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Richer without air combat wing

Written By: - Date published: 7:10 pm, January 8th, 2011 - 46 comments
Categories: defence - Tags: ,

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.

46 comments on “Richer without air combat wing ”

  1. Deadly_NZ 1

    So now it looks like the NACTS want to keep their American masters happy and will dump another coupla billion buck debt on us, with a handful of out of date planes, or they want to send pilots to Aus for training WHY? Unless my first line was right and they want to lumber us with a load of old FA 18 planes that the yanks don’t want and we CANT afford.

  2. Anne 2

    As a young employee with the Met Service, I remember the arrival of the Skyhawkes in 1970. They were off-loaded from a ship one Sat. morning, and transported through Auckland (past the Met Office in Victoria St. West) to Whenuapai. Quite a sight it was. Years later, I worked at Whenuapai briefing Air Force crews which included the F16 pilots. A likeable bunch of rogues they were, but did they perform any useful function? The answer is an emphatic… NO. That whole fighter aircraft thing was just an ego trip to make NZers think they were up there with the big boys. Indeed, I look back now and recognise the F16 crews were really nothing more than the boy racers of the sky.

    The Clark govt. did the right thing by dumping them.

    • Marty G 2.1

      I remember seeing a skyhawk flying through the Waioeka Gorge as we drove through when I was a kid. Twisting and turning at high speed, metres from the cliffs. It was incredibly cool for a ten year old. I think that’s the prism most rightwing males still see things through.

    • Macro 2.2

      I concur with your assessment Anne.
      I had the good fortune to attend the RNZAF Staff College at Whenuapai in the early 1980’s. As the sole Naval Officer on the course at the time, it was interesting to hear the comments of the Air Force officers and their opinion of the “Super Knuckers” – those chosen few who were the Skyhawk jockeys. (You had to have a fairly hard forehead to withstand the constant “Oh Sh*t!” experiences – hence knuckle head :)). Great fun to fly in – but really the whole Defence Force knew they served no real purpose whatsoever (Except of course, those with a perspex bubble view of the world).
      Actually we did a trade with the Aussies at one stage – the Skyhawkes would provide the “attack” aircraft for ships working up of Nowra and we would get some cheap training as a quid pro quo.

    • Stew 2.3

      Anne. No offense here – but you are a girl, and your talking about a masculine topic.
      This is not sexist – this is just facts. I mention this as you have also used the word “Boy-racer” meaning we do not need these types of elements in society. I hate to say it……but in this instance you are wrong.

      As Marty G pointed out – the sky-hawks were not for any major defense purpose…..they were marketing to young men (and masculine women), that we had a capable air-force, with cool toys that went ZOOM. If I were to flip this around – why do we have the NZSO? I mean we are not internationally known as having the be SO in the world. We have no long time dead composers……..Why put all this money into arts and crafts? Well for the very simple reason that while the NZSO is not internationally ‘the best’ it gives young people something to aspire to. The same could be said with battleships in the navy, tanks in the army….. you get my point.

      Without these elements, and often the over-confident, know-it-alls who use these things sitting at the top. What do young kiwi’s have to look forward to? Uni than a business career overseas?

      Recently the US Army customized 3 cars with state of the art technology, to attract new recruits from the car enthusiasts scene. These vehicles (American muscle cars) will never see combat. But have attracted large amounts of new recruits.

      Having no strike wing in an air-force, is like having a NZSO with no violins. A beach with no sand. An art class with no colour.
      Who the hell wants to join these things if the key element is missing? If all the toys are gone?

      And then my dear – you have problems. You have boy racers in the streets trying to get their cars to go as fast as possible, Savant violinist getting degrees in economics so they can become bankers, Art students becoming dole bludgers with 5 kids.

  3. nadis 3

    Which F16 pilots were those Anne?

  4. Anne 4

    Replace F16 with the word Skyhawke. Does that make you feel better nadis?

  5. Barry 5

    I can\’t understand why we didn\’t just sell the skyhawks to Iran when the US withheld permission to sell them to the US company.

    • Luxated 5.1

      Although I’m fairly sure you aren’t serious.

      Ignoring the fact the Iran probably wouldn’t want them, the US typically reserves veto rights over on-selling of any US derived military hardware be that complete platforms (aircraft, tanks) or individual systems (radar, gun barrels) even when its built overseas.

  6. QoT 6

    You and your logic, Marty. I think DPF’s post is particularly wonderful for his little lament at the end that we might end up with an Air Vice Marshal who’s “only experience is flying some Hercules”. No one let DPF know that the military is, in fact, quite full of people who don’t look and act like Rambo, he might not take it well.

