the benefit of a collision warning system—also known as a traffic collision avoidance system—on board their aircraft, which alerted them with the warning, “Traffic, Traffic,” and the collision was averted. That example shows that the CWS or TCAS is installed in Hawk jets. It is mandatory on commercial airliners and it is installed across most of the RAF fleet, but not on Tornadoes or Typhoons.

Last week was the second anniversary of the 2012 collision of two Tornado fast jets from RAF Lossiemouth above the Moray firth. Three brave, dedicated and professional personnel were killed in the collision—Flight Lieutenant Hywel Poole, Squadron Leader Sam Bailey and Flight Lieutenant Adam Sanders—and a fourth was seriously injured. We pay our tributes to them today and I am sure that the thoughts of everyone in this Chamber are with their families, friends and colleagues at RAF Lossiemouth and elsewhere. The death of service personnel in accidents, especially if they are avoidable, is particularly painful.

Just prior to the anniversary last week, the Military Aviation Authority’s service inquiry report on the 2012 Tornado collision was published. It concluded that there were 17 contributory factors, including the absence of a collision warning system, which, as I have said, is mandatory on civilian aircraft and is installed across most of the RAF fleet, but not on Tornadoes or Typhoons.

The inquiry reported that the need for a collision warning system was highlighted within the Ministry of Defence 24 years ago, following a collision in 1990. Through the dogged research of air safety campaigner Jimmy Jones, who worked as an RAF Nimrod engineer, and from freedom of information inquiries and parliamentary questions answered by the MOD, we know that in the early to late 1990s there was an extensive collision warning system development programme that led the MOD to believe it was feasible. The report highlights the inclusion and feasibility at paragraph

For the sake of clarification, will the Minister confirm in his summing up that an extensive collision warning system development programme was started in the early 1990s and that it led the MoD to believe that it was feasible? That start date is essential in understanding what I believe followed and what is an extremely serious charge: a series of negligent MOD decisions that may have led to the deaths of RAF personnel and the risk of many others.

The requirement for a CWS was made in the 1998 strategic defence review of the then Labour Government:

“Improving the Tornado GR4 bomber and its deployability—deployment packs to assist rapid deployment on operations, additional support manpower, engine and avionics spares packages; portable engineering and hanger accommodation; and”—


“a collision warning system to improve safety for man and machine”.

As we can see, without any ambiguity, the MOD was formally committed to such a collision warning system—a commitment that has still not been fully delivered to this day.

The report says:

“Although a specific Strategic Defence Review commitment, Secretary of State did not declare the funding to be non-discretionary; therefore Collision Warning System was prioritised and funded as part of the normal planning process (meaning it could be delayed by Central Staffs and the profile of implementation altered during its development”.

The Secretary of State at the time was George Robertson, now the noble Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. Given what we know about the delays that followed, it would be good to hear from Lord Robertson why spending on this life-saving technology was not protected.

What we go on to learn from the service inquiry report about CWS procurement is truly shocking. It states that

“it has suffered from numerous delays, cancellations and deferments without a coherent audit trail, which has made it difficult for the SI Panel to gain a complete picture of decision making. However, we know that, following numerous accidents, the 1998 SDR instigated the development of a CWS for the Tornado GRl/4 to be fitted ‘early next century’. Over the next 14 years the programme was subject to five deferrals, re-programming prioritisation, deletion in 2010 and eventual resurrection in 2012 on direction of the Secretary of State for Defence following elevation of the Tornado mid-air collision risk”.

The report goes on to highlight a number of particularly noteworthy milestones along the route of delays, cancellation and reinstatement. In 2004, the director of Air Staff said that

“it is difficult to defend the non-equipage of the Tornado and successor fleets with a Collision Warning System”,


“our belief that the CWS provision for Tornado is overdue and find it increasingly difficult to maintain the line we have taken with the CAA”

—the Civil Aviation Authority—

“that progress on introducing CWS is being made.”

In 2005, the Tornado collision warning system initial gate business case estimated how many aircraft would be lost if it was not installed, stating that

“historical data suggests there is a statistical probability of losing another 9 Tornados and 5 civilian aircraft before the Out of Service Date.”

