Spy-jet cuts put troops lives at risk

BRITISH soldiers on the front line are to be left exposed as the Ministry of Defence axes new spy planes and battlefield intelligence systems to help save £1.5 billion.

A total of five programmes are to be cancelled, cut back or postponed. They range from Nimrod surveillance jets to radio eavesdropping equipment and pilotless drones able to spy on the Taliban and fire missiles at them.

All are seen as vital to replace the ageing systems on which troops in Afghanistan rely for warning of Taliban movements and numbers.

Critics warn that the decision by the MoD to claw back overspending in other areas by slashing intelligence-gathering will lead to the loss of British lives and leave the army almost wholly dependent on the Americans.

Colonel Tim Collins, who won fame as an inspirational infantry commander during the Iraq war, said: “A lack of intelligence will have a human cost and may lead to the loss of lives among servicemen on the ground.”

The £1.12 billion in equipment cuts were agreed last month by the defence council, chaired by John Hutton, the defence secretary.

The decision will exacerbate the impact of a 20% cut in numbers at the Defence Intelligence Staff, which has already been approved.

Only days before Hutton’s decision, Quentin Davies, the defence equipment minister, had insisted in a speech that claims of a multi-billion-pound “funding gap” paralysing defence procurement were wrong.

The highest-profile programme facing a cut is the plan for three new Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft to replace the ageing MR2 version.

The Nimrods’ ability to provide live footage of the Taliban is considered so vital in Afghanistan that flights continued even after one of them blew up, killing all 14 crew, in September 2006. That capability will be axed from the new aircraft.

The cuts include:

– Cancellation of three of the new Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft, that will replace the Nimrod MR2, to save £100m.

– A decision on the replacement for Nimrod R1 radio monitoring version of the Nimrod has been postponed even though the present aircraft go out of service in 2012. It will save £400m.

– The Soothsayer communications intelligence programme, which enables troops on the ground to listen in to enemy communications and has already cost £84m, will also be axed. The MoD confirmed it had “suspended” pending negotiations with Lockheed Martin on how much it would cost to cancel, but informed sources said the ministry hoped to save £120m.

– Project Eagle, an upgrade to the RAF’s E-3D Awacs aircraft, which was designed to allow the aircraft to co-ordinate data on all enemy movements with its US equivalent will be postponed to save £400m.

-The RAF’s Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, which spots and destroys targets, was used temporarily but will not become permanent. This will save £100m.

Earlier this month, the Commons public accounts committee criticised the MoD for allowing procurement programmes to run £3 billion over budget through “over-optimistic” thinking.

The MoD confirmed the Nimrod postponements and cuts and the suspension of Soothsayer; it said Project Eagle had been postponed and “no final decision” taken on Reaper. It also admitted British forces alone would not be able to provide troops with sufficient intelligence.

– Two British troops were killed yesterday in an operation in Musa Qala in Helmand province. Since 2001, 165 British service personnel have died in Afghanistan.