RAF base closures sparks terror alert concerns


By Ben Borland
RESPONSE times in the event of a 9/11-style terror attack on Scotland will be up to four minutes slower due to the decision to move the RAF’s fleet from Leuchars, the Sunday Express can reveal.
The Fife base provides Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) protection for the whole of the northern half of Britain, with RAF pilots constantly ready to scramble into the air in eight to 10 minutes.

But as part of the massive cost-cutting exercise under Defence Secretary Liam Fox, that capability will be transferred almost 100 miles north to RAF Lossiemouth in Moray from 2013.

Even flying at the Typhoon’s top speed of Mach 2, or 1,522mph, the fighters are several minutes further away from “tier one” targets such as major Scottish and northern English cities, submarine bases and nuclear power stations.

After take-off from Leuchars, fighters can reach central Edinburgh or Torness nuclear plant in East Lothian in less than 80 seconds.

Central Glasgow is two-and-a-half minutes’ flying time from Leuchars, Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde is three minutes and Hunterston nuclear plant in North Ayrshire is three-and-a-half minutes.

However, flying times from Lossiemouth are almost five minutes to Edinburgh and Torness, more than five minutes to Glasgow and Faslane, and almost six minutes to Hunterston.

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell, MP for North East Fife, told the Sunday Express: “I pray this never happens, but if there was anything approaching another 9/11 the job of QRA North would be to take instructions from the Prime Minister to take down any aircraft which might be appearing to pose a threat.     

“It is an awesome, terrible responsibility and the decision would have to be taken at very, very short notice. One consequence of taking the Typhoons away is that period of consideration the Prime Minister has must be shortened.

“And we cannot exclude the possibility of something happening in a remote part of the country. What happened in Norway on Friday is an illustration of that.

“The additional four minutes’ flying time can make all the difference. People might say this is fanciful, but it’s not. We are guarding against the worst ever happening, but unfortunately we have to do so.”

Leuchars also provides back-up to QRA South, based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, and Scottish Typhoons can be above London in less than half an hour, with at least 10 minutes’ flying time remaining.

However, once QRA North moves to Lossiemouth, the Typhoons will only be able to fly as far as St Albans, north of London, before needing to refuel over the North Sea.

Defence sources say the move has been deliberately delayed until after the Olympics and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee next year as the UK capital would otherwise be effectively left without secondary air defences.

One source said: “They know they have got cover for the big events, which will be a magnet for terrorist activity.

“I would not like to be the defence minister who makes Britain less safe – and this ultimately will do just that.”

Senior defence analysts regard the threat of an airborne terror attack, possibly in a small cargo plane taking off from north Africa, as a “real strategic concern”.

But with London’s airspace among the most closely monitored in the world, terrorists may see Scottish targets – such as Hunterston or Torness nuclear plants – as more realistic options.

Leuchars QRA has engaged around 50 times with foreign aircraft in British airspace since 2005, mostly Russian long-range bombers testing our defences. However, the Scottish Sunday Express understands that some aircraft from north Africa were diverted under threat of being blown out of the sky.

In addition, Leuchars has lost just seven flying days due to bad weather in the past four years, compared to 21 lost flying days at Lossiemouth which is sometimes fogbound.

Peter Borella, 42, a local businessman and one of the campaigners who fought to save RAF Leuchars, said: “I hope it never happens, but what if a small aircraft is able to slip underneath the radar into British airspace and it is heading for Torness? What is the response time up there in Lossiemouth compared with here at Leuchars?

“If I was running the country I would care more about defending people than saving money, unlike the UK Government which seems to care more about money than the defence of the nation.”

But Tory MP Patrick Mercer, former chairman of the counterterrorism sub-committee, said the move will not jeopardise Britain. “The difficulty is getting the planes in the air quickly,” he said. “As long as that is achieved, frankly they are so fast it doesn’t matter if they are in Aberdeen or Dover.

“The Secretary of State for Defence would not have taken this decision unless he had been given assurances from the RAF that it was not a risk to national security.”

l Army properties worth about £70million which are due to be sold off as part of the UK Government’s defence review should be turned into social housing, it was argued yesterday.

The Army’s Craigiehall HQ in Edinburgh, plus Redford and Dreghorn barracks in the Capital, will be wound up by 2014/15.

However, Edinburgh Western MSP Colin Keir said the MoD should make its properties available to the City of Edinburgh Council or housing associations

Courtesy of the Scottish Sunday Express