LONDON: Failure by the Ministry of Defence to ensure the safety of one of the RAF’s oldest but most hard-worked aircraft lay behind the crash of a Nimrod reconnaissance plane in Afghanistan, causing the biggest loss of life of British forces since the Falklands war, a board of inquiry revealed yesterday. Des Browne, the defence secretary, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, head of the RAF, publicly apologised for what they described as a “tragic accident”. The blame, they admitted, should be laid squarely with the Ministry of Defence.
With Gordon Brown at his side, the defence secretary paid tribute to the crew for their bravery and the way they tried to make for Kandahar airport last year before the 40 year-old Nimrod exploded in mid-air, six minutes after fuel leaked on to a pipe with a temperature of 400C (752F). After lengthy discussions with the families of the 14-man crew, Bob Ainsworth, the armed forces minister, said that while it was difficult yesterday to talk about compensation, claims would be handled “expeditiously”. The MoD has set up an independent inquiry into the causes of the crash which, Ainsworth said, could lead to a “full public inquiry”.
The board of inquiry’s findings were published as new estimates of the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan said it was expected to increase this year to nearly £2bn. Operations in Afghanistan are expected to soar to £964m, an increase of 39% and a reflection of the intensity of fighting against the Taliban and the increase in the number of British troops deployed there. Yesterday another British soldier was killed in an explosion when patrolling in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. The MoD said the next of kin of the soldier from 5 Regiment Royal Artillery had been informed.
The British military presence in Afghanistan is to increase to 7,700 and they are being equipped with tougher, though more expensive, equipment, including armoured vehicles designed to withstand attacks from hand-held rockets and improvised roadside bombs. The figures are published in a report by the Commons defence committee, which will also detail how the cost of Britain’s military presence in Iraq is also likely to rise this year, despite the reduction in the number of troops there. The cost of operations in southern Iraq is expected to increase to £955m, a rise of 2%.
The combined costs of Britain’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 are now more than £7.5bn. The unexpected continuing costs of Iraq are the result of new facilities at Basra airport, Britain’s last remaining base there, and measures to protect British forces. The defence committee earlier this week questioned the point of maintaining a garrison there of 2,500 troops – the level after the reduction next spring.
In its report today, the committee also warns that, with uncertainty over the future status of Kosovo, British troops may be involved more heavily in the Balkans. Running costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment come out of the Treasury’s contingency reserve. However, these do not take into account the pressure on ageing equipment, such as the Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, or the cost of repair and maintenance.
James Arbuthnot, chairman of the Commons defence committee, said last night: “Few people will object to he investment made this year in better facilities and equipment for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.” However, the MoD needed to provide more details on its spending, he said, adding: “The government should not take parliament’s agreement to its spending plans for granted.”-SANA