Select Committee on Defence Third Report


3  The new arrangements in practice

Fast jets: Harrier GR9 support

40. The Harrier GR9 is the RAF's primary close support aircraft and is an avionics and weapons upgrade of the Harrier GR7 which was first deployed on operations in 1980. Its out of service date is expected to be "in the late 2010s".[32]

41. On 25 March 2004, MoD announced that the Harrier Joint Upgrade and Maintenance Programme (JUMP) would be located at RAF Cottesmore in partnership with BAE Systems, instead of at DARA St Athan which had previously been responsible for Harrier support.[33] The Minister explained the decision to concentrate JUMP at RAF Cottesmore:

    because of the need to protect the critical operation in-service date for the Harrier GR9. The solution at RAF Cottesmore offered the best value for money for defence, providing savings of more than £30 million through the life of the programme. Any delay in the decision would also have cost £800,000 a month.[34]

42. The JUMP upgrade allows the carriage of the latest smart weapons and navigation and global positioning systems. The new weapons being integrated are the Storm Shadow, Brimstone and Maverick missile systems. The first Harrier GR7 aircraft to begin its upgrade entered the pulse line at RAF Cottesmore on 18 November 2004. The work on upgrading the 60 Harrier GR7 aircraft will be complete by April 2007, and maintenance work, in partnership with BAE Systems, will then continue at RAF Cottesmore. The change has resulted in the loss of 350 jobs at DARA St Athan.[35]

43. The DARA trades unions claim that the Harrier JUMP at RAF Cottesmore has experienced significant problems. According to Amicus:

    civilian agency staff have been used to overcome the skills deficit at RAF Cottesmore, and now substantially outnumber service personnel...JUMP at RAF Cottesmore is experiencing significant problems including damage to aircraft as a result of poor maintenance and leading to aircraft being sent to BAE Systems, Lancashire, for major repair, increasing servicing times.[36]

44. Amicus also told us:

    We believe that that is as a direct result of the level of expertise at Cottesmore, and that is not in any way to be critical of service expertise; but the expertise that is required on deep servicing is significantly different than for that which would be expected at first and second line.[37]

45. The Unions claim that MoD is able to present its maintenance turn-around times more favourably because it has extended times between major and minor services. Amicus claimed in its submission to us that extending flying times "will put crews and aircraft, worth millions of pounds, at catastrophic risk and may interfere with front line operations".[38]

46. MoD maintains that the Harrier JUMP is meeting its performance and savings targets. MoD told us that JUMP:

    is delivering significant savings over the next four years. It has improved maintenance turn-round-times by 14 per cent, and reduced man-hours for the first 10 aircraft in the programme by 13 per cent, with the total number of aircraft undergoing maintenance and/or upgrade programmes at any one time reducing from 24 to 13. This will enable more aircraft to be made available to front-line commands.[39]

47. MoD refutes the Union claims of damage to Harriers in the pulse line. MoD told us that "No Harrier aircraft have been sent to BAE Systems Warton for major repair since the commencement of the Harrier Pulse Line".[40]

48. We pressed MoD particularly strongly on the question of the risks associated with extending flying times. MoD told us that:

    The flying time interval for the maintenance cycle of Harrier GR7/GR9 aircraft has recently been extended by 44 per cent from 500 to 720 flying hours for minor maintenance and from 2000 to 2880 flying hours for Major maintenance. The extension was approved in July 2005 following a two year study and in-depth analysis carried out in consultation with the aircraft, engine and equipment design authorities; there is no increase in engineering or operational risk.[41]

During our visit to RAF Marham we were also told that RAF pilots would not contemplate flying aircraft if they felt that their safety had been compromised as a result of an extension in flying hours between servicing.

49. When we asked MoD whether the move to RAF Cottesmore had resulted in genuine cost savings, Vice Air Marshal Thornton responded:

    by moving to a single joint upgrade and maintenance line at Cottesmore, we have taken 11 less aircraft from the front-line and we have reduced the cost by over 28 per cent against what were fixed price quotations for the old way of doing business. So, no, I do not accept that it is anything other than efficient and effective use of our resources.[42]

50. We note both the Unions' claims of problems with the Harrier JUMP at RAF Cottesmore and MoD's clear refutation of these claims. We pressed MoD particularly strongly on the impact of Harrier flying times and were assured that the decision to extend them was taken only after a long consultation with the Harrier design authority and that there was no increased risk to Harrier pilot safety.

