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Armed Forces: RAF Nimrod XV230

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State of Defence. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I am able to inform the House today of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry into the crash of the RAF Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan on 2 September 2006.

“First, I know that the entire House will join me in paying tribute to the 14 serving personnel who lost their lives in this tragic incident. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, and indeed the men and women of the Armed Forces who I know feel the loss of their colleagues very deeply. Also, I would like to pay tribute to RAF Kinloss. This close community was hit hard by the Nimrod tragedy, but it has maintained magnificent support for the Nimrod crews deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan.

“I should remind the House that the purpose of a board of inquiry is to establish the circumstances of the crash and to learn lessons. A board of inquiry is a statutory process under Section 135 of the Air Force Act 1955 and is convened for any air accident. It makes recommendations to the chain of command on its findings. It does not seek to apportion blame. I am placing a copy of the board’s report in the Library of the House, redacted only to withhold personal information that we are required to protect under the Data Protection Act and information that could prejudice the security and effectiveness of the Armed Forces.

“The report is a detailed technical document. I am conscious that, in the time available for an Oral Statement, I will not be able to do justice to all the issues it raises. Therefore, I am making a supplementary Written Statement which sets out the board of inquiry’s conclusions in more detail, along with a summary of its recommendations and the actions taken by the chain of command.

“The board established that, on 2 September 2006, RAF Nimrod XV230 took off from its deployed operating base at 0913 hours Greenwich Mean Time on an essential operational flight. The initial stages of the mission appear to have gone according to plan. At 1111 hours, approximately 90 seconds after completing air-to-air refuelling, the crew experienced almost simultaneous fire and smoke warnings; smoke was observed in the cabin and flames from the rear of the engines on the starboard side. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft depressurised. The crew commenced emergency drills and, at 1114 hours, transmitted a mayday alert and turned to head for Kandahar airfield. At 1117 hours, a Harrier GR7 pilot reported that the aircraft had exploded.

“A combat search and rescue team confirmed that there were no survivors. Subsequently the site of the crash was secured, for as long as it was considered safe to do so, by a combined force of Canadian and British units. As quickly as possible, the board of inquiry was convened and travelled from the UK to the operational theatre to begin its investigation.

“The board of inquiry has conducted a thorough investigation with the material available to it. Throughout this process, the board has been assisted by other independent agencies, including two air accident investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport. It has been unable to identify with absolute certainty the cause of the fire. None the less, the board has deduced the most probable area where the fire started and the probable causes of the events and the factors that led to it.

“The board of inquiry concluded that the crash was not survivable. The cause was a fire that most likely resulted from escaped fuel igniting against a hot pipe in a compartment near the starboard wing-fuselage attachment—the No 7 tank dry bay, not in the bomb bay, as some have previously suggested. The fuel probably gained access to the pipe through a gap between two types of insulation. The fuel most likely came from one of two sources: a pressure-relief device in the main fuel tank, which may have released fuel during air-to-air refuelling, or a leaking fuel coupling.

“It is clear that the crew of Nimrod XV230 faced a series of complex and demanding emergencies. Throughout this incident they acted in an exemplary manner, calmly performing drills initiated by their captain in an attempt to save their aircraft. All are a credit to their respective services and to their families. I am sure that the whole House will join me in honouring their bravery and professionalism.

“This was a tragic accident, but there were a number of contributory factors that the board has identified. Both fuel and hot-air components are present together in the No 7 tank dry bay. The underestimation of that hazard was considered by the board as a contributory factor. Further possible contributory factors that could not be discounted and which are subject to further investigation include: the fuel and hot-air systems maintenance policy; the age of some of the component parts; the lack of a fire detection and suppression system within the No 7 tank dry bay; and the failure to consider the cumulative effects of a number of changes to the air-to-air refuelling capability when it was formally incorporated into the aircraft in 1989.

“The board found no evidence that the maintenance or servicing conducted on the aircraft was a cause or contributory factor in the loss of XV230. It also concluded that, while the continued commitment to long-term operations places pressure on the Nimrod force, there was no evidence that this was a cause or factor in the loss of the aircraft.

“It seems to me that some of the findings of the board of inquiry identify failings for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. On behalf of the MoD and the Royal Air Force, I would like to apologise for these failings to the House, but most of all to those who lost their lives, and to their families. I am sorry.

