THE UK government faces claims it is failing to meet its international search and rescue obligations after official figures revealed a dramatic fall in the number of missions undertaken by Britain since the scrapping of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft.
Answers to written questions in the House of Commons reveal a sudden decline in Britain’s involvement in international missions following the abandonment of Nimrod, leading the SNP to accuse the UK government of “recklessly” running down Britain’s capabilities.
The UK received an average of six requests a year for search and rescue help from neighbouring states before the withdrawal of the sea-patrol aircraft.
But there has been just one appeal for help, from Ireland, since the publication in November 2010 of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which terminated a £3.6 billion order for new Nimrod MRA4 aircraft.
The UK is obliged to publish what assets are available for rescue missions, under the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, which sets out an agreement between countries to ensure co-operation and co-ordination on missions at sea.
However, has UK has not listed the Hercules aircraft, which were supposed to replace Nimrod for search-and-rescue operations.
MoD sources told The Scotsman that Hercules are not listed because none is available for search-and-rescue missions as the aircraft are in readiness for service in Afghanistan.
The fall in rescue missions identified in the answers to SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson come amid concern over the lack of surveillance capability for UK forces following the replacement Nimrods’ cancellation.
Recently the Royal Navy was forced to dispatch a frigate from Portsmouth on the south coast to observe a Russian aircraft carrier group in the Moray Firth. Previously, a Nimrod from the RAF Kinloss base in Moray could have been flying over the carrier group within minutes.
The Ministry of Defence last night said that the drop in rescue missions was not due to the cancellation of the new Nimrod.
However, Mr Robertson said the figures showed the UK was not meeting its international obligations on search and rescue and called on the UK government to fill the capability gap.
He said: “Frankly, the creation of these gaps adds up to negligence by the UK government, who have recklessly run down our search and rescue and reconnaissance capabilities over many years.
“The inability to meet treaty obligations is serious and must be reversed. It’s a situation that must be viewed with concern by our neighbours.
“No example better illustrates the bad decisions that the MoD is making than the decision to scrap the Nimrod fleet. After spending billions on their renewal, the destruction of these state-of-the-art aircraft was an act of gross vandalism and a scandalous waste of public money.”
He questioned whether government had got its priorities right by protecting the Trident replacement instead.
He said: “While essential conventional capabilities are being are being run down or are completely absent, it underlines just how wrong the UK government’s priorities are, that they still obsess about replacement of Trident.”
Mr Robertson went on to claim that an independent Scotland would fill the capability gap. He said: “The UK is making really bad defence decisions for Scotland. We should make better defence decisions ourselves in Scotland – we only need to look to our northern European neighbours of comparable size, all of whom maintain appropriate capabilities including fast jets, ocean going vessels and highly trained personnel.”
At the time of the SDSR, the government said the new Nimrods were cancelled because the project had already cost £4bn and was over budget, and the number of planes had already been reduced from 21 to nine.
Ministers claimed that breaking up the aircraft and scrapping the project would save the taxpayer £2bn.
At the time, they pointed out that the UK had in effect been without the capability since 2006 when an explosion on one of the old Nimrod M2 models led to the death of 14 servicemen and the grounding of the fleet.
Subsequent leaks suggested ministers had been told that the new MRA4 Nimrods had the same design fault, which meant they were unsafe to fly.
An MoD spokeswoman said: “The decision in the SDSR not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service was difficult but necessary.
“Only one Nimrod MRA4 had been delivered to the RAF and it had not passed airworthiness tests, the project was hundreds of millions over budget, years late and needed considerable more funding to rectify ongoing technical problems.
“Although international requests for assistance have been lower in the past few years, this is not due to the decision to cancel Nimrod; a substantial number of the requests for assistance do not require a Nimrod to assist.
“Our ability to operate maritime patrol aircraft and carry out international requests for assistance is being maintained through the use of a range of assets such as Hercules aircraft.”
She added: “The RAF is deploying maritime-experienced aircrew to operate alongside international partners on a range of aircraft where our reconnaissance and surveillance skills are being exploited.
“We are also using other military assets for maritime search and rescue, including Merlin and Sea King helicopters, and Hercules C130 and E-3 Sentry aircraft.”
The government has been under pressure to find a replacement for Nimrod, with speculation that it might buy off-the-shelf capability in the form of P3 Orion aircraft from the United States. But with the MoD budget still under pressure, no new aircraft have been forthcoming.
According to the written answers received by Mr Robertson, Nimrods were called to all five international search and rescue incidents in 2005.
The following year there were seven such incidents, five of which the Nimrods were involved in.
In 2007, there were six missions and Nimrods were involved in four of them. Of the 11 incidents recorded in 2008, six involved Nimrods. In 2009 Nimrods were called out to one of the four incidents recorded that year.