51. We recommend that MoD commission an independent audit of the Joint Upgrade Maintenance Programme at RAF Cottesmore to identify any issues and learn lessons which may impact on the programme to concentrate support of Tornado GR4 at RAF Marham. We further recommend that MoD adopt a more flexible timetable for rolling forward the Tornado GR4 to ensure sufficient time to upgrade the deep repair facilities at RAF Marham and to take advantage of any recommendations or information that may arise from the audit of the Harrier JUMP programme at RAF Cottesmore.

Fast jets: Tornado GR4 support

Background

52. The Tornado GR4, the RAF's primary ground attack aircraft, first entered service as the Tornado GR1 in 1979. Between 1996 and 2003, BAE Systems was responsible for the upgrade of the Tornado GR1 fleet to the GR4 version in time for the GR4 to be deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Telic. There are currently 140 Tornado GR4s in service and its out of service date is currently expected to be 2025. The 110 Tornado F3 (the air defence variant) is currently expected to be out of service by 2009.

53. Tornado operating bases will be reduced from five (RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Leuchars, RAF Leeming, RAF Coningsby and RAF Marham) to two (RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Marham).

54. The Minister announced on 16 September 2004 that for the Tornado, instead of support being spread over four locations—BAE Systems Warton (capability upgrades), DARA St Athan (major repair), and RAF Marham (minor repair) and RAF Lossiemouth (minor repair)—from 2007, all levels of support would be done only at the new depth hub, RAF Marham.[43]

55. The RAF Marham Tornado Integrated Project Team, comprising RAF personnel and staff employed by the two prime contractors, BAE Systems and Rolls Royce, is responsible for ensuring the smooth transfer of work from DARA St Athan and for designing the work processes and systems to support work on the Tornado GR4.

56. MoD expects these changes to result in:

  • the reduction in the number of personnel employed on Tornado maintenance from 2.6 to 0.7 per aircraft, and
  • the reduction in the number of aircraft undergoing depth maintenance from 22 to 16 at any one time.[44]

57. Against the projected cost savings, MoD has recognised that RAF Marham will need significant investment to upgrade its infrastructure to an acceptable level. MoD told us that "Latest estimates indicate the need to spend £5.9m on Depth Support facilities such as hangar floor resurfacing, gantry cranes and upgrading electrical power supplies."[45]

RAF MARHAM

58. We visited RAF Marham on 16 November 2005 to see how the new support arrangements for Tornado aircraft were working in practice. MoD told us that "Based on current plans, all [Tornado] work will have transferred to RAF Marham by 2007".[46] Work on transferring Tornado aircraft from DARA St Athan to RAF Marham had already begun and during our visit we saw the eight maintenance pulse lines in their early stages of development and examples of leaning of work processes.

Facilities

59. MoD has told us that the new arrangements at RAF Marham will maintain the standard of work at DARA St Athan, as well as delivering both increased efficiency and cost savings. However DARA trades unions have identified some areas of concern, set out below, regarding the Tornado project at RAF Marham.

60. The first concern was that "RAF Marham does not have sufficient in depth maintenance facilities to support the Tornado GR4 aircraft fleet and certainly nothing that compares with DARA St Athan".[47] During our visit to RAF Marham, it was acknowledged that its hangar facilities, built in the 1940s, were in need of investment. On the day of our visit the heating system was not functioning and tradesmen were working in very cold conditions. The contrast with the facilities at DARA St Athan was shown in stark relief when, the following week, we visited the new Superhangar there.

61. MoD has acknowledged that it will need to spend an estimated £5.9m on updating the facilities at RAF Marham. While there is not expected to be a large increase in personnel at RAF Marham, there may also need to be further investment in housing and other facilities. We noted, for example, the lack of leisure facilities at RAF Marham.