    • Marty G 6.1

      yeah, that was such a cunty statement from him, as if you have to be a fighter jock to head the air force.

      • QoT 6.1.1

        I’d call it a dickish statement, personally, but we\’re on the same wavelength. 😛

        • Marty G

          🙂 yeah, rejected that choice of word quickly.

          turns out the current Air Vice Marshall is a former helicopter pilot.

          • ghostwhowalksnz

            As was his predecessor. To be honest the skyhawks were out of date when we got them.
            And using aermacchis to train all pilots including for helicopters was well out of date when they were bought. Australia and Britain moved to fast tuboprops for all fast jet training to save money.
            There seems to be a pattern of relying on poor advice from the military to buy equipment.

            • Colonial Viper

              The Skyhawks should have been retired in the mid or late 1980’s. They were a fighter at their peak in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s.

              Yeah, don’t talk to me about the proficiency of our military procurement. I’ve got two words for you: Charles Upham.

            • Luxated

              Australia and Britain moved to fast tuboprops for all fast jet training to save money.

              They might have moved to turboprops for most work but fast vet conversion is still done in both countries in BAE Hawks, of course the point is rather moot in a New Zealand context as we no longer operate any fast jets.

              • ghostwhowalksnz

                Exactly, all pilots are trained to ‘wings’ standard on single engine turboprops. From there they have further training on more specialised aircraft and only if going to very fats jets to they need a Skyhawk type plane. How the Labour government got conned into buying Macchis as a standard and then lead in trainer defies belief. Then anything do do with military equipment is full of bull, viz the recent purchase of LAVs and then the navy ships

                • Luxated

                  At a guess I’d say the rationale was that it would be more cheaper to buy a couple of extra Macchis and replace both the Strikemaster (before the wings fell off) and the Cessna 421. This seems to be the case because 18 Macchis came into service at roughly the same time 16 Strikemasters and 3 421s left it (421 to be effectively replaced less than ten years later by the similar B200).

                  Although the above rationale only makes sense if you ignore the extra operational cost due to the operation of a military fast jet instead of a civil turboprop.

          • QoT

            And who’d want a Jet Pilot for a senior officer anyway?

  7. Anne 7

    My god, what a plonker that man Farrar must be. He shows his ignorance with such a stupid statement. Why does the MSM give him the time of the day?

    • ghostwhowalksnz 7.1

      Thats easy Anne, its called ‘rent a mouth’

      • Anne 7.1.1

        Are you sure he’s not paying them to let him be on their radio and TV shows?

        • Rich

          The media are mainly National supporters, they want a National mouthpiece on. Unfortunately, the actual important ministers and the like are in Hawaii, so Farrar (who doesn’t get invited to Key’s palazzo) is the always-willing option.


    • Draco T Bastard 7.2

      Why does the MSM give him the time of the day?

      From what I can make out it’s because he belongs to the National Party. It can’t be for his knowledge as he doesn’t have any and it can’t for his wisdom as he doesn’t have any of that either (Note: Both of these conditions also exclude his blog). So, that leaves “member of the National Party” as the sole qualifier.

      • QoT 7.2.1

        Well, *and* he does a slightly better job of hiding his complete lack of actual knowledge than, say, Cameron “that’s what I surmise, Mark” Slater.

  8. Rich 8

    Combat radius of the Skyhawk: 1157km.
    Distance from nearest foreign land to NZ: 1490km

    Spot the problem?

    Also, I bloody hope we’ve learnt our lesson and *never* buy any kit that’s encumbered by resale restrictions. I’m sure if we’d bought Mirages or MIGs we’d have had no issues flogging them to the highest bidder.

    • Marty G 8.1

      the Predator UAV has a range of 3,700km and costs $6million. UAVs with weapons and sensor packages are the future both for our coastal defence/search and rescue that the Orions currently do and for any kind of infantry support/bombing that might be needed.

      they’re cheap as chips and highly adaptable.

  9. BLiP 9

    The Chinese have got a nifty new jet – why don’t we lease half a dozen off them?

    • Descendant Of Smith 9.1

      Absolutely – that would put the bejeezus up the Americans wouldn’t it. Pity Cuba don’t make planes.

      Let’s see if their free trade mantra still holds up then.

      Mate of mine who did maintenance on the Skyhawks when they were flying told me about an exercise they did with the US in the central NI – I’m not sure what planes the US bought over.

      The Skyhawks flew around in the gullies and came up underneath the Yanks with a resulting 15-0 shot down to