Cabinet is close to a decision on new maritime patrol aircraft to replace the RNZAF’s 60-year-old Orions. The NZDF has settled on the P-8 Poseidon, based on the Boeing 737 and flown by key allies, the US Navy, RAAF and shortly Britain’s RAF. Norway has also ordered it to replace its Orions. The list price is about $US1.4bn for four, although this is expected to fall.
There have been reservations about the Poseidon’s ability to operate at low level as much of the Orions’ tasks include search and rescue in the Pacific. However recent P-8 tests in the maritime patrol exercise area north east of Auckland demonstrated its manoeuvrability at 3000ft and below.
NZ’s vast EEZ and search and rescue areas require a long range and this apparently ruled out a late contender, the Dassault Atlantique 3 flown by the French and German navies. There were uncertainties about the Kawasaki P-1 and various versions of the ATR72 flown by Air NZ and the Casa 295 transports could not meet the range specification. Defence Minister Ron Mark expects a decision by the end of July.
Given the nature of the coalition government where many within Labour see social spending as a much higher priority than outlays on defence equipment, it will be a real test of Mark’s political skills to gain Cabinet approval. He will however have the strong backing of his leader, Winston Peters, who in his role as Foreign Affairs Minister has shown a clear understanding of NZ’s role in the Pacific, and the importance of the maritime surveillance provided by the RNZAF’s Orions.
During a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee hearing earlier this month, Mark said he had to start “from scratch” on the procurement plan, when he took on the job as minister, last year. In fact the previous National government had been working on the Orion replacement and expected to make a decision by the end of March to take advantage of a a deal from the manufacturers.
While the former National government had started the process, Mark argued there was nothing to suggest there had been a paper taken either to a cabinet committee or the Cabinet, and he would not endorse a recommendation, without understanding the decision-making process.
“I am confident now that the recommendation I will take to Cabinet committee stacks up, it is robust, it’s justifiable and I’m in the stage where I am consulting with people. So my closing comment, not being able to pre-judge what the Cabinet committee or Cabinet might decide, because that is for me to put the case down, I would simply say, put your cellphones in flight mode, put your tray up, buckle in, hold on, it’s coming.“
In the briefing to the incoming minister, the NZDF and the Ministry of Defence said the fleet of six P-3K2 Orions had undertaken military deployments and contributed to stewardship of NZ’s maritime area of responsibility for the past 60 years.
“The aircraft and their sensors have been upgraded several times but they are now beyond further upgrades.“
Mark says he has also reviewed the 2016 Defence White Paper and a Defence Policy Statement would be produced early next month.