62. It seems perverse and wasteful for MoD to invest large amounts of public money to renovate the facilities at RAF Marham when it has at its disposal a state-of-the-art facility at St Athan. It is doubtful that the facilities at RAF Marham will ever match those at DARA St Athan, but given the decision to base Tornado GR4 support at RAF Marham, it is essential that MoD ensure that those who work there have the facilities they need.

Skills

63. Amicus claims that:

    RAF personnel are not as well suited to the work of servicing, modifying and repairing military aircraft as the civilian workforce at DARA St Athan. Most RAF service personnel did not join the service to work in civilian type factory conditions and they have not had the same rigorous apprenticeship and specialist training.[48]

MoD rejects these claims and points out that RAF personnel have always been involved in depth support and that RAF tradesmen undergo a long period of apprentice training. MoD also maintains that the close working partnership with BAE Systems and Rolls Royce personnel will facilitate knowledge transfer and that the regular rotation between the depth and front line environments will enhance tradesmen's skills. We reiterate the concerns of our predecessors, that Tornado support at RAF Marham should match that provided at DARA St Athan. For this to be so, the RAF must ensure that its tradesmen are trained to the highest standard and that all tradesmen are given the opportunity to develop their skills through regular rotation between the forward and depth environments.

Surge capacity

64. The Unions claim that the pulse line at RAF Marham is undergoing considerable pressure due to "supervisory overstretch" meaning that there were too few supervisors managing tradesmen. We found no evidence of overstretch to the pulse line at RAF Marham but, as it is in its early stages of development, this is not surprising. Supervisory skills will continue to be of the utmost importance.

65. The retention by the RAF of sufficient numbers of Senior NCOs will be fundamental to the long term success of this process.

66. We are concerned that a "leaned" pulse line could potentially be overloaded at times of surge, such as during operations. If personnel and processes are reduced to such an extent that there is no capacity to meet surge, then front line capability will inevitably suffer when it most matters. The capability of meeting demand surges is an area where DARA St Athan, with its larger workforce and range of aircraft to support, has an advantage over the pulse line at RAF Marham. As Stephen Hill told us:

    [at DARA St Athan] we had the flexibility of a large workforce and being able to concentrate them where the customer has its greatest operational needs. So the example that I gave was Kosovo where we went on to 24-hour day, 7-day week working and generated Tornados and VC10s that went straight into the front line. In order to be able to do that we had the flexibility of moving people from a much wider base than a single operating base would have at the front line.[49]

67. In its response to the Defence Committee's Future Capabilities report of March 2005, the Government maintained that surge workloads would be managed in a number of ways including:

    in the short term, increasing RAF labour productivity through reprioritisation of tasks, reduction of leave or training or an increase in working hours. For sustained periods of surge, we will continue to be able to use the existing arrangements that allow the use of approved aircraft maintenance organisations.[50]

68. We are concerned about potential difficulties that over-leaning of processes at RAF Marham may bring. We expect MoD to monitor the pulse line, particularly during surges of demand, and to make credible contingencies in case of overload. We do not consider the reduction of leave entitlement or training to meet surge demand to be credible contingencies for meeting demand surges. We regret the loss of the flexibility to meet demand surges which the support arrangements at DARA St Athan currently provide.

Plans for other fixed wing aircraft support

69. Depth support for the Jaguar attack aircraft will be provided at DARA St Athan until its out of service date is reached in 2007.

70. Depth support for the Tornado F3 will also be provided at DARA St Athan until April 2007 and thereafter at RAF Marham until the Typhoon In Service Date of 2009.

71. The Typhoon, is a multi-role combat fighter that that will replace Jaguar and the Tornado F3 in their air defence and strike roles.[51] The Typhoon's depth support hub was being established at RAF Coningsby from July 2005.[52]

72. For the Joint Strike Fighter, which has an In Service Date (ISD) of the mid 2010s, MoD told us that :

    It is likely that a depth maintenance facility, at a Main Operating Base in the UK, will be feasible. It will be operated through a partnership between the MoD and Team Lockheed (Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman).[53]

