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”.