“At the time of the accident, the department took action to ensure that a similar scenario could not occur again on the Nimrod aircraft. These measures have been revised as the board’s findings have emerged. The chain of command has accepted the majority of the board’s recommendations and continues to pursue the outstanding recommendations made by the board to enhance the safety of our aircraft. The hot-air system remains switched off so that there is no hot pipe against which any fuel could ignite and we have an enhanced inspection regime to examine for any sign of fuel leakage. QinetiQ has conducted an independent investigation into the fuel system and confirmed that, in light of the measures we have taken since the crash, the fuel system is safe to operate. Air-to-air refuelling has also been suspended subject to further investigation. The Chief of the Air Staff’s professional judgment is that the Nimrod fleet is safe to fly. I have accepted his advice.

“By its nature, the board was not in a position to go into the history of these arrangements or to assess where responsibility lies for any failures. I do not underestimate the difficulties that face those responsible for assuring aircraft safety. Flying will never be risk-free. But I do believe that the families of those who died are due more of an explanation of the history than the board of inquiry could be expected to provide. I have therefore decided to put in place a review of the arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod aircraft over its service life; to assess where responsibility lies for any failures; to assess more broadly the process for compiling safety cases, taking account of best practice in the civilian and military world; and to make recommendations.

“I intend that this review will be led by a senior Queen’s Counsel, assisted by technical experts on aviation systems, who will examine all relevant papers and interview all those in a position to assist. BAE Systems, the aircraft designer, and QinetiQ, which supported the department in consideration of the safety case findings, have agreed that the review will have their companies’ full co-operation. The review will be able to recommend a full public inquiry if it is considered necessary and will keep the families of those who died informed of progress. We will publish the findings of the review, subject to considerations of operational security. I will make a Statement shortly confirming the membership and terms of reference of the review.

“All of the families have already received lump-sum payments through the Armed Forces pension scheme or through the Armed Forces compensation scheme and, where appropriate, ongoing pensions are now in payment. We are also in contact with lawyers representing a number of the families over additional claims for common law compensation. I have directed that these claims be assessed and settled as quickly as possible and for substantial interim payments to be made where appropriate.

“I recognise that the board of inquiry report will be painful reading, but I hope that the families and friends will take some comfort in finding answers to many of the questions that arise after an incident such as this”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for advance sight of the Statement. The loss of the Nimrod XV230 in September last year was a tragedy. Our first thoughts go to the families and friends of those who were killed. We on these Benches join the Minister in paying tribute to the crew who gave their lives in the service of this country. They did their very best, in a highly professional manner, to try and save their aircraft.

We also pay tribute to RAF Kinloss and the crews of other Nimrods who are currently deployed in support of vital operations in Afghanistan. We should not forget that they and other Royal Air Force personnel are constantly exposed to danger. We thank and congratulate the president and members of the board of inquiry for their thorough and hard work in very complicated and demanding circumstances. I pay tribute also to members of A Squadron, The Royal Canadian Dragoons, who at the time of the crash were about to go into operations against the Taliban. They saw the plane in difficulties, heard and saw the explosion, and were very quickly on the crash site, which they secured. With the Royal Air Force regiment, they removed the bodies and sensitive equipment.

This Nimrod was a very old aircraft, dating from the 1960s, which had been used very extensively, particularly in recent years. The plane was flying only because its replacement, the MRA4, has been delayed to save money. The Minister will be aware that many service men and women feel that this exemplifies the “Treasury view” that it is more cost-effective—and therefore preferable—to risk lives than to spend money which may not be essential. They feel that it reflects the wrong answer to the question, “How little spending can we get away with?”. In the mean time, the Royal Air Force will have to carry on with an ageing, unsatisfactory fleet. Can the Minister confirm that the ISD—in-service date—for the Nimrod MRA4 is still 2010?

While we welcome the setting up of the review of arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod, can the Minister assure the House that these planes are fit to fly in the mean time? These Nimrods require a high level of maintenance. Are the Government satisfied that there are sufficient personnel in place with the technical skills to keep these planes flying safely? An investigation by QinetiQ last year found that there was a considerable loss of expertise and experience.

The Statement mentions that there was a failure to consider the cumulative effects of changes to air-to-air refuelling capability and that AAR of Nimrods has, for the time being, been terminated. Can the Minister assure the House that this will not resume until safety issues are fully understood?

Finally, our Armed Forces are operating at a tempo well in excess of that for which they are resourced. There is a continual failure by the Government to properly understand the needs of the Armed Forces. The Statement admits that the MoD must take responsibility for some of the findings of the board of inquiry. There are reports in today’s newspapers of £15 billion in cuts to the defence budget. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that those reports are quite untrue and that the Government will give the Armed Forces the resources that they need to do their job properly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I associate myself and these Benches with the condolences expressed to the crew and their families regarding this incident. Words are always inadequate to express sympathy, but I hope that that sympathy will be passed to the families.

