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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 10:56 GMT
'Air defence squadron' to go
Houses of Parliament
No 5 squadron protects the capital from attack
The government is to mothball the Tornado fighter squadron responsible for defending London and southern England against an 11 September-style terror attack.

No 5 Squadron, based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, will be permanently disbanded next summer when the airfield closes for runway resurfacing work and preparation for the Eurofighter in 2003.

There can be no strategic reason for announcing this cut out of the blue

Bernard Jenkin
Shadow defence secretary

Coningsby had been seen as the last line of defence against a hijacked airliner heading for a built-up area in the capital. It is 138 miles from London, less than 14 minutes flying time.

While insisting overall air cover will not diminish, the MoD admits there are not enough pilots to staff all five squadrons.

A spokesman said the planes and pilots would be assigned to four remaining squadrons based in Scotland and North Yorkshire.

Tories are furious at the dispersal of No 5 Squadron, claiming it is a betrayal of the country's security.

'Not enough spares'

But Armed Forces minister Adam Ingram said the charge was "disgraceful" and stressed that security would "absolutely not" be affected.

"We have always recognised that there was a significant pressure in terms of available jet pilots," said Mr Ingram, who denied the move was driven by Treasury cuts.
Tornado F3
Two Tornadoes will be moved to RAF Marham

Air crew were being brought into the RAF from the New Zealand Air Force to fill identified gaps, he said.

"We have thrown everything we can to resolve this problem.

"What we are seeking to do is to make best use of the air crew we have, of the aircraft we have and to ensure the operational effectiveness is not impaired."

But Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said: "Since 11 September there is a threat assessment that puts us at much higher risk than at any time since the Cold War.

There will be no diminishing of the effectiveness of our air defences

MoD spokeswoman

"There can be no strategic reason for announcing this cut out of the blue.

"We know this is a Treasury-driven cut and it's an admission that they haven't got enough pilots, they haven't got enough spares."

The next nearest air defence base to the capital after Coningsby is RAF Leeming, near Darlington, some 250 miles away or 25 minutes flying time.

Quick response

Two Tornadoes will be moved to RAF Marham in Norfolk, which is 100 miles from London.

An MoD spokeswoman said the planes would still be able to provide air cover for London and southern England.

Ground zero - the remains of the World Trade Center
The twin towers were hit by two hijacked planes

"The alert aircraft are always moved around bases for operational reasons," she said.

"Just because their home bases will be further north does not mean they will be there all the time.

"We will use somewhere suitable to provide cover for the south of England and there will be no diminishing of the effectiveness of our air defences."

The government's Strategic Defence Review in 1998 identified five squadrons as the minimum requirement for British air defence - roughly 65 aircraft protecting the whole country.

See also:

12 Jul 01 | UK
Typhoon over Bristol
23 Jan 02 | Scotland
RAF squadron switches base
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