The Government has confirmed it will spend $2.3 billion on four P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, with Defence Minister Ron Mark dismissing suggestions the decision is a result of pressure from international partners. Sam Sachdeva reports.
Mark announced the purchase of the P-8As on Monday afternoon, replacing the aging P-3K2 Orions which have been in use since the 1960s. The planes will be delivered and begin operations from 2023, Mark said, with the capital cost spread out to 2025/26.
The Government approved the purchase last week but delayed the announcement so it could obtain the necessary foreign currency.
Mark said the decision would strengthen the Government’s Pacific Reset "by providing a maritime patrol capability with the significant range and endurance needed to assist our partners in the region".
In April last year, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency released details of the “potential sale” of the P-8As to the NZ Defence Force to replace the retiring P-3 Orion fleet.
The option to purchase the aircraft was due to expire in March this year, but the Government secured an extension and did not make its final decision lightly, Mark said.
"We took the business case back to first principles and questioned and analysed all of the options thoroughly ourself - we did not rubber stamp the former government’s homework."
Mark accused the previous government of shying away from making the hard calls on defence procurement, and said it would have been "irresponsible" for its successor to do the same.
"This is a government that’s not afraid to make hard decisions, particularly those that are intergenerational in their effect and have an impact on capital spending."
Relocation to Ohakea
The $2.3b cost included infrastructure requirements, such as the simulators which were needed for training, along with the relocation of 5 Squadron from Whenuapai to Ohakea.
Ohakea was a better location for the P-8As due to Whenuapai's short runway, which would make it difficult for the planes to take off fully fuelled and laden, along with restrictions imposed by the housing which was encroaching on Whenuapai's borders.
The Government's decision to sign off on the purchase will win approval from Australia, which had expressed a desire for New Zealand to purchase the P-8As to assist with joint maritime patrols.
That stance was alluded to in the Strategic Defence Policy Statement released last week, which said interoperability with New Zealand's traditional partners was "a critical strategic imperative for the Defence Force".
"In general, keeping in line with New Zealand's partners will increasingly require more sophisticated platforms and enabling infrastructure."
Mark said interoperability was an important factor in the Government's decision, but denied the purchase was the result of any pressure from foreign partners.
"I was a P8 sceptic, I put my hand up on that one, but no matter how I looked at this case, the aircraft stacks up on its own, and at the end of the day it is the only aircraft that delivers all of the capabilities."
Asked how the relocation of 5 Squadron would affect a proposal by Singapore to base some of its F15 fighter jets at Ohakea, Mark said that would be a separate decision but conceded: "I think it would be fair to assume that Ohakea can only take so much."
CDF supports call
NZDF chief Air Marshall Kevin Short, a former Orion navigator, said the P-3s were "still a very capable aircraft" but worn down by their age, with servicing the plans now taking three months rather than three weeks.
The P-8As would last "at least 30 years", Short said, while providing the NZDF with greater availability for maritime tasks.
The aircraft would also provide New Zealand with "the full spread of capability" from search and rescue through to military options, allowing the NZDF to keep its options open.
"We are a military force and what we wanted for the government was a response option. There are plenty of aircraft out there that have range and endurance and sensors, but not many have the response, the response being at some stage just the mere threat of being able to carry weapons and do something that is aggressive, so that allows us to operate at the high end of the spectrum that our friends and allies want us to do."
Short said there had not been any pressure from Australia regarding a P-8A purchase, but said New Zealand's partners wanted to know the country could continue to look after its regional responsibilities.
"For me, it's like you buy a system and everyone understands the basis of that system, and it automatically gives them confidence about what you can do - the P-8 is a bit like that."
Despite the relocation of 5 Squadron, Short believed Whenuapai would be in operation for decades to come, with the NZDF's Seasprites and C-130 continuing to operate from there, but said its restrictions would continue to be an issue.
"Eventually if you look at the growth of the population and where the housing is, we will have to look at its safe operation because we can’t extend the runway, that’s the biggest issue."
'Worrying world' for defence planners
David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, said the P-3 replacement loomed as a difficult decision for the coalition government to make at the start of its term, but it appeared the P-8As had shown themselves to have the "most realistic, proven capability".
"I think there was probably a realisation on behalf of all of the different parts of the government that for a small country with an enormous maritime space, that one of the capabilities we need to have in our Defence Force is maritime patrol."
The military response capabilities provided by the P-8As would also be valuable in what the defence policy statement outlined as "a world and a region that's becoming more worrying to defence planners".
"What the P-8 gives you is not just an ability to deal with these non-traditional threats in our immediate neighbourhood like transnational crime, illegal fishing and so on, plus search and rescue, it also lets you think that if you do want to provide a government an option to provide a high-end platform to a future contingency further afield, whether that's in the Gulf or East Asia, then this is the platform to do it."
While the P-3 replacement was in some ways the hardest of the defence procurement decisions facing the Government, Capie said it was not necessarily a positive sign for future capability calls.
"How much of the $20 billion the Government's talked about is going to be gobbled up by buying the P-8s is a big question.
"Does this signal an opening of the purse strings on defence spending? I don't see it myself, so I think there could be some difficult compromises made down the track."