Author Peter Greener
Over the weekend of 25-26 February 2017, tens of thousands were thrilled by flying displays hosted at RNZAF Base Ohakea on the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The RNZAF opened the Air Tattoo with a 'Thunder formation' led by a Boeing B757, with two Lockheed Martin Hercules C-130 LEPs and a Lockheed Martin P-3K2 Orion. They looked impressive as they flew overhead and remain very capable aircraft. But with the oldest of these aircraft now 52 years old, all three types are due to be replaced by about 2026. The importance of making the right decision cannot be overstated.
Last June’s Defence White Paper 2016 contained little information about specific future capability purchases, and there was hope that this would be rectified with the release of the subsequent Defence Capability Plan in November. But notwithstanding the DCP’s claim that it was 'significantly more detailed than previous versions', details remain elusive. Whilst defining capability requirements is central to decision making, the public remain interested in the actual platforms, the aircraft, that might help fulfil those requirements. So what replacements are we likely to see?
Are either of these aircraft serious contenders to replace the current fleet? I have noted previously that the supporting documents accompanying the 2016 Defence White Paper (sadly no longer available online) were clear that the five current C-130H aircraft would be replaced with a 'like-for-like replacement of the current C-130 fleet'. In addition, 'adjusting the planned replacement of the current 2 Boeing 757 to a like-for-like force … would maintain the Defence Force’s strategic airlift capability at current levels...' Clearly the C-17 is not a replacement for 757s, and it is debatable whether the A400M is a replacement for the C-130s. However, a 2016 Minute from the Office of the Minister of Defence to the Cabinet National Security Committee noted that, 'increases in Capability have been partially offset at this time (my emphasis) by maintaining the Defence Force’s planned strategic airlift capability (currently provided by the C-130 and Boeing 757 aircraft) at present levels when it is replaced in the early 2020s.' Nevertheless it went on to add that, 'officials will re-examine this level of capability, including support to our presence in Antarctica, and associated funding as part of the 2018 mid-point refresh.'
The Antarctic mission is undoubtedly a key driver for enhanced capability. One capability Ministers would like to have is to be able fly to Antarctica and have sufficient fuel to return to New Zealand should the weather not permit a landing (a disastrous scenario that nearly came about in October 2013). The Cabinet Minute noted, ‘the C-17 is the only aircraft available that offers a proven capability to undertake Antarctic passenger and cargo flights without a point of safe return.’ Whilst it may be true that the C-17 is the only heavy military airlifter that offers this capability, other (civilian) aircraft are available that can do the job. While I have argued previously that an Airbus A321 might be a suitable replacement for the 757, a Boeing 777-200ER or an Airbus A330 would provide significantly more capability. There are many 777s on the used market at a reasonable price; they are a contemporary wide-bodied jet with the range to fly to Antarctica and return if need be. Their payload is more than twice that of a 757, and for VIP transport they are an inter-continental aircraft. They have commonality with Air New Zealand, whilst the Airbus A330 has commonality with the military version (KC-30) flown by the Royal Australian Air Force. If a capable civilian aircraft were purchased that could undertake Antarctic operations, might there be no need for a heavy airlifter?
In a November 2014 briefing to the Minister of Defence it was noted that, “Preliminary requirements work has identified a potential need for at least part of the future air capability mix to include an aircraft with a larger capacity than current aircraft.” A Hercules can’t airlift the NH-90 helicopter, or a LAV III light armoured vehicle. It’s questionable how often these tasks would need to be undertaken, however, or whether other options, such as transportation by the HMNZS Canterbury, or the lease of heavy lift aircraft might be an option. When it comes to tactical airlift, the Defence Capability Plan 2016 asks for a “capability that supports…search and rescue tasks”. The Hercules C-130 has regularly been required to perform in this role, when a P-3 Orion has not been available. Should the six Orions be replaced by Boeing P-8 Poseidons as Wayne Mapp has suggested they will, then it seems unlikely that the same number would be available and the C-130 or its replacement would be called upon. Would there be more utility gained from three A400ms, or five C-130Js? Trade-offs here seem to be between the greater capability of the larger and more expensive A400M and a C-130 where the track record is clear.
Finally, with regards to replacing the P-3K2 Orions and enhancing future air surveillance, the Defence Capability Plan 2016 notes that, “The Future Air Surveillance Capability project aims to ensure that the Defence Force retains an airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and response Capability. Investment in remotely piloted aerial systems is also under consideration.” Treasury made note of the “additional air surveillance” that Defence had proposed to Cabinet prior to the Defence White Paper 2016 and this raises the question of just what this might be. Will this ultimately be the suggested UAV system, an additional P-8, or greater use of the proposed new King Airs which are to be used to train Air Warfare Officers? Just as with the last Defence Mid-Point Rebalancing Review in 2013 which provided greater detail around the capabilities signaled in the 2010 Defence White Paper, perhaps the planned mid-point refresh, due in 2018, may at last provide some answers.
Peter Greener is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: Rodney Maas