The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II/Joint Strike Fighter and the drawn-out saga of “concurrency” grab all the headlines when it comes to defense procurement woes, but at least the end product will hopefully be a viable, highly survivable cutting-edge tactical aircraft that will remain the spearpoint of the USAF for decades to come. The F-35’s second biggest customer, the RAF, also committed themselves to a massive, controversial program whose end-product was five 30-40 year old airframes in various states of re-manufacture and a trail of procurement and developmental incompetency that would make the F-35 seem like a rosy path.
Topshot by Ronnie MacDonald via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license
Perhaps you’ve heard of the deHavilland Comet? I’m betting you have, but a quick summary: it was the first viable jetliner of any type, first entered service in the years right after WWII and became infamous because they had a tendency to break up in flight and, well, kill everyone. The problem was traced to what turned out to be a relatively easily correctable engineering flaw and the subsequent marks, namely the Comet 4, flew with stellar safety records for decades. Whatever its safety rating or lack thereof, it doesn’t change the fact that the Comet’s engineering and aerodynamics were steeped in an era where planes were still pushed forward with spinning paddle blades, albeit very, very quickly. The Comet 4 was trounced by the Boeing 707 which was superior in every criterion imaginable, especially size and speed. deHavilland was left with a number of Comet 4 frames stuck on the production line half-finished like reverse-decaying giants as the airlines bought the superior Boeing wonder-jet.
At the same time the RAF wanted a new submarine-hunting aircraft to replace their WWII-legacy aircraft such as the piston-powered Avro Shackleton. A brand-new design was desired and the British aerospace firms submitted a plethora of responses, from relatively conservative approaches to supersonic jets. All of these designs, even the supersonic ones, shared a common approach as they were based on designs also submitted to the airlines which was a common trend for anti-submarine aircraft of the time (see the US Navy’s P-3 Orion, a hacked-up Lockheed L188 Electra airliner with a weapons bay and sub-hunting equipment). Only two of the designs however, based on the Hawker-Siddley Trident and deHavilland Comet, were based on designs already in production - the others were still being shopped around by their companies, hoping that spurring the military into being the launch customer will make airlines more comfortable following suit. In the end, the Ministry of Defense decided it made the most sense to take advantage of the Comet 4s already rotting stillborn on the production line and approved the design as the Nimrod, while the Trident went on to struggle and ultimately fail in the open airline market and all those other newfangled fancy supersonic (or even subsonic) designs died on the drawing board.
As such the Nimrod MR1 (Maritime-Reconnaissance Mk 1) is a pretty straightforward conversion of a Comet 4 frame, grafting on a double-lobe lower fuselage to provide weapons and sensors space without having to hack up the fuselage too much. For the next several decades the approximately 50 Nimrod MR1s and later upgraded MR2s were the premiere submarine hunting assets of the Royal defense forces and even conducted reconnaissance and bombing missions far from the ocean in Afghanistan - by that time they had become the closest thing to a B-52 the RAF had. After so many years of service and exposure to corrosive saltwater-laden oceanic air the time to replace the venerable Nimrod finally came. The means chosen to replace those aircraft couldn’t have been more bungled.
The MoD was offered a wide variety of options, especially since a number of foreign militaries were also in the process of replacing their maritime surveillance and sub-hunting aircraft. The USN was looking to replace the P-3; Lockheed offered a massively upgraded P-3 called the Orion 2000, loosely based on the P-7 originally chosen to replace the P-3 in the early 90s but canceled for many of the same reasons that currently plague the F-35 (yes Lockheed tends to have a history of this, for all their vaunted Skunk Works and such). As the P-3 production line had been closed for only a decade and was still in prime shape, the Orion 2000 was to be a new-build aircraft instead of being an upgrade of existing frames. Boeing offered a 737-derived aircraft that was eventually selected as the P-8 Poseidon (given the last result of when the Navy selected a massively upgraded Orion to replace the Orion, it’s understandable how the Navy went with the Boeing choice this time). Lockheed and Boeing also offered both aircraft to the RAF to replace the Nimrod. L-3, then still known as Loral, offered taking already existing P-3s from the boneyard and upgrading them essentially to the Lockheed Orion 2000 standard as a budget alternative. They had also offered developing modular sub-hunting equipment instead of a whole aircraft that could be loaded onto the RAF’s extensive Hercules fleet. Airbus offered armed maritime warfare versions of their CASA and ATR-brand regional turboprop airliners - although much smaller and consequently less capable, they represented another financially attractive budget option. They had also been extensively proven in service with a large number of European and Asian militaries. Kawasaki (as in the makers of that Ninja you ride) offered Britain a prime, sweet partnership deal in the P-1 program but from the get-go many military and aviation experts considered it a dark horse as they had concluded the MoD would reject it on the grounds of oooohh Japan has that Article 9 of the Constitution thingie and ooooohh Japan invaded its neighbors and our colonies in that World War 70-freakin-years-ago and most importantly, ooooohh it’s not British enough.
