Friday, January 7, 2011

Scandal seems a mild word in this context

The wretched saga of New Zealand’s Skyhawk and Aermacchi air force jets is limping toward its inevitable, shameful conclusion.

Not only are the RNZAF’s Skyhawk fighter-bombers destined to end up as museum pieces, but undefined “engine issues” now mean its Aermacchi jet trainers will not be brought back into service as defence officials originally hoped. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp is quoted in today’s Dominion Post as being “optimistic” that the 17 Aermacchis could be sold to offset costs, but experience tells us to take this with a grain of salt. For years we were strung along with assurances that the Skyhawks would be sold in going condition; now they are permanently mothballed and virtually worthless. Experience tells us to brace ourselves for an announcement in a couple of years’ time that the Aermacchis will be used as landfill.

It would have been more humane all round – and spared us a lot of expense, bullshit and prevarication – if the Skyhawks and Aermacchis had been blown up on the government’s orders when Labour came to power in 1999. At least we might have enjoyed the spectacle.

I agree with Lance Beath, a senior fellow in defence studies at Victoria University of Wellington, whom the Dom Post quotes as saying the Defence Force now completely lacks international credibility. Beath says he is tempted to use the word “scandal” to describe this travesty, but why hold back? “Scandal” seems mild in this context.

We are left with one of the world’s most toothless air forces, which is just as Labour wanted it. The party took office led by pacifists and idealists who cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s and remained gripped by a mindset that regarded any sort of offensive military capacity as bad. Hence the Clark government’s decision (one of the most lamentable of its nine years in office) to cancel a deal under which the air force would have cheaply acquired 28 F-16s to replace the Skyhawks, which even then were nearing the end of their operational life. Labour wanted a defence force with a nice smiley face: one that could undertake peacekeeping missions, rescue the occasional lost Tokelauan fisherman and fly relief operations, but never shoot at anyone (heaven forbid).

Helen Clark justified this touchy-feely, Defence-Lite approach with her famous pronouncement in 2001 – in justification of the decision to axe the air force’s combat wing – that we lived in an “incredibly benign strategic environment”. That was four months before 9/11. It’s interesting to square Clark’s statement against the reality today, when the entire planet has been destabilised by Islamic terrorism, an ascendant China is flexing its military muscles and any number of flashpoints (Pakistan and Korea being two of the more obvious examples) could ignite at any time.

Until the 1970s, New Zealand was led by politicians with bitter, painful memories of the Second World War. Many senior politicians - among them Robert Muldoon, Jack Marshall and Duncan MacIntyre - were ex-servicemen. The defence portfolio invariably went to a senior cabinet minister (no longer the case today) and the RSA, whose members and their fallen comrades had paid a high price for the Allies’ lack of preparation for war, was arguably the country’s most powerful lobby group. But as old soldiers died and memories of the war grew dimmer, defence slipped down the priority list. This helps explain why, in 2011, the air force is still flying Hercules, Orion and Iroquois aircraft purchased in the 1960s, when I was still at school (I’m 60 now).

In 1999, I wrote a column suggesting there would be a public outcry if the police were still driving around in Holden Belmonts, yet we expected our defence forces to get by with planes from the same era. More than a decade later, the Iroquois helicopters are finally being replaced but otherwise, all that’s changed is that more band-aids have been stuck on the Hercs and Orions to keep them flying.

Our half-hearted approach to defence means that we risk being seen by allies as freeloaders. National governments have been almost as much to blame for this state of affairs as Labour, though through passive neglect rather than outright ideological aversion.

At the time of the debate over the F-16 purchase, opponents made much of the fact that the RNZAF’s Skyhawks had never been used in combat and the F-16s probably wouldn’t be either, so why spend millions on them when the money could be better used elsewhere? This entirely missed the point, as I’m sure the critics knew. Most strike planes are never used in combat, but their mere existence greatly lessens the risk that combat will break out. Their value lies in the fact they are a deterrent to potential belligerents.

This is why New Zealand, by dispensing with its combat wing, lays itself open to the accusation that it’s not pulling its weight in defence terms. If every democratic government took the complacent, Utopian view that it should scrap its combat planes (or warships, or whatever) because they were unlikely to be deployed in warfare, belligerent states would very quickly be on the march.

The preservation of peace depends on the existence of international defence arrangements that pack sufficient punch to persuade would-be belligerents that it’s not in their interests to attack others. This in turn requires all countries that value freedom, such as New Zealand, to make a contribution commensurate with their resources. Can we be said to be doing that, when we no longer have an air combat wing capable of making even a token attempt to defend our own sovereignty before calling on others for help? I don’t think so.


Phil said...

Very apt comments. Labour (strangely,as well as Bob Jones) had a head in the sand approach - 'we can't possibly defend ourselves. We are too small, so let's not have a defence force.' Total idiocy. As world food and water resources shrink, NZ is a sitting target for any large aggressor. We need a deterrent military force.

James said...

Very true comment on the state of our forces. The RNZAF has been reduced to transporting the army, and providing maritime surveillance for the RNZN.

Why still have the RNZAF? Save money, scrap tyhe RNZAF and its three bases, reintroduce the Army Air Corps and Fleet Air Arm and stop even pretending that we have any form of air power at all.

The probligo said...

I have never understood for an air attack force which needed refueling to reach Australia and then refuelling to get back again.

To make that picture worse, the option provided by that most generous of benefactors the US was to purchase at some $300 million a replacement fleet of 12 F16's which would have been no better other than to cross the ditch at close to supersonic speeds - about the same "fit-for-purpose" as the wheeled toilets the Army went out and bought.

Yes, there is a need for air surveillance and marine defence.

