Sunday, April 08, 2012

Analysis: History shows search-and-rescue aircraft must be replaced, and soon

Published on Monday 9 April 2012 

When Total’s Elgin platform had to be evacuated almost two weeks ago, major incident plans were activated to safely recover its crew. Fortunately there was no loss of life, but the whole incident brought back memories of the Piper Alpha disaster 24 years ago, which ended in the loss of 167 oil workers’ lives.

In the July 1988 disaster, the arrival overhead of a Royal Air Force Nimrod maritime patrol played an important part in saving scores of lives after the platform exploded. The presence of an “on-scene” command aircraft “brought order to chaos” as rescue ships and helicopters desperately sought to pluck survivors from the North Sea.

When the coalition government scrapped the Nimrod MRA4 in its 2010 defence review, the RAF was left without a dedicated long-range search and rescue aircraft.

The Total Elgin incident has so far not turned into Scotland’s version of the Mexican Gulf’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, but it appears to have been a near-run thing.

If such a disaster had engulfed part of the North Sea’s oil and gas infrastructure, then every aircraft and helicopter that could be mobilised would have been needed to rescue survivors, control fires and to co-ordinate any clean-up mission.

Senior RAF officers openly admit that the UK lost a precious capability when the Nimrods were scrapped, but shrug their shoulders and say there was little they could do in the face of government demands for £38 billion in cuts from the defence budget.

The information that the SNP has prised from the Ministry of Defence can be read in two ways.

Either there has been a dramatic reduction in maritime accidents since 2010, or foreign rescue agencies have just given up asking for help from the UK because they realise that we have nothing to offer. Filling the gap in UK search and rescue capability will have to be a long-term project.

In the next two years it is unlikely that the Ministry of Defence will be able to spare any money, but the issue needs to be addressed in the next Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2014.

There are several low-cost maritime patrol aircraft available on the open market, based on small airliner or transport aircraft designs. These are not in the same class as the Mighty Hunters of RAF Kinloss, but they do have useful range and endurance, as well as modern night-vision cameras to look for small boats or people in the water.

Half a dozen of these could be bought for under £300 million, and give the RAF the ability to give top cover to rescue vessels and helicopters.

To buy these aircraft during the later half of the decade, the MoD needs to begin work soon. In the meantime, it’s fingers crossed.

• Tim Ripley is a defence analyst

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