Tornado cuts could help to save RAF Marham for now, claims top defence analyst

Cuts in the RAF's Tornado fleet could help seal Marham's future as an airbase for now, a leading defence analyst said last night.

Reports yesterday claimed the aircraft could be 'rushed out of service' because of a fresh spending crisis at the MoD.

It said the department was faced with finding an extra �1bn in savings by the end of March, after defence chiefs under-estimated the cost of ongoing operations.

Options being considered include grounding some or all of the aircraft, making thousands of soldiers redundant or mothballing more of the navy's dwindling fleet of warships.

The Tornado was spared at the expense of the iconic Harrier jump jet in the recent strategic defence review. It was expected to remain in service until at least 2017, when it is due to be replaced by the Joint Strike Fighter.

Until now, the debate over the aircraft's future has centred on whether the entire force would be based at Marham, or RAF Lossiemouth.

The MoD insists no decisions have been taken, despite recent hints from Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey that appeared to favour Marham.

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Last night defence analyst Elizabeth Quintana, an expert in air power at defence think tank the Royal United services Institute, said Tornado numbers could face sharp cuts.

'It's definitely on the cards, the army is fighting hard for it because they don't want to lose any more personnel,' she said.

'Even if the Tornado makes it through this year, there's no guarantee it will make it through next year.'

Earlier this month, one senior general suggested Tornados could be withdrawn from Afghanistan, where eight aircraft currently provide air support to coalition ground troops fighting the Taliban.

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, who has been campaigning to save RAF Marham, said: 'My chief concern is the future of RAF Marham and I will be seeking further clarification from the Minister on this speculation and to confirm the future of the base.

'I have seen the vital work the Tornado does in Afghanistan including intelligence gathering, surveillance and shows of force. It is important that the future of this aircraft is secure for our military capability.'

Mrs Quintana said the force could be cut to the bare minimum needed to maintain operations - 18 aircraft.

With support organisations like the depth and tactical imaging wings already based at Marham, the base would seem the most cost-effective home for the remainder.

'If it's reduced to 18 aicraft just for operations it's got to be Marham, because it's got all the infrastructure, it makes absolutely no sense to send everything up to Scotland,' said Mrs Quintana.

'There's also the question of the BAE Systems facility at Marham. They've been contracted to provide that over the next 10 years or so.'

More than 5,000 people are currently employed at Marham. Reduced numbers of aircraft would mean job losses at the base.

Councils and community groups launched a campaign to save the base, which culminated in a petition with 36,000 signatures being delivered to Downing Street in November.

Marham's future is uncertain beyond 2017, when the new Joint Strike Fighter is due to replace the Tornado.

Amid a rapidly changing picture of defence cuts, it is unclear when the aircraft will actually come into service - let alone where it might be based.