LONDON – Cutbacks on safety checks led to the deaths of 14 British service members when a spy plane exploded in Afghanistan, a sharply critical report concluded Wednesday.
Aviation lawyer Charles Haddon-Cave's 22-month inquiry into the 2006 air crash blamed the deaths on poor safety reviews, sloppy management and a desire to save money.
The Nimrod MR2 was on an intelligence-gathering mission when it exploded following an air-to-air refueling about 12 miles west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sept. 2, 2006.
Twelve crew members, a Royal Marine and an army soldier were killed. It was the British military's biggest loss of life in a single incident since the 1982 Falklands War.
Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth told Britain's House of Commons that the report had proved the accident was preventable.
"I am sorry for the mistakes that have been made, and that lives have been lost as a result of our failure," Ainsworth said.
He confirmed that two Royal Air Force officers criticized in the report had been stripped of responsibility for safety or airworthiness.
"Safety is now given absolute priority by the highest levels of the Ministry of Defense," Ainsworth said.
An official military inquiry found that leaking fuel ignited against a hot pipe within a dry bay aboard the aircraft sparked a fire that destroyed the plane.
Haddon-Cave criticized financial cuts within Britain's defense ministry from the late 1990s, saying that engineers and management began to prioritize budgets over safety — leading to less rigorous inspections.
The crash was "a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism. The best opportunity to prevent the accident to XV230 was tragically lost," Haddon-Cave said, referring to the plane's tail number.
Critics have long accused Britain's RAF and the Nimrod's manufacturer, BAE Systems, of ignoring the plane's average 40 fire-related incidents a year for the past 20 years, and failing to address persistent fuel leaks.
The fleet of Nimrod aircraft was originally due to go out of service a decade ago, but there have been lengthy delays to their planned replacement — the Nimrod MR4A — largely because of the cost.
"Cutting corners costs lives," said opposition Conservative Party defense spokesman Liam Fox. "You cannot fight wars on a peacetime budget."
Ainsworth recalled Britain's 11 Nimrod MR2 spy planes for repairs in the U.K. in March amid safety concerns. Britain's defense ministry said Wednesday that none of the aircraft have been sent back to Afghanistan.