There’s also been a defence review. I’ve not read it yet. However, here’s something interesting.

The CSR has decided to get rid of three RAF aircraft types - Harrier, Nimrod MRA4, and Sentinel R1. It was always on the cards that there would either be an accelerated out-of-service date for the Harriers, which are rumoured to need work to make it to the original 2018 deadline, or else reductions in the Tornado GR4 fleet.

But the surprising thing here is the slashing of the RAF’s ISTAR (for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capacity. You really can’t underestimate the importance of this stuff to the kind of high-tech, network-centric warfare that the Western militaries have been obsessed by for years. In many ways, the US armed forces can be seen as a giant ISTAR network. And it’s also telling that the counterinsurgents make heavy use of ISTAR assets - if you’re going to break up into small units and live among the people, it’s critical that you don’t get taken by surprise.

Nimrods are usually associated with patrolling the North Atlantic, which is fair enough. But since the old MR2 planes received the Thomson Searchwater 2000 radar, their role broadened into an all-source reconnaissance platform capable of picking out targets over land and even air-to-air as well as chasing submarines. After a key upgrade in 2006, they got the capability to provide ground callsigns with live video imagery. This was what Nimrod XV230 was doing when it met a horrible fate over Kandahar that year.

The XV230 crash (my series on the case is here) demonstrated serious flaws in the RAF’s engineering system and that the Nimrods, built in 1969, much modified, and thrashed for years around the North Atlantic at low level in storm and salt spray following Russian submarines and searching for the shipwrecked, were on their last legs. There had been a plan for years - so long, in fact, that it was originally called Nimrod 2000 - to replace them with what was basically a new plane, designated the MRA4.

These Nimrods were technically rebuilds of old airframes, something which caused endless trouble in production, but were in fact around 70% new construction and probably the best anti-submarine platforms in the world. They also got a huge range of reconnaissance and intelligence gear and no fewer than 13 weapons hardpoints - hence the A for Attack in the designator. In March this year, BAE handed over the first plane to the RAF. It’s been a long, expensive, annoying programme, the fleet has gone from a planned 21 down to 9 plus 3 test aircraft, but it’s now practically finished.

And then…it’s gone. This is strange - even if the strategy was to retreat to pure home defence, a good maritime patrol aircraft would be a high priority item. If, on the contrary, it’s expeditionary and American-style, a good reconnaissance plane would be high priority. And as long as we keep Trident, a major priority is to keep possible enemy trackers from shadowing the submarine as it sails from the Clyde, a key Nimrod mission.

And, apparently, we’re keeping Trident.

Here’s the really weird thing. I’ve seen multiple forum postings that say that despite the announcement, BAE in Woodford are still pushing on with finishing the planes. The development flight test crew are booked in for simulator work next week. Flying is going on. Apparently, the government is planning to take delivery of the aircraft lest it pay a fearsome contractual penalty. (There’s much more in this PPRuNe thread.)

So why not…just keep the planes? It’s unlikely that they can sell them - antisubmarine warfare involves some of NATO’s most secret secrets and any sale might involve stripping lots of equipment from the planes. With a second-class mission fit, the MRA4s would just be an expensive, short production run way of doing something cheaper machines could do as well.

Perhaps the plan is to reinstate the capability in a further review in two years’ time? Whitehall Watch reckons that there may be a re-review in 2012 and perhaps in 2014, so this one’s worth watching.

Meanwhile, the story with the Sentinels is even odder. These are pure overland reconnaissance planes, essentially civilian business jets stuffed with radars and cameras. As far as the aircraft goes, they should be cheaper to run than almost anything else in the inventory - with the exception of the whizzy electronics in the back, they’re series production machines. And they’re fighting over Afghanistan right now.

But suddenly, they’ve been transferred out of the RAF’s budget into an Urgent Operational Requirement, a one off authorisation for Afghanistan. Now, the army is meant to be coming back by 2015 or thereabouts…exactly when the CSR period ends, and the budget is meant to be balanced. Perhaps this is the real theme of CSR - punting things down the road.

Update: Here’s the head of the RAF’s John Slessor lecture just before the announcement - it’s all about ISTAR but interestingly he only mentioned Nimrod R1.

Here’s self putting Rob Dover of King’s College right on the distinction between the MR2 ‘Rod and the MRA4 - if people from KCL War Studies can drop that bollock, we’re almost wondering if Dave from PR hasn’t actually just got his jets mixed up.