The essence of this was that a very, very old aircraft involved in crucial operations in supporting our Armed Forces was lost in an accident. Was that very old aircraft up to the job? The replacement of Nimrod is an ongoing saga of which we have heard dribs and drabs and details for many years. Will a finite date be set for its replacement? You would expect no aircraft of that age to be crucial to troops on the ground. Will the Minister confirm that it is seen as vital in the operational field of Afghanistan to have the intelligence-gathering capacity of the Nimrod? Without this we are effectively letting our troops down. If those planes cannot be guaranteed to be sufficient to deliver that capacity, we are risking the lives of the people on the ground, as well as the crews, and risking the ability of this country to fulfil its mission in Afghanistan, with all the things that come with it. I would encourage the Minister, when she replies, to give me an undertaking that sufficient spending will take place to make sure that this can be done properly. If it cannot, one wonders what we are doing there in the first place. If that means we have to go somewhere else to find such technology, will the Minister ensure that at a certain point in the future we will do that? We owe this to the air crew and those they support.

Returning to the essence of the Statement, the idea that something as crucial as intense heat generated by a piece of machinery would be allowed to come into contact with aircraft fuel, and that no further thinking was done about this, would seem an error that one hopes would never be allowed to recur. Is the Minister absolutely sure that this accident could never happen again with the new fire prevention methods in place, unless there was some external intervention such as enemy action? We need an undertaking such as that, especially to support the troops that depend on it.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply. When are we going to ensure that our troops get sufficient machinery, support and training? As the noble Lord, Lord Astor, mentioned, is there sufficient staff to maintain these aircraft? Have the pinch-points—I use the accepted jargon of the Armed Forces—been addressed as well? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, first, I appreciate the comments of both noble Lords about those who were on the Nimrod, and I am sure that their families and friends will also appreciate the condolences that have been expressed. It is right that on an occasion such as this we acknowledge the professionalism, skill and dedication of those involved, and I am sure that their families will appreciate what has been said.

Several questions have been asked about the age of the aircraft and other matters. I say right at the beginning that, in comparison with other aircraft that are flying around the world at present, the aircraft was not exceptionally old. In fact, the average age of the British fleet is considerably less than that of the United States fleet, even though the US spends an enormous amount more on its fleet than we do on ours. So it is not simply a question of ageing aircraft; the matter is far more complex than that. Those who have had time to read the report or look at it in detail will understand that it is not simply a question of the age of the aircraft.

Obviously, an older aircraft requires a great deal of maintenance, and I was asked about the skills required in that regard. The board of inquiry made it very clear that there was not a problem with maintaining or servicing the aircraft. Beyond that, there may have been a problem with the policies adopted and a question over whether there was a full understanding of all the changes and additions that had been made to the Nimrod, including air-to-air refuelling, which was an additional facility and not there originally. This is a complex issue, and therefore we have agreed to the review so that the whole history of every aspect and dimension can properly be taken into account.

I was asked specifically about the situation regarding air-to-air refuelling. Noble Lords may know that such refuelling has stopped at the moment. Although we cannot say that it was definitely air-to-air refuelling that caused this accident, we have to be cautious. As your Lordships know, there was another incident in November, and the problem associated with that is not yet fully understood—in fact, it has been impossible to replicate that problem on the ground. Therefore, air-to-air refuelling has been stopped at the moment, and I can give an assurance that it will not recommence until we are sure of the cause of the problem and certain that it is absolutely safe to move on. We would not take risks in that respect where there is a lack of knowledge.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked me about the heat that caused the fire. The heat was not generated by machinery but came from the secondary cooling pipe. There is a lot of machinery on these aircraft and often it needs to be cooled. The pipe in question has now been turned off, so there is no possibility of it getting hot in the future. We have assessed that, although the cooling that came from that pipe is important in some circumstances, it is currently not vital on operational missions. Therefore, that ignition has been removed, which is extremely important.

Questions were also asked about the MRA4 and its replacement. I can confirm that its in-service date is 2010, as has been the case for some time. There has been a delay but it has not been due simply to the cost. The estimated delay because of cost factors has been one year, whereas the overall delay has been seven years, and six years are accounted for by the technical challenges that came to light once the decision to go down that path had been made. So, at the moment—I think that this is a safe assumption—we are expecting the MRA4 to be in service in 2010. In terms of the surveillance and reconnaissance work, since October we have had the Reaper in operation over parts of Afghanistan. That is helpful.

