Tuesday, 4 December 2007

John Nichol on the Today Programme

Introducing an item on the expected Nimrod Board of Inquiry report today, James Naughtie on the Today Programme this morning told us that: "The results are certainly going to feed into the debate about defence spending."

He then interviewed Graham Knight, father of Ben Knight – one of the crewmen who died in the crash - before moving on to John Nichol, the ex-RAF Tornado navigator who was shot down in the First Gulf War. This is what Nichol had to say:

James Naughtie: What's the most important thing here from the point of view of future policy and resourcing of the armed services?

John Nichol: Well, it will be the lessons learned and of course the military always says this – it will always talk about the lessons learned. But … many of those lessons were learned before this tragic crash and the loss of 14 lives upon that Nimrod. And of course he talked about Sir Glen Torpy, the chief of the Air Staff, a very respected officer, talking about he believes the aircraft is safe. But the reality is that when these officers say that the safety of crew is important, what they actually mean is that that the safety of crew is important balanced against the need for ongoing military operations, and that's the risk that our men and women are asked, in my view asked too often, to take every single day.

James Naughtie: Do you think they are being asked without enough attention being given to the equipment they use?

John Nichol: Well, I think that if you look at all of the recent commentators, from military chiefs talking about the military covenant being broken, to talk about the lack of resources, most people would say that the military is trying to do far too much with far too little, and they're trying to it too often. Most people say that the military covenant is already broken and some people say that the military system is near collapse and I think that's the reality of the situation. Our men and women in many ways, they're their own worst enemies, the men and women of our Armed Forces, because they continue to operate under incredibly difficult adverse conditions and they do it with, most of the time with equipment that's not the best that's available. And of course the politicians and military leaders rely on that dedication to duty but at some point they're going to have to stop relying on it and give the men and women the equipment that they need to carry out the job to the best of their abilities.

James Naughtie: And this will be an important report because of the importance of the Nimrod and the fact that it's an ageing plane …

John Nichol: Look, the Nimrod is 40 years old and until recently it wasn't the oldest aircraft in the Air Force and old aircraft continue to fly. But the reality is that the Nimrod is absolutely crucial to operations, especially in Afghanistan. There's no doubt about that. The reality is that the Nimrod should have been grounded – everybody says that until these problems were actually solved - but you can't ground the Nimrod because then you leave the Army on the ground unprotected and without the intelligence that it needs. And that's the whole of this Catch 22 situation.

James Naughtie: There's another question here … the difference between failures, faults and design faults, something that's built in that is weak, rather than something that just goes wrong and is not maintained properly.

John Nichol: Well look, I'm not going to speak for the Air Force but they would say that the Nimrod's got an incredibly good safety record over 40 years. For the families of those 14 that were killed, that means absolutely nothing. But, as I said at the beginning, the safety of the crew is not paramount, despite what any senior officer says. The safety of the crew is paramount when balanced with the need for ongoing operations, and that means that the men and the women of our Air Force that are flying Nimrods and some other aircraft are asked to put their lives on the line to continue military operations. And I don't just mean in the face of enemy action and that is something that somebody has got to deal with in the not too distant future or there will no more men and women of our Armed Forces to continue those military operations.

James Naughtie: John Nichol, thanks.