Rotary wing support

73. In contrast to the planned support arrangements for fast jets, MoD's announcement of 16 September 2004 stated that rotary wing depth support (that is depth support for the Chinook, Lynx and Sea King helicopters) would be concentrated back to DARA Fleetlands, Hampshire, by March 2007. The Minister told the House on 16 September 2004 that "Concentrating support for rotary aircraft at DARA Fleetlands offers the opportunity to exploit fully the economies of scale that may be achieved by collocating these platforms at a single centre".[54]

74. As with the arrangements for Harrier and Tornado support at RAF MOBs, MoD expects the support arrangements at DARA Fleetlands to deliver cost savings through the employment of pulse lines and "leaning" of processes and personnel. Through a partnered support with Westland and Boeing, "DARA has been able to set some challenging efficiency targets to ensure that unnecessary costs and activities are driven out of the business".[55]

75. At first sight, MoD's decision to concentrate depth support "back" to DARA Fleetlands instead of "forward" to an RAF MOB appears inconsistent with its decision to concentrate depth support for fixed wing aircraft forward to RAF MOBs. This led us to question whether MoD used a different calculation for Crisis Manpower Requirement for rotary wing aircraft compared to fixed wing aircraft.

76. MoD told us:

    There is no difference in the way in which CMR is calculated between Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing forces. However, in the case of the RAF rotary wing aircraft rolled back to Fleetlands, there is no requirement for CMR for the RAF Sea King because it has no deployment role; for the RAF Chinook there are sufficient numbers employed forward on the Station to meet the full CMR. This is not the case for the RAF Fast Jet Force.[56]

During our evidence session, Air Vice Marshal Thornton added:

    The search and rescue helicopters do not deploy, there is no CMR requirement and, indeed, we are contractorising the first-line support of those aircraft. For the Pumas, the decision was to collapse the maintenance forward to the main operating base and CMR people are employed in that depth organisation on the main operating base. For Merlin Mk3, the decision was to collapse the whole of the Merlin fleet forward to Culdrose to get the efficiency of operating a single fleet at Culdrose. There are significant numbers of both Royal Navy and Royal Air Force CMR people in the depth organisation at Culdrose. [For]Chinook we had started down a route in terms of a partnered support solution between Boeing and DARA to deliver the depth support.[57]

77. However Mr Hill told us:

    I cannot see the logic of rolling back into Fleetlands Chinook and rolling forward Harrier and Tornado on to main operating bases, but I guess the RAF may well come back to that later, and you will see a roll forward in due course.[58]

78. While the RAF's Crisis Manpower Requirement was the major factor in the decision to shift responsibility for depth support from civilian to RAF tradesmen, the decision of where to base depth support was taken largely on cost grounds. In the case of fast jets, it was considered cost-effective to move depth support to RAF MOBs: for rotary wing support, it was not.

79. The sustainability of MoD's proposed arrangements for rotary wing support at DARA Fleetlands is discussed in paragraph 92.

Coherence of the proposals

80. We are concerned that MoD's decision about its aircraft support provision was not founded on consistent principles. MoD's emphasis on CMR as the driver for rationalising its support arrangements is undermined by its later acknowledgement that the decision was taken on cost grounds. This leads us to conclude that the new arrangements will not stand the test of time.


32   Defence industrial Strategy, 15 December 2005, Cm 6697 Back

33   HC Deb, 25 March 2004, c 1144 Back

34   Ibid Back

35   http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/3563189.stm Back

36   Ev 41 Back

37   Q 1 Back

38   Ev 43 Back

39   Ev 50 Back

40   Ev 56 Back

41   Ibid Back

42   Q 127 Back

43   HC Deb, 16 September 2004, c 164-165 Back

44   Ev 50 Back

45   Ev 56 Back

46   Ev 52 Back

47   Ev 40 Back

48   Ev 40 Back

49   Q 83 Back

50   The Government's Response to the House of Commons Defence Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2004-05 on Future Capabilities, Cm 6616, p 17. Back

51   Defence Industrial Strategy, 15 December 2005, Cm 6697 Back

52   Ev 53 Back

53   Ibid Back

54   HC Deb, 16 September 2004, c 165 Back

55   Ev 52 Back

56   Ev 61 Back

57   Q122 Back

58   Q 82 Back


 
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