A NEW fleet of Nimrod patrol aircraft that was to be based at Kinloss in Moray may now go to England.
The proposal to base the new Nimrod MRA4 aircraft at Waddington in Lincolnshire, rather than at Kinloss as previously planned, could devastate the Moray economy, with 2000 service personnel leaving the area and 700 local people losing their jobs at the air base.
Kinloss has been home to Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft since 1969, but RAF chiefs want to try to save millions of pounds by concentrating all their large surveillance aircraft at a single "super-base" in England.
RAF officers believe that the announcement by the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, in July, which revealed that the MoD would buy only 12 rather than 18 of the upgraded Nimrod MRA4s, has dramatically altered the economics of where the aircraft should be based.
"It now makes more sense to base the much smaller Nimrod fleet at Waddington rather than pay the cost of keeping them at a base that is half empty," one RAF source told The Scotsman.
The proposals for Kinloss are part of a cost-saving review to cut the number of airfields operated by the RAF and other armed services. Officers close to the process describe it as "radical" and "drastic".
Twenty-one Nimrod MR2 patrol aircraft are based at Kinloss and are regularly in the headlines for their participation in search and rescue missions around Britain’s coastline. They are likely to remain in service at Kinloss until 2011, when the new Nimrod MRA4 aircraft should have entered service. The decision to change the basing of the aircraft would not be without cost, as the Ministry of Defence has already begun construction at Kinloss of a new building to house flight simulators for the MRA4s.
There is continuing debate in the RAF over the fate of Kinloss, which is one of the service’s largest bases and boasts a large stock of housing for military personnel and their families, making it a prime candidate to be re-developed as one of the RAF’s new super-bases.
One suggestion has been that the fleet of 150 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, or JSF, be based at Kinloss. There is plenty of space to build new facilities for the new fighter planes and the base’s proximity to areas suitable for training in low flying and bombing ranges in the north of Scotland is considered a bonus. The new fighters would triple the number of small fast jets in northern Scottish skies, joining the 60 Tornado strike jets at nearby RAF Lossiemouth.
This option could be the saviour of Kinloss, but the programme to buy the American-designed fighters to fly from the decks of the Royal Navy’s two new "super" aircraft carriers is plagued by technical and political problems. The aircraft carrier project is already behind schedule and the Pentagon has also delayed the JSF because it is considered to be overweight. So far, Britain has paid only to help develop prototypes and has not placed a production order for the new aircraft. These problems make it unlikely that the JSF will be ready to fill up the hangars at Kinloss when the last Nimrod leaves.
Senior RAF officers, civil servants and ministers are likely to spend the next year debating the proposals for Kinloss and other airfields. One RAF officer said "there was still everything to play for" in this process.
An RAF spokeswoman said that the new basing plans for the Nimrod force are still being "scoped" as part of the Defence Airbase Review.
"As with the air combat service support unit review, we will first publish the options we are looking at," she said. "The things you mention could possibly be one of those options.
"It is too early to confirm something - we are not ruling anything out or anything in. We will look at each defence airfield, as well as current and future aircraft. In terms of time scales, we will be in a position to talk about options early next year and the outcomes at the end of next year."