NZDF's $2b aircraft plans postponed

One of the Royal Australian Air Force's P-8A Poseidons, an aircraft which the Government here is considering purchasing. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence.

A $2 billion decision on whether to purchase new maritime surveillance aircraft for the NZ Defence Force has been kicked down the road, with Defence Minister Ron Mark saying he has secured “a window” to review his predecessor’s plans.

Mark says the Government will not be dragged into making a hasty decision on whether to purchase four Boeing P-8A Poseidons from the United States.

In April last year, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency released details of the “potential sale” of the P-8As to NZDF to replace the retiring P-3 Orion fleet, at an estimated cost of up to US$1.46b (NZ$2b).

It’s understood the option to purchase the aircraft was due to expire at the end of March.

However, Mark told Newsroom the Government had spoken to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about the potential sale and indicated it had received an extension.

“This government’s not going to rush a decision and make an imprudent decision - if there are other options that have been ruled out, I’m looking at why and testing the validity...

“I’m comfortable with where we are right now - I know I have a window, and we aim to fit within that.”

“This is not a case of, ‘The last government got to here and all you have to do, sir, is sign the page’ - let me be very clear about that."

Mark said he was “perplexed” the previous government had not made a decision to purchase the P-8As itself, given its work on the Defence Capability Plan, and wanted to examine the work it had carried out.

“I’m looking deeply. I’m requiring everybody to review all the cases that they’ve put up on the P-3 replacement, I want to see those, and I am testing them…

“This is not a case of, ‘The last government got to here and all you have to do, sir, is sign the page’ - let me be very clear about that.

“I don’t operate that way, and given my experience of being Parliament’s strongest critic on procurement, whatever I sign off on I’ll be able to go to the Prime Minister and say, ‘This is what we need and these are the reasons’.”

Mark had a chance to view a P-8A first-hand, when Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne came to Wellington last week for trans-Tasman talks.

Australia is believed to be keen for New Zealand to purchase the P-8As given the benefits of interoperability during joint maritime patrols, with Politik reporting the issue came up when prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Malcolm Turnbull met in Sydney last year.

Mark said he raised the possibility of a P-8A visit during a discussion with Payne.

“She said she was coming down, and I said, well if you’re coming down bring a P-8, and she did.”

"He's blowing smoke, he's just blowing smoke: the work's been done, they're clearly the best choice for us, what other additional information does he need?"

National defence spokesman Mark Mitchell said while the Defence Minister was within his rights to ask for more information, it was wrong to suggest the previous government had not done due diligence on the P-8As.

"He's blowing smoke, he's just blowing smoke: the work's been done, they're clearly the best choice for us, what other additional information does he need?"

Mitchell said he would have expected the Cabinet process for the procurement to be well underway, given their importance to New Zealand.

It was unsurprising that Payne had brought a P-8A with her, given her country's desire for New Zealand to purchase the aircraft.

"At the end of the day, the Australians, they're invested - they want us to get the P-8s as well, so they'll be bending over backwards to do what they can for us to secure them," Mitchell said.

'Personal taxi service'

Mark’s own choice of air transport came under fire on Thursday, with Mitchell accusing him of using NZDF aircraft as a “personal taxi service”.

Mitchell said official information showed Air Force NH-90 helicopters and a B200 King Air aircraft had been used to “ferry” Mark to and from Masterton, near his home of Carterton.

“Mr Mark has even used an NH-90 to travel from Masterton to Waiouru and back in the same day – a three hour trip each way by car.

“Why did he not save the taxpayer the cost and the NZDF the time and use a much cheaper Crown car instead? It’s happening so regularly locals are asking questions about it,” Mitchell said.

“If any any point the Defence Force advises me that such travel is inappropriate or outside policy then I would naturally comply.”

In a written statement released after Mitchell’s accusations, Mark said he was “acutely aware of perception” when taking NZDF flights and had declined offers of transport on several occasions.

He released a list of all NZDF flights he had taken as Defence Minister, showing two return trips to and from Masterton: one to visit Exercise Southern Katipo, and another to a graduation parade at Waiouru Camp.

Mark said none of the flights had been for personal use, and he had been accompanied by NZDF officials, MPs from other parties and media on a number of them.

“If any any point the Defence Force advises me that such travel is inappropriate or outside policy then I would naturally comply.”