That very same year, however, the MOD deferred CWS, and maintained a grotesque “Yes Minister” formulation that although there was funding in place for a 2010 in service date,

“it was not misleading for external communications”

to continue their line, knowing fine well that it would be installed only for 2014. The report found that:

“The lack of a CWS fitted to Tornados GR4s by 2012 is a direct consequence of Short Term Plan 2005 activity”,

and that there was

“no explanation why Defence Management Board were not told of the reality of the likely deferral on the In Service Date”.

I ask the Minister to confirm whether this is correct.

Does the Minister agree with the SI report that in 2010 the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), cancelled the collision warning system for Tornado? Does he agree with the report when it pointed out that that was not in line with established procedure? Does he agree with the report that

“fitting a CWS to the Tornado GR4 is assessed to reduce the risk of collision from 1 in 3 to a 1 in 6 before its Out of Service Date”?

Does he agree with the warnings that the catastrophic risk of collision with a commercial airline

“gives rise to the strongest societal concerns.”

That societal risk, as outlined by the then Under-Secretary, was talked about at length in the next section of the report. That section highlighted comments by the director general of the Military Aviation Authority, stating that the fact that the Tornadoes would be out of service soon was

“unlikely to be accepted as compensation for the apparent failure of the Dept to implement the programme hitherto—herein lies the very significant ‘societal risk’ that the Dept is viewed publicly as having been derelict in its duty of care to both its personnel and the public at large.”

What was warned about has come to pass, and three of my constituents died above the Moray firth when their Tornadoes collided.

It is taken six months since the completion of the service inquiry for the report to be published. Its contents are damning. There are many elements that I do not have time to go into, including the loss of key documentation by the MOD in relation to the CWS issue. The report makes it clear that not all relevant documentation was available to the service inquiry, including the report of the Tornado airworthiness review team.

Before I sum up, I want to ask the Minister a series of questions about the decisions of Defence Ministers in his and past Governments, which I hope he will be able to answer. Why did the then Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, having identified the collision warning system in the 1998 strategic defence review as a system that would

“improve safety for man and machine”,

allow it to fall into discretionary spending, which meant that it could be delayed repeatedly? Why did the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Drayson, accept the advice of officials that if it appeared that the MOD was funding a collision system for Tornado, it was not misleading to suggest it would be installed by 2009, when he was briefed that the date was actually 2014?

After repeated warnings from the risk holders and the director general of the Military Aviation Authority that it would not mean Tornado risk was as low as reasonably practicable—ALARP—why did the then Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset, cancel the CWS programme? After holding the societal risk for a mid-air collision involving a Tornado for only six days, why did he reinstate the programme? Why were proper procedures not followed after the risk was no longer tolerable and routine flying operations stopped? What happened to the Under-Secretary’s order to deliver a review into the planning and programming situation that led to CWS being deleted? The report was due to be done in August 2011. It is missing. Where is it? Was it ever completed?

Why were key documents such as the Tornado airworthiness review team report not available to the service inquiry? Did the SI board consider the 1996 TART report? Why was publication of the service inquiry report delayed for so long? The Government issued a statement last week accepting liability for the 2012 Tornado collision. I understand that settlements may not yet be completed with all the victims’ families and that for legal reasons that may constrain what the Minister can say. However, on what basis have the Government accepted liability?

God forbid that there are any further collisions, but on the basis of MOD legal advice will the Government accept liability for any future mid-air collision involving a Tornado without a collision warning system?

What about Typhoons, which are currently in service and also operating without a CWS? Only last month, a German Luftwaffe Typhoon crashed with a Learjet near Olsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Learjet came down near a populated area killing both people aboard. Remarkably, the Typhoon of the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 landed safely at Nörvenich airbase near Cologne after the collision. The incident illustrates the risks of mid-air collision involving Typhoon aircraft. Now is the time for the MOD to explain why it is so far behind with the evaluation and installation of a collision warning system for Typhoons.

On 13 May, I received a written parliamentary answer to the following question:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what collision warning system is currently being tested on Typhoon aircraft; when he expects testing to be completed; when a decision will be taken to install such a system; and what the estimated total cost is.”

The Under-Secretary, who is replying to this debate, said:

“Analysis is currently underway into potential collision warning system capability for Typhoon. A system has not yet been fitted on a Typhoon aircraft for testing.

It is not possible at this stage to provide a timetable for the development of this capability, or for the decision on whether to install such a system on the aircraft. Similarly, it is too early to estimate the likely cost of such a system.”—[Official Report, 13 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 444W.]

Given that, will the Minister confirm why it is not possible at this stage to provide a timetable for the development of this capability? Why has there not been a decision on whether to install such a system? Why is it too early to estimate the likely cost of such a system?

I have asked many questions this evening and I hope that the Under-Secretary will answer them all. I have no reason to doubt his best intentions, but I fear that he will not answer a great many of them. I believe that the brave RAF personnel who fly fast jets deserve the answers. I believe that service families deserve the answers and that there is a public interest in fully understanding what has happened and, more important, what has not happened when it comes to RAF fast jet safety.

I believe that there is public interest in who made the decisions to delay, cancel and reinstate the installation of a collision warning system and why. We should know why it was acceptable in the Ministry of Defence to mislead about the time scale on a CWS for Tornadoes and to allow this to drag on for so long.

Given what we have learned from the service inquiry by the Military Aviation Authority, the time has come for these questions to be properly answered, under oath in a fatal accident inquiry.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on securing a debate on what all hon. Members accept is an important matter. I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond, if not to all the hon. Gentleman’s questions—he acknowledged that he asked a great many. I will attempt to answer as many as I can and, where I am unable to do that, we will write to him in due course.

Air safety is of paramount concern not only to me, but clearly to everyone in the RAF and in the Ministry of Defence. I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the matter. He is a consistent questioner of the Department on the subject. I am therefore pleased that we have an opportunity to have a debate about it and to talk specifically about the RAF’s fast jet operations.

I pay tribute to the men and women of the RAF who operate fast jets and dedicate their service to the defence of our country. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised concerns about the tragic loss of Squadron Leader Sam Bailey, Flight Lieutenant Hywel Poole and Flight Lieutenant Adam Sanders, when two Tornadoes collided above the Moray firth near his constituency two years ago last week. My thoughts and sympathies are also with the families and friends of those who died so tragically.

I wish to make it clear from the outset that the RAF is satisfied that all risks to life associated with the operation of its fast jets are both tolerable and as low as reasonably practicable—ALARP. If that were not the case, the RAF would not fly these aircraft. I can assure the House that air safety is at the core of all the RAF’s aviation activity. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept that no flying can ever be without risk, yet prior to that tragic loss and despite the proximity events to which he has referred, there has not been a mid-air collision involving RAF Tornado for 13 years.

The service inquiry into the tragic loss two years ago has been painstakingly thorough, taking more than 100 witness statements, including 60 interviews within three weeks of the incident. It concluded in November 2013 that the cause of the accident was lack of recognition of converging flight paths. Seventeen contributory factors were identified, of which only one was lack of a collision warning system. The purpose of the service inquiry was not to attribute blame, but to ensure that we learn lessons from that tragic incident and do whatever we can to prevent it from happening again. The MOD has accepted liability for the incident, and will continue to liaise closely with the families affected. As the matter is subject to further legal proceedings, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.

In recent years, and in particular following the publication of the Nimrod review, which was undertaken by Charles Haddon-Cave, QC in 2009, significant work has been undertaken to improve flight safety. Not least, we have now established an independent military aviation authority, the role of which is to regulate all military aviation activity and to assure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that risks are being managed to an acceptable level. Since 2010, all aviation risks are owned and managed by named duty holders. They are very senior, suitably qualified and experienced officers who are personally and legally accountable for the safe operation of their aircraft.

