UK report exposes fresh cost increase to Nimrod MRA4, delay on Meteor missile

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The UK's BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft and MBDA Meteor beyond visual-range air-to-air missile projects have encountered fresh schedule delays and cost increases, according to a new report published by the UK National Audit Office.

Highlighting the status of 20 of the Ministry of Defence's largest procurement programmes, worth a combined £28 billion ($43 billion), the NAO's Major Projects Report reveals fresh cost increases of £102 million and £111 million respectively to the MRA4 and Meteor projects by 31 March 2008.

Issues encountered with the delayed MRA4 include a £20 million increase in the cost of flight-test activities using three development aircraft (one pictured below), which the report attributes to "problems with aircraft ground maintenance, modification and turn-around procedures".

A further £50 million has meanwhile been added to an earlier estimate of the cost of converting the three development aircraft for frontline use, potentially as replacements for the Royal Air Force's Nimrod R1 electronic intelligence aircraft. Another £20 million has been added for the introduction of an aircraft stability augmentation system/stall identification device to production aircraft, the first of which will fly early next year.

 nimrod mra4
© BAE Systems

Originally planned to enter service in April 2003, the MRA4 fleet - which is currently only confirmed as totalling nine aircraft - is now expected to achieve a revised in-service date of December 2010. Over £3 billion has now been spent on the project.

The NAO report also reveals that the MoD has delayed the planned in-service date for the Meteor air-to-air missile (below) until at least July 2015, attributing the decision to "changes to the perceived threat, and the desire to achieve a more cost-effective integration onto the [Eurofighter] Typhoon aircraft".

 
© Eurofighter

According to the report, assessment work has "concluded that Typhoon's existing [Raytheon AIM-120] Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile would provide sufficient capability out to 2015," and adds that this is now "the earliest point at which the Department now expects to need the capability". Development work on the long-range weapon will conclude by August 2012, however.

In addition to the delay, a decision to also cut the UK's planned purchase of Meteor weapons to the minimum contractual level possible has resulted in a doubling of the weapon's original expected unit cost, to £2 million.

The NAO report also reveals an in-year slippage of six months to the planned in-service date for the British Army's Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicle system (below), citing "a delay in the availability of a suitable trials site". However, the system is still expected to enter service in December 2010, earlier than its original programme target.

 
© Thales UK

The Watchkeeper procurement is forecast to total £898 million, with each of its 54 WK450 UAVs - developed by Thales UK and Elbit Systems - to cost £943,000.

But the NAO again agreed to withhold pricing information on the UK's Typhoon acquisition programme, attributing the decision to commercial sensitivies. However, it confirms that almost £12.3 billion had been spent on the project by March 2008, with the unit cost for Tranche 1 and 2 production quoted as £69.3 million.