Saturday, 27 October 2007

An event cascade

Several newspapers, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, give an airing today to the "fresh evidence" which has emerged concerning the cause of the loss of Nimrod XV230, which exploded in mid air September year last, close to Kandahar, after a catastrophic fuel leak.

The gist of the evidence, obtained by Graham Knight, the father of 25-year-old Sergeant Ben Knight - one of the 14 servicemen killed in the crash – was that fuel leaks were a common problem in the Nimrod fleet and that "RAF officials kept flying the doomed Nimrod … despite knowing of leak problems". The RAF, in fact, had been repeatedly warned about potentially serious problems with ageing Nimrod aircraft.

Mr Knight is cited as claiming: "It was definitely a fuel leak that led to the crash … It is quite obvious that an aircraft would not suddenly burst into a ball of flames," adding, "I think the major failures have been down to communication problems. There were people higher up who knew there were problems with this aircraft but there was pressure to get it out to theatre as soon as possible."

The fuel leakage problems have, in fact, been followed assiduously by Mick Smith in the Sunday Times (and here, for example) and, pending the now delayed publication of the Board of Inquiry report, it would seem that the most probable cause of the disaster was indeed a major fuel leak, combined with one or more failures which gave rise to the ignition of the escaping fuel.

However, if it was a fuel leak which gave rise to the disaster, this would have been only the proximate cause, the last in a long chain of events which combined to give rise to the fateful explosion. This, we have come to call the "event cascade".

Starting at the beginning, it is highly germane to note that this aircraft was carrying out a reconnaissance mission, monitoring a NATO offensive against Taliban insurgents west of Kandahar. To that effect, it was providing real-time video imagery from an MX-15 electro-optical turret to ground stations and commanders, to assist ground operations.

Therein lies, possibly, the root of the problem. Famously, the Nimrod is a maritime surveillance aircraft, and not designed for land battle surveillance. The fact that a Nimrod was having to be used for this role is therefore, in itself, an issue. Had there been more appropriate aircraft – or other equipment – then the Nimrod would not have been there at all, and the disaster would never have happened.

This is an issue we partially explored in our immediate response to the Nimrod crash, pointing out that the tasks being carried out by the aircraft could just as easily have been carried out by Predator UAVs.

As we also pointed out, though, the British tactical UAV programme has been an unmitigated (and expensive) disaster, which means that such assets were not available in the theatre.

UAVs apart, there are other aircraft which can carry the MX-15 electro-optical turret, and therefore could have offered the surveillance capability provided by the Nimrod. These include the BN Defenders, currently flown by the Army Air Corps. Other examples are the Iraqi-operated Sama 2000 and the Super Tucano strike aircraft.

That begs the question as to why alternative – and considerably more economic - aircraft were not used. Here, there are two factors. Firstly, through the years, there has been considerable neglect of battlefield surveillance capabilities, by an RAF indifferent to the needs of the Army yet so jealous of its status that it consistently bars the Army from acquiring its own fixed-wing assets.

Secondly, in the post Cold War era, the Nimrod squadrons were under-employed, no longer having Soviet submarines to shadow. Fearing even more cuts in the surveillance capability, the RAF was keen to see the aircraft employed on other duties. Therefore, the RAF actively lobbied for the deployment of Nimrods to Afghanistan, even though they were far from being the optimal aircraft.

This, to an extent, could explain Mr Knight's comment that, "There were people higher up who knew there were problems with this aircraft but there was pressure to get it out to theatre as soon as possible." The pressure came from the Air Force itself which, in pursuit of its own partisan interests, put in equipment which was not up to the job. When they were told of problems, they did not want to know.

Gradually, now, the situation is improving. It seems unlikely that the deployment of German surveillance Tornadoes, in the wake of the disaster, was entirely a coincidence, while there are now two upgraded Predators (Reapers) in theatre, the JSTAR Sentinel is shortly to be deployed, and the Army is acquiring Beechcraft RC-12 electronic surveillance aircraft (above left).

The Sentinel apart, these assets have been acquired in response to direct operational needs, but they are needs which could and should have been predicted. That they were not says a great deal for the problems of inter-service rivalry and the lack of foresight in the procurement process.

And it is here, in the procurement process that, perhaps, the greatest fault lies. Throughout this blog, we have constantly attempted to make the link between procurement decisions and operational decisions, the latter conditioned by the former but often made years after the original event.

Arguably, therefore, to look to the roots of the Nimrod disaster, one must look back over the years to a myriad of bad decisions, and decisions not made, all of which, cumulatively led to Nimrod XV230 falling out of the sky on that fateful September day - an "event cascade" that went back decades.