Instead the MoD selected the proposal from BAE, a conglomerate of what had been deHavilland, Hawker-Siddley and the other corpse-like remains of all the other British aerospace firms that had been economically beaten into submission during the 70s and 80s after almost zero success in selling anything in the face of American, French and German competition (namely Boeing and Airbus). The BAE proposal, called the Nimrod MRA 4 (Maritime-Reconnaissance-Attack Mk 4) was to take the existing Nimrod fleet and upgrade them to their absolute limits, promising the best of all words - the RAF would get the finest, most cutting-edge subhunter in the world for a fraction of the price using high-tech recycled airframes, a type they already operate to boot. Of course it was too good to be true.
The biggest, most fundamental problem lie in the very foundation of BAE’s entire proposal - recycling 60s vintage aircraft into essentially completely new ones that would somehow be comprised nearly entirely of 21st century technology and materials while at the same time retaining all of the original 60s vintage materials and structure. The two aren’t exactly compatible, to the point where it tends to be intrinsically obvious (except apparently to the MoD). To accomplish this, BAE was going to literally tear each and every airframe apart - and when I say literally, I do mean in the truest, actually correct sense of that word. As in, they were going to turn each aircraft into a collection of carefully laid-out parts on the hangar floor, and then reverse the process to turn that collection of parts back into the aircraft it originally was, except put new equipment in while they’re at it.
As Oppo is one of the largest communities of car rebuilding culture on the Web, you already have a sense of what kind of manhour-intensive process that’d be like. It’s not inaccurate to say you’re getting one aircraft for the price of two in terms of manhour cost. You’re not only doubling one of the most critical aspects of aircraft production, you’re doubling the most expensive aspect of aircraft production. That’s outright fiscal and engineering insanity. And that’s only the beginning of the fiscal boondoggle!
As it turns out, an aircraft that’s been flying at low altitude close to the ocean for decades, and spending most of that time flying in what’s essentially the ocean in vapor form, is going to have massive corrosion issues. To the point where that’s why the RAF wanted to replace these aircraft - with themselves, somehow - in the first place. Many of the fuselage panels BAE was hoping to reuse were trashed beyond repair and thrown out, so new ones needed to be fabricated on-the-spot to replace them. Many of the structural components were incapable of adequately supporting new equipment - for example, cooling inlets for new computers were simply too small to do their job - so new ones had to be fabricated too. In order to get 21st-century performance out of a 60s vintage aircraft, a completely new wing using advanced aluminum and composite engineering sciences that didn’t exist in the 60s was manufactured, incorporating ultra-efficient BMW/Rolls Royce (yes really) 700-series turbofan engines (of the type normally found on the fastest and largest Gulfstream jets) that were so big the plane’s wing spar - i.e. the keel of the entire aircraft - had to be thrown out and replaced with a new one in order to allow the engines to fit. At the end, there was very little left if anything that can be called “original.” To the point, in fact, that BAE submitted new-manufacture Nimrod MRA4s as competition against the Orion 2000 and P-8 Poseidon to be the future sub-hunter of the US Navy (as well as various other foreign navies) as they had fully learned how to wholly make brand-spanking new Nimrods from the ground-up during the process. As it turned out, airframes nearly hand-made and bespoke by necessity based on designs that were cutting-edge when Jim Crow was still considered a valid legal concept do not make for sales success.
Given all this, it should come as the least surprising thing in the world that the Nimrod MRA4 program had ballooning costs that, frame for frame, would make the F-35 nearly blush. The RAF had successfully updated a 1960 Ford Falcon to the specs of a modern-day Toyota Camry - and all it took was the budget for a LaFerrari. And I don’t mean to purchase a single LaFerrari - I mean the actual R&D costs behind the LaFerrari. It’s hard to see this as anything but one of the most embarrassing acquisition episodes in the RAF’s entire history, perhaps in the entirety of British military history. With barely any aircraft even flying and even fewer on the production cue, Nimrod MRA4 was canceled way, way too late and whatever they had was scrapped. The remainder of the Nimrod MR2 fleet was forced to follow soon after due to age and fatigue, and Britain relied on shorter-ranged ship-based helicopter assets to pick up the sub-hunting mission while completely losing all of the capability the Nimrod brought to surprised and thankful troops in the sands and mountains of Afghanistan. Only now is Britain looking to regain that capability with the usual suspects that presented them in the first place - Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon being the favorite as even announced by the previous PM, with Kawasaki’s P-1 and L-3’s P-3 Orion remanufacture program hoping that after the ungodly mess of the Nimrod MRA 4, maybe they’d look more attractive this time.