That being the case, we should be looking to Predator / Global Hawk style weaponry with long range S2S missiles. Too expensive? Not at all when you consider F18s - now obsolete - at $130 million each...

So, why the angst?

Adze said...

Your numbers are a bit off in several places, probligo... it was 28 F-16s for a cost of $200 million; and the latest F/A-18E/K Super Hornets (that the Aussies recently acquired) are far from obsolete.

I do however think there is a place for Global Hawk or something similar in the mix of our Maritime surveillance resources.

The probligo said...

Criticism of my memory is accepted.

How much would 28 F-18E/K cost us?

Could they reach Australia and return without refuelling?

Can we afford an aircraft carrier as well?

Santiago said...

I believe the purchase was to have been F-16s, not F-18s. F-16s have longer legs then F-18s especially with drop tanks and extended range internal tanks - exact range of course depends on the model / block being acquired.

I normally agree with what Karl has to say. I disagree with him here. I am not a pacifist. But I don't believe that the financial benefit of our participation in international military strike activities justifies the cost. We can achieve the same political goals with the current deployments for much less taxpayer expenditure.

We have no strategic need for a strike capability because we are, and will always be, dependent on other countries to guarantee our security. The real question for us now is which allies to choose. Old friends (Aus, US) or the New World Order (China).

...I would still love to see some NZAF f-16s blasting around NZ skies though!

Santiago said...

On a side note, Karl: I think you'd do well if you ran for political office. I would vote for you. And I think many others would too. I agree with 99% of what you say about everything, except wine.

Karl du Fresne said...

Very kind of you, Santiago, but I'd make a disastrous politician - and in any case, I think I'd rather have all my limbs amputated without anaesthetic.

Santiago said...

Back to world strategy, our most valuable military asset is our proximity to Australia. If NZ were controlled by a foreign power hostile to Australia it would (by virtue of our geographic proximity) pose an serious economic and military threat. The hostile foreign power would be well placed for military action against Australian targets and could easily strangle supply lines between Australia and the US. For that reason, Australia will absolutely prevent that from happening.

So, why spend money on Skyhawks to defend NZ when Australia has F-16s that will do the same job, better and at little or no cost to the NZ taxpayer? I say: let the Aussies pay for our security - their economy can afford it. And they will pay, because they don't want us getting too close to the Chinese.

The probligo said...

Last from me on this - some reality...

F-16 performance (as far as you can trust Wikipedia :( )

Ferry range with drop tanks - 4,220 km.

Combat range carrying 4x450kg bombs - 550km. (I presume that leaves a margin for drop tanks for fuel).

Defence? What the US right whinge promotes (as they did at the height of Iraq 2) is "Help us out". NZ is d****d lucky the Yanks removed us from ANZUS. Had they not we would have the F-16's, have the mobile toilets and lot of their other favourite Warehouse toys, plus a huge debt to pay for them.

I tell you what, even as a member of ANZUS it would have taken a real power of doing to drag the Yanks out of bed at 0430 because China was attacking us. It might take until the following week to answer the phone, another couple of months for them to decide whether it was in their interest... and another month to put together a token force.

You want proof? The US commitment to NATO is restricted - to those actions which the US wishes to take up. And then it is only with US Forces under US command; never under NATO command as the other members' forces are...

Santiago said...

@probligo. I suggest for more comprehensive security info. I like CIA World Factbook for basic strategic info too.

If China attacked NZ (which it has no good reason to do) Australia and the US would be Johnny on the Spot with a response. It might not be an immediate military response because of the risk this would trigger a wider conflict. But the attack would herald China's transformation into an aggressive, expansionist military power. The US, Australia and the rest of the Western world would have to realise that it would be imperative for them to contain such a threat and they would respond accordingly.

...interesting discussion.

Rob Glennie said...

Interesting comments everyone. I have always thought that New Zealand
needed a combat/strike component in the airforce.

Has anyone considered JAS 39 Saab Gripens? They are a Swedish multi-role jet that have a performance in the Mach 2.0 range, can deliver a decent pay load and participate in air combat. Many will wonder when and where NZ is ever going to need jets that can do all that, but I have been watching with a bit of trepidation now the creep of Chinese interests, the destabilisation of the South Pacific. The answer might be closer to home than we think.

RobertM said...

In the late 1960s it appeared the Chief of the Air Staff wanted the Phantom F-4, and nothing else would do, Morrison would rather have had 6-7 Mach 2 medium range F-4s than 20 Skyhawks. The Phantoms however was too expensive and would have far too complex for the RNZAF, ever to had more than 2 0r 3 operable. The later f-18 or f-l6 were much more modular and maintainable and a dozen might have been viable.
The decision to buy the A-4 Skyhawks in 1968 was a last minute, unconsidered, cost based decision and mcDonnel Douglas supplied us with Skyhwaks to 1962 t0 USN carrier nuclear bomber specs, with gun sights inferior to the Vampires. Ours were not Vietnam spec or the 1970s Marine models. The later project Kahu update was a political enthusiast update in no way as intergrated with USMC or USN standardisation as the second hand ones supplied and modernised for Argentina and other in the 1990s.
In reflection NZ would have been able to aford a new USN Knox frigate in the late 1960s or a pair of Hamilton cutters and we would better have paid of the UKs support for butter access to the EEC by buying and modernising 20-22 Hunter fighter bombers of early 1960s vintage which would have provided a faster and more modern aircraft profile for our army spotters and naval missile and gun crews to practice targetting. The BAE was about 100 knots faster than the A-4 and would have provided a profile similar to a Super Entendad for radar operators.
Today I believe the RNZN really needs the equivalent of 8-9 armed Aermacchis 339Ds for similar training, spotting and targeting training and a bit of coastal defence capability against fishing and immigration offenders