MINISTERS yesterday criticised the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over “astonishing” failures in getting a new £10.5bn air fleet for RAF Brize Norton.

The 14 tanker and transport aircraft, pictured – which are now six years behind schedule – were heralded as a boost to West Oxfordshire’s economy when the project was launched two years ago.

The Public Accounts Committee said the MoD signed up to a major Public Finance Initiative (PFI) contract for the fleet even though it had no idea whether the deal was good value for money.

The MoD’s 27-year contract with AirTanker Ltd was sealed in 2008, but the project was first mooted in 1997 to replace the RAF’s TriStar and VC10 aircraft by 2004.

The new planes are due to enter service next year.

The taxpayer also faces paying out hundreds of millions of pounds more because the aircraft do not have sufficient protection to fly on operations in Afghanistan.

Carterton town councillor Brian Crossland said the town relied heavily on RAF Brize Norton.

He said: “Thousands of people live on the base and the majority will shop locally and boost the economy.

“These tankers will obviously see more people operating from the base and more people using the town.

“This whole situation needs to be sorted as quickly as possible.”

Mr Crossland added: “There is no doubt the RAF needs to replace these tankers. The arguments is how it is going to pay for them?

“The previous Government decided to use PFI and I believe that was the right thing to do, but it does seem like an enormous amount of money.”

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said: “PFI may be suited to projects like building schools or hospitals where there is a clear specification.

“Defence programmes are by their nature different: activities and demands are far less predictable and much more susceptible to change.

“It is simply astonishing that it took until 2006 for the department to recognise that the new aircraft should be able to fly into high threat environments like Afghan-istan.”

She added: “It is also of great concern to the committee that it took the department over nine years to negotiate a PFI contract and that the delays have led to considerable cost increases against initial estimates.”

No-one was available at the MoD to comment last night.