I’m puzzled as to why New Zealand’s lack of a fast jet military capability is suddenly an issue. We been fine without it for nine years. Renowned defence expert David Farrar weighs in on the “terrible decision” to disband the Skyhawk and Aermacchi squadrons, citing the $34 million spent keeping them saleable, but it’s stupid to complain about a cost without considering the cost of the alternatives. So, how’s keeping the old jets in latex compare to the cost of keeping them flying?
Not very well.
The 2000 Budget, which funded the last years of operation for the Skyhawks and Aermacchis put the cost of the air combat wing at $233 million – that’s $300 million in today’s money. That line in the Budget appears to be just the Skyhawks but I can’t find any mention of the budget for the Aermacchis.
So, conservative estimate is that it would have cost $300 million a year for normal operations to keep the air combat wing, or $2.7 billion by now.
Add to that the fact the Skyhawks were due for another major upgrade in 2005. The previous major upgrade in 1986 had cost $140 million – or $300 million in today’s money.
That’s a total bill of $3 billion to keep the jets flying for the past nine years.
What would we have gotten out of them in that time?
Nothing. The Skyhawks were never used in combat operations and wouldn’t have been in any of the military deployments since 2001. Even in a situation that needed air combat capability had arisen, we probably wouldn’t have deployed this 56 year-old design, it would have been too vulnerable. We would have relied on our allies’ more modern equipment.
There’s another cost to consider.
The Government purchased 14 Skyhawks from the US in 1970 and a further 10 from Australia in 1984. Of those 24 aircraft, seven were destroyed in crashes which killed three of their pilots. That works out at one crash per 84 aircraft/years and one death every 201 aircraft/years. So, keeping the 17 remaining Skyhawks flying for another nine years would very likely have seen another of them crash with a high chance the pilot would have been killed.
This, in essence, was the choice the Labour government faced in 2001:
1) Keep sinking huge sums – to total $3 billion by the end of the decade – into the Skyhawks, planes that had never been used for their purpose and likely never would be Accept the likelihood of another crash and death.
2) Keep the F-16 lease deal that the previous National government had entered into to with the US (after the US couldn’t sell them to Pakistan) and replace the Skyhawks. This would have meant the same, probably more, operational costs plus between $460 million and $820 million for the lease depending on whether we bought them at the end or not. Again, these planes wouldn’t have been used in the past decade. So, closer to $4 billion down the drain and probably another fatal crash – they happen with combat jets.
3) Cancel the F-16 contract and try to sell the Skyhawks expending a fraction of the cost of operating them in doing so.
It’s not Labour’s fault that the US took so long to give sale approval (probably out of spite over the canning of the F-16 lease, which left the US with 28 outmoded planes on their hands) and that the buyer couldn’t stump up the cash in the end. And we’ve still saved a fortune regardless.
Some ‘terrible decision’ that was.
PS. At the end of his post, Farrar advocates rolling the Air Force into the Navy and Army. That may or may not be a good idea by his reason is “Do we one day want an Air Vice Marshall, whose only air experience has been flying some Hercules?”. Fuck you’re a dork sometimes, David. As if only a former fighter jock can be a competent administrator. For what it’s worth, the current Air Vice Marshall flew helicopters.