At the weekend, the bi-annual Warbirds over Wanaka airshow was held in Otago. One of the highlights of the airshow was a pair of United States F-16 combat jets that were flown in from Okinawa, Japan, to perform for the crowd. A few years ago this probably would not have been possible and it points to a warming in our relationship with the United States that in the couple of years the United States Airforce has also appeared at the Royal New Zealand Airforce Air Tattoo in 2017.
However, a failure of the R.N.Z.A.F. C-130 Hercules, meant that one of the displays of the United States Airforce F-16’s was delayed because the C-130 was supposed to play a supporting role but was not able to due to a mechanical failure. Whilst one should expect mechanical failures, these are going to grow in complexity and frequency on aging air frames.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft for example are based on a type that had its first flight in the 1950’s. The air frames that New Zealand has have been in the Royal New Zealand Airforce for as long as I can remember. Whilst they have been great aircraft and have served really well, it is time to replace them. Further upgrades are not going to work on air frames that are naturally getting more and more expensive to maintain year in year out.
A second aircraft that is due for replacement is the P-3K Orion surveillance/patrol aircraft. It, like the Hercules is based on a very old air frame, and was first introduced to the R.N.Z.A.F. in the 1980’s. It is also based on an air frame that is at least 50 years old. The R.N.Z.A.F. has 6 Orion aircraft in service.
Minister of Defence Ron Mark has indicated that the Orions and the Hercules aircraft are both up for replacement. However Mr Mark says that a decision on their replacement types is some way off as he has a Defence white paper to review. Then a capability plan needs to be prepared and reviewed, before a review of the Government’s ability to deliver on the plan.
The chances are very slim, if not non-existent, but I still believe that there should be a small number – 12 would be adequate – of combat jets. It does not need to be a fifth generation aircraft like the American F-22 or F-35. A small number of Saab JAS-39 Gripen multi-role aircraft so that we may maintain some sort of parity with Australia would be quite adequate. The JAS-39 also has an added benefit of being able to take and land on short runways, so should there be a conflict in the South Pacific where a military response is needed we will hopefully not need to rely on Australian support that might not be there.