Govt decision on replacing Air Force’s Hercules fleet is in the offing

Foreign  Minister  Winston Peters   gave a  clear signal  during  his recent visit to  Canberra that  the  government  will soon be making a decision  to  buy replacements   for  the RNZAF’s  50-year-old  Hercules.

In a  speech to the  National Press Club,  he  said:

The New Zealand Strategic Defence Policy Statement informs the military equipment choices we make over the next few months as we update our Defence Capability Plan.Already, we have made one major acquisition decision.

“We will replace our six P3 Orions, with four state-of-the-art P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. New Zealand also has a range of defence platforms approaching the end of their life, not least the airlift capability embodied in our 1960s-era C-130 Hercules”.

NZ’s five Hercules were delivered in 1965 and include NZ7001, the first production ‘H’ model. As NZ7001 turns 54 this November, keeping the Hercules flying beyond 2021 would  mean at best a sharp reduction in availability and lift capacity as each aircraft reaches fatigue life. At worst, there’s a risk of catastrophic failure.

The Defence Force has spent around $360m on maintenance and repairs on the Hercules and Orion planes over the past 10 years – twice as much as in the previous decade.

While Defence Minister  Ron Mark has  said his preference  is to wait to make a decision  (on the Hercules  replacement) until the capability review is complete, that’s not due until November and he admits work may have to start earlier than that.

It is understood  defence  planners  favour  the Hercules C-130J   (with a price tag of around  $US400m) to replace the  present  fleet.

This is a  huge financial  commitment  on top of  the  recent decision to replace the  Orions   with the Poseidon-8 aircraft, but the Peters-Mark  combo  appear to have  the political  muscle  to get  decisions  like this  accepted   by their Labour coalition partners.

And the cost of  the aircraft,  whose delivery  would  be  timed   as  the   present  fleet is taken out of  service probably   in 2020-21,  is likely to be spread  over several  years. Lockheed Martin may assist by taking our old Hercules and recycling them.

With the latest Hercules, there is a vast amount of certified equipment that can be slung out of it or carried on wing hardpoints. It can fight forest fires, deliver humanitarian relief and refuel other aircraft, including helicopters.  It is even a strike platform. Unfortunately it cannot ship an assembled NH90 helicopter.

Antarctic operations are crucial to New Zealand and the new model “Super Hercules” has the ability to get to  McMurdo Sound, for crew to assess landing conditions while overhead and if they are too bad return safely to Christchurch. The older model’s point of safe return was much earlier in flight.

 National’s defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell has said that while  he  was pleased to see the Poseidon purchase signed off, it’s vital the Hercules get the go-ahead too.

“You could make the argument  the Hercules are probably more important than the P-3 Orions. It was only because we had to react quickly to last orders on the Poseidons, but the Hercules were actually the  priority. So they’re going to have to act fairly quickly.

Peters, in  his speech  in Canberra, spoke  of  what  he  sees as  the significant changes in New Zealand’s (and Australia’s) strategic environment.  He  emphasised the importance of Australia and New Zealand working together in our Pacific neighbourhood

“ … at a time of remarkable, sometimes alarming, change. Challenges once conceived as ‘future trends’ have become today’s realities. Great power competition is back, rules and norms that defined the global and regional order are under pressure, and the impacts of climate change are tangible”.  


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