Sticker shockMost expensive RAF aircraft in history takes to the skies

Published 14 September 2009

More than ten years ago BAE signed a contract to upgrade, by 2000, 21 Nimrod MR2s — the last De Havilland Comet airframes left flying in the world — so that they can perform antisubmarine duties; it is now nine years later, and the number of Nimrods was reduced from 21 to 9; the first of them, now renamed Nimrod MRA4, has just taken to the skies; cost to retrofit one plane: $660 million at current rates (not to mention to price for the original planes); the cost of the 9 Nimrods is equal to the cost of 3½ space shuttles

A few weeks ago, writing about Secretary of defense Bob Gates to shift the priorities of the U.S. Air Force for gold-plated, expensive planes to cheaper, more versatile planes, we noted that that in 1981 James Fallows, in his book National Defense, noted a disturbing trend: The price of the airplanes the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was buying was rising much faster than increases in the U.S. defense budget — or in the budget of the air force itself. The result was that the USAF, even with more money to buy planes every year, was buying fewer and fewer planes. The planes were becoming more sophisticated and capable, but there were fewer of them. Fallow showed that if these trends continued, than by 2030 or thereabout the USAF would be reduced to one — very sophisticated — airplane.

British observers would be forgiven for being reminded of Fallows’s analysis when they read that the most expensive aircraft ever built for the British armed forces — a painstakingly-restored De Havilland Comet airliner outfitted as an antisubmarine patrol plane — made its first flight.

The Nimrod MRA4 program was initiated back in 1996 by then-defense minister Michael Portillo. Lewis Page reports that under the original deal, BAE Systems would be paid a “fixed price” of £2.2 billion to rebuild, rearm, and upgrade the RAF’s fleet of 21 Nimrod MR2s, the last De Havilland Comet airframes left flying in the world, to the point where they would effectively be new aircraft. This would have meant a cost of just over £100 million per plane. The project was then known as Nimrod 2000, rather optimistically as it turned out.

Page notes that as time went by it became clear that the price was not fixed, and that “2000” was not a good name for the project at all: it was re-dubbed Nimrod MRA4. BAE Systems has just announced that the first flight of a production-standard MRA4 took place last week, though the aircraft is not yet ready for handing over to the RAF — that will probably take place next year. Then there will be more delay before the type can be declared operationally capable.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Defense now estimates the program’s overall price tag as £3.6 billion, an increase of more than two-thirds. The situation is worse than this, as the number of planes has had to be slashed to prevent even worse cost overruns. The RAF will now receive just 9 aircraft rather than 21.

As a result the cost per plane has actually quadrupled: each MRA4 will now have cost the U.K. taxpayers a cool £400 million, better than $660 million at current rates. This is without allowing for the fact that the original planes, supplied for upgrade by the government, had already cost a substantial sum. Pages says that this makes the Nimrod MRA4 not only the most expensive British military aircraft ever made, but one of the most expensive aircraft in the world: you could buy a fleet of space shuttles or stealth bombers for the price Blighty is paying to have restored 1950s-vintage airliners.

Perhaps, you say, a modern antisubmarine plane costs this much normally? It does not. India, for instance, earlier this year ordered a fleet of 8 brand-new P-8 Poseidons, the type the U.S. Navy is getting, for $260 million each — 40 per cent of what Britain will pay for its Nimrod MRA4s. The P-8 is based on the 737 airliner, in commercial service all around the world, meaning that its running costs will be a fraction of those associated with keeping the last 9 Comets flying. The 8 Indian planes will offer significantly more capability that the 9 British ones, in fact.