The replacement for the Nimrod spy plane, the Nimrod MRA4, was ordered in 1996. Since then we have had five defence secretaries. Michael Portillo, Des Browne, John Reid, Geoff Hoon and George Robertson. They've been in post for less than three years each. During that time the project to replace the Nimrod has suffered repeated delays. The plane should have been in service by April 2003. It is now forecast to arrive in September 2010 despite increases in its budget - there are even suggestions it could take till 2012. All this we already knew thanks to the National Audit Office MoD Major Projects Report (PDF).
Now we find out that the MoD has not just failed to keep the project on track but has also failed to effectively maintain the existing fleet of Nimrod MR2 planes. The Telegraph reports that:
"The Board investigation identified what Mr Browne admitted were key "failings":
Fuel may have leaked because ageing rubber seals cracked and withered. Despite advice from the manufacturers, the MoD had not been routinely removing and inspecting seals, because engineers were worried about having to replace them. BAe, the plane's manufacturer advised as long ago as 1985 that such inflight over-flows were possible, but no action was taken.
Another cause of the fuel leak could have been an overflow from the plane's fuel tanks.
After a heat-pipe malfunction on another Nimrod in 2004 melted fuel seals, the MoD rejected an RAF request to fit a warning system to the plane. And only after the inquiry into XV230 identified the cooling system as a possible problem were the cooling units of all Nimrods turned off.
The BOI found a "fire suppressant" could have given the XV230 crew a chance of surviving. In 2004, the MoD rejected advice from the plane's manufacturer to install such a system."
All of these maintenance failures, and the lack of a replacement that we have to hope will fix these problems, have their roots in the short-termism of political management by generalist ministers only in post for a few short years each. Each defence secretary, knowing that they will likely have moved on before the effects of today's maintenance become clear, will focus on more immediate - but often less vital - concerns. Their priorities will necessarily dictate the priorities of the rest of the MoD's staff.
Many of the mistakes that created the current crisis were probably made by earlier defence secretaries, and not Des Browne, but none of them have stuck around long enough to take responsibility. Who would go to John Reid or Geoff Hoon now and take them to task for the steady falling to pieces of the Nimrod?
It would be wrong to confine our judgement to particular individuals, whether politicians, civil servants or contractors. They all worked with the confines and pressures of the job presented to them. The confusion and myopia of our system of government is the real cause of the failure to provide a reliable spy plane. Fourteen servicemen and their families have paid a terrible price for that failure.