A crash warning system which was first proposed a quarter of a century ago could have saved the lives of three RAF Lossiemouth pilots.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was accused of an “utterly unacceptable” breach of its duties last night after the full scale of the failures which led to the 2012 Tornados collision over the Moray Firth was laid bare.
The Military Aviation Authority (MAA) urged Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to order a review to learn lessons from the decision not to fit the life-saving technology to the fast jets.
It said “important questions remain unanswered and significant lessons will remain unidentified and therefore unlearned” if there was not a further inquiry.
Investigators found that such a warning system could have given the pilots who died off the Caithness coast up to 39 seconds extra to take emergency action to avoid colliding.
Officials at the MoD first identified the need for the system in 1990.
But it will not be installed until later this year, despite the Tornados being due to be taken out of service by 2019.
The system was included in an MoD spending plan in 1998, but in 2001 it was delayed until 2006, then it was pushed back to 2008, then 2009.
In 2005, the necessary £51.1million budget was withdrawn, delaying the introduction of the system until 2014.
The technology was reduced from category B to C priority in the UK Government’s 2010 spending round, meaning it would then be delayed until 2015.
In 2011, former defence secretary Liam Fox “deleted” the system from the budget, before the decision was reviewed three months later, and the project was ultimately resurrected.
More than £30million was spent on the scheme between 1999 and 2013, with no system installed.
Moray MP Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defence spokesman, said: “It is scandalous that the MoD committed to a Tornado collision warning system in 1998, bizarrely cancelled it 12 years later, then changed its mind – but it was all far too late to potentially avert the fatal crash in 2012.
“This makes the tragic event of July 2012 even more distressing.
“The report highlights the delays in installing the system were financially driven. This is utterly unacceptable and a breach of the duty of care we rightly expect the MoD to provide and our service personnel to have.”
Responding to the panel’s findings, MAA director general Air Marshal Richard Garwood said: “As with many accidents, bad luck has to be part of the explanation, particularly in the closing stages when they were belly up to each other, a few feet difference in altitude of one of the aircraft would have created a near-miss rather than this tragic accident.
“Unfortunately, the final safety barrier which would have generated awareness of their close proximity did not exist as the Tornado GR4 is not fitted with a collision warning system.”
An MoD spokesman said: “The MAA service inquiry concluded that the cause of the accident in the Moray Firth in 2012 was a lack of recognition of converging flight paths leading the two jets to collide in the same airspace.
“The service inquiry found that the lack of a collision warning system did not cause the accident but was one of 17 contributory factors which made it more likely to happen.”