The risk of mid-air collision is well known to the MOD and a great deal of work has been undertaken to reduce it, both in the UK and overseas. At the time of the incident, the MOD was in the process of introducing the centralised aviation data service, a pre-sortie planning tool that allows aircrew to plan a sortie and identify what other aircraft have planned routes in the vicinity. That planning tool is but one of a range of measures in place to minimise the risk of mid-air collision. Others include extensive aircrew training designed to ensure that pilots are fully aware of their surroundings; use of transponder equipment in military aircraft; aircraft and ground-based radar; and air traffic control.

It is clear from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that he believes that a collision warning system would have prevented that tragic accident, but it is simply not possible to be that definitive. The service inquiry did not conclude that the lack of a collision warning system caused the accident. The inquiry specifically stated that

“it is not possible to completely remove the risk of colliding with another aircraft regardless of the controls and mitigations put in place”.

Therefore, a collision warning system is not a panacea. It cannot guarantee that a mid-air collision would never happen again. A CWS provides an additional level of security and another tool for the aircrew to use. The majority of RAF fleets have a collision warning system or a plan to fit such a system. Airborne collision avoidance systems are installed on all RAF multi-engine transport aircraft. The Hawk T2, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, has a traffic collision avoidance system—TCAS II—fitted, and we are currently in the assessment phase to fit a system to Hawk T1.

However, such capability on front-line fast jets remains developmental. It is not simply a matter of fitting existing equipment that is available for civil-registered aircraft. The Ministry of Defence is in fact a lead within Europe for the development and embodiment of CWS on existing fast military jets. That is despite the technological and operational challenges of retrofitting such a system to fleets whose performance far exceeds that of normal aircraft profiles and performance.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, we have initiated a programme to fit Tornado aircraft with a similar system. This is currently being trialled on two aircraft, and a third has been fitted for further development. On current planning, we intend to introduce this capability in stages from later this year.

Analysis is currently under way into the potential to fit a collision warning system on to Typhoon aircraft, but it is too early to provide a timetable for development of this capability. The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions in response to a previous written parliamentary answer I provided to one of his questions. I am not in a position to be able to give him any further comfort on why this is the case, other than that it is a very complex process, and that at this stage we are not far enough along in that process to be able to give clarity on either timetable or cost.

Looking forward, the F-35 Lightning II will have a limited collision warning system in its early capability block, which is supplemented by advanced sensors and software to provide pilots with a much higher level of situational awareness than our existing platforms.

On the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the procurement for the Tornado collision warning system, it is a matter of record that the commitment to fit a collision warning system to Tornado aircraft was made in the 1998 strategic defence review. Developing such a system proved difficult and attempts to develop a bespoke solution were unsuccessful during the early part of the past decade. It was only in 2008 that a commercial off-the-shelf collision avoidance system was identified as a potential solution for the Tornado GR4 fleet, and detailed design work began in December 2012 following the award of a contract to BAE Systems. It is true that the programme had been cancelled in April 2011—I think the hon. Gentleman said it was in 2010—as part of measures to bring the Department’s equipment budget back into balance, but that decision was revised within three months, clearly demonstrating the success of the post-Nimrod review duty holder construct. The duty holder elevated the risk to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), on 14 June 2011, who within a week directed that the collision warning system should be reinstated.

Of course, fitment of a collision warning system to the Tornado fleet was not the only recommendation in the service inquiry. The other procurement recommendation was for new automatic personal locator beacons, which were contracted last month and are due to enter service in autumn 2015. I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the service inquiry findings were reviewed as a matter of urgency throughout the MOD and substantial progress has already been made in implementing the 42 recommendations.

I can answer one specific question posed by the hon. Gentleman in relation to the Tornado airworthiness review team report of 1994, which has been released by Defence Equipment and Support under a freedom of information request.

In conclusion, we recognise that air safety is not just about equipment. Risk management and training form an integral part of safety management. The RAF seeks to improve all aspects of its safety management system, which holds, at its core, the principle of continuous improvement. I would like to make it clear that the safety of our aircrew, other aviators and the general public, and protecting our aircraft to maintain a defence capability, are of utmost importance to the RAF.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.