Perhaps I may say a word about the aeroplane being fit to fly. There is no possibility that the Secretary of State, or anyone within the MoD, would allow any aircraft to fly unless they had absolutely the best advice that it was safe. I know that that is taken very seriously because, contrary to the suggestion made earlier, lives will always come first. I was asked about safety; safety is paramount. No one, be they the Secretary of State or the Chief of Air Staff, would ask people to do things that were not safe. Operationally and in every other way, the safety of our troops has to come first. The board of inquiry’s report makes many recommendations, but all of them are aimed at making those aircraft safer.

I shall finish my comments on the questions raised by mentioning the Canadians, who helped in the operation, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, pointed out. Members of A Squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons were in the vicinity and saw the aircraft in difficulty in the air. When they realised that it had crashed, despite being on an operation of their own, they diverted to the crash site, helped secure it, stayed overnight, then went back to complete their operation. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work that they did.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and associate myself with the expressions of condolence to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in this tragic accident. We should also thank the noble Baroness for indicating that further inquiries will go on into this accident, and for admitting, as she did in the Statement, that some of the fault lies within the Ministry of Defence. That is a frank admission and we should recognise it as such.

One difficulty for the Nimrod force is that it has had to operate at a high intensity and it will continue to operate at a high intensity. It is clear that age is not the reason for this accident, but aircraft of that age do present one with potential further problems. Therefore my question refers to the Nimrod MRA4, which is now due into service, according to the noble Baroness, in 2010—I thought it was 2011, but let that pass. I wonder whether anything can be done, perhaps as an urgent operational requirement, to bring forward the entry into service date of that aircraft and so reduce the time that the present Nimrod force has to continue to operate. There is, as has been expressed elsewhere in the House, an urgent need to get as much reconnaissance and intelligence information as possible for those operating in these theatres. If anything can be done to bring that aircraft forward, I would welcome that very much.

My Lords, I appreciate the comments that the noble and gallant Lord has made and I am sure that the families will, too. I am glad that he recognises that the Secretary of State has taken an important step by acknowledging that responsibility for parts of the problem lies within the MoD and the RAF. It is right that when problems of this scale arise, we should do that. I appreciated his comments. It has been a very difficult time for everybody involved, and the board of inquiry report will be read thoroughly and be considered carefully by everybody who has been involved at every stage of the development of this aircraft.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, is quite right to talk about the high intensity of the work that the Nimrod undertakes in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is important work and quite critical to many of the operations we undertake there. I understand why the noble and gallant Lord would like the MRA4 to be in operation as soon as possible; I am sure that that is the case with everyone in theatre. However, it cannot go into operation—the noble and gallant Lord knows this better than I—until it has undergone all the tests, all the assessments and all the work, and we have all the assurances we need. Yes, it would be good if we could have it earlier, but we cannot have it in operation until we are fully satisfied that all the technical challenges that were so difficult in the early days have been completed and that we can safely deploy it.

I appreciate the remarks of the noble and gallant Lord about age not being a simple factor and the reason for the problem. He knows that the situation is more complex than that, and I am grateful to him for pointing that out.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of my connections with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and of the non-pecuniary interest I have recently mentioned in the Chamber. Does she accept that all our sympathies and thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives and whose professionalism and bravery is well accepted by us all?

Looking to the future, the Minister has already this afternoon given a timescale for the replacement of the Nimrod fleet. Can she say a little more about how long it will take to upgrade the existing Nimrod fleet, which is obviously extremely important in terms of what she has already said?

My Lords, there will be some overlap between the new MRA4 coming online and the existing Nimrods being phased out. The phasing out will start in 2012.

My Lords, it is natural that our thoughts should be with the families of those most concerned with this incident and that attention should be focused on the continuing serviceability of this aircraft. I am extremely glad that the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, mentioned the strain on the servicing crews and those who must maintain our equipment. I remember, during the first Gulf War, that every morning I had to sign aircraft tickets sending specialists out to the Gulf to repair equipment which previously would have been repaired by people in service. The more complicated, and older, our equipment gets, the more care will be needed. Can the Minister assure the House that the same care will be taken to ensure the viability of the servicing crews of these aircraft as well as the serviceability of the aircraft themselves?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, makes a valid point. It is important that we get all stages of our operations right, including the servicing crews to ensure that we maintain the viability of aircraft once they have been deployed. He will know that there is a large community of people based up in Kinloss who provide a great deal of background support for the Nimrod. I give an assurance that we will do all we can to ensure that servicing crews are carefully considered and that we take the necessary steps to maintain viability of these aircraft throughout their operational life.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I welcome the board of inquiry’s report, which is not only thorough but extremely frank. It does not—I suppose because of the circumstances surrounding this awful tragedy—answer all the questions that many of us would wish to ask. However, it clearly and specifically covers the point that no fault, blame or criticism can be levelled at any of the 14 members of the Nimrod crew who lost their lives in this awful accident.

The report does not totally remove the concern that some may have that funding pressures played a role in the issues that came together to cause this accident. I accept that, as the report makes clear, it is too simple to say that the age of the aircraft caused the accident. I join other Members in extending sincere condolences to the families of the crew. They live with the emotional strains and concerns that come from losing a loved one in such a situation. I welcome the further review; many of us will follow it very closely. What ongoing communications will there be with the families? I welcome the fact that issues that have caused concern in the past—delays in pensions and compensation—have been addressed by the Secretary of State, but for those families today is not the end but just the end of one stage. Will the Minister explain to the House what ongoing arrangements are in place to keep in touch with them and to support them?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her comments and for her welcome for the work of the board of inquiry. I agree that the report is frank. It is frank when it does not know all the answers, and that straightforwardness has to be welcomed. The board of inquiry could not come to absolute conclusions. That is not a criticism of the board, which was straightforward and direct about the constraints under which it was operating. It was not possible to access the crash site as it would have been dangerous to the members of the board and to those charged with taking them to the site. The knowledge of the board was therefore limited. It has done a significant job and has presented a complex issue in a comprehensible way. The families will appreciate the tone, detail and honesty of the report, which includes listing what information they can be certain about and what there is still some doubt about. That mature approach will be appreciated.

I am glad that my noble friend welcomed the review. I am sure that many people will watch what happens in detail. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will shortly be making a statement about who will be heading this inquiry and the terms of reference. It is intended that the families will be kept informed about developments so that they will feel that any remaining concerns they have can be expressed and that they will be taken on board and followed through.

However, I disagree with my noble friend about funding and this accident. The board of inquiry makes it clear that maintenance, servicing and operational pressures were not factors in this accident. They are the three areas where there could have been resource implications. It is clear that resources were not a factor in this, and we should say that clearly from the start. The House has been united in its appreciation of the work undertaken by the Nimrod crew and its back-up staff. On a day such as today we should think of the families and what we can do for them. We should continue to agree that this is a serious issue, that lessons can be learnt for the future and that people are accepting their responsibilities. If we can help the families by involving them and keeping them informed of what is happening in the further review, we should clearly do so.

My Lords, does the Secretary of State’s Statement not make it perfectly clear that three of the contributions to this tragic accident, which caused the loss of 14 British service lives, were, first, the underestimation of the hazard of fuel and hot air components being present together in the No. 7 tank dry bay; secondly,

“the age of some of the component parts”;

and, thirdly,

“the lack of a fire detection and suppression system within the No. 7 tank dry bay”?

I am of course quoting from the Statement. Does that not suggest very strongly—indeed, perhaps make it crystal clear—that this Nimrod aircraft was not fit for the purpose for which it was being used? Do not the Government have a very simple choice to make: they either provide the resources required for our military commitments, or they adjust our military commitments to the resources which they are prepared to provide? Which do the Government intend to do?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the conclusions that have just been reached. It is true that the issue of underestimating the hazards was a factor. It was one factor over many years, complicated by all the changes that have taken place, such as the introduction of air-to-air refuelling and its consolidation in the later 1980s. Some of these problems go back a very long way, and we have to look at every aspect from the design of the original plane to any of the changes that have since taken place.

The fire was caused by the hot air and the fuel. That was the source of the ignition. We have closed that hot air pipe so that that cannot be replicated in the future. So far as the suggestion that there could be fire suppression just in that area, it is far more complicated that that. It was suggested that there should be fire suppression in the bomb bay when the aircraft were being altered and fuel tanks were established. The bomb bay is a big space, and the combination of the tanks taking some of that space and proper suppression could have made the difference in certain circumstances. This fire did not start in the bomb bay, so that is not the focus at the moment.

Mention was made of the age of some components. That is true. The age of two components was mentioned as a possible—but only a possible—factor in this. The two components are the couplings and seals, which over time may have deteriorated. It is suggested that all the seals should be replaced. But there is a contrary view that if you disturb seals you might create a greater problem and another risk, because research shows that seals do not act consistently and predictably. That is being looked at further, and further comment will be made about it in due course.

The second issue about possible deterioration was in respect of the insulation. Where two different types of insulation around that pipe came together, a gap had developed. It is not known whether that gap developed because the components had not been replaced or whether it had been there from the start, so it is clearly not as simple as saying, “Some components were old—therefore they caused this problem”. These aircraft are audited and serviced frequently. It is important that we understand that the Nimrod’s overall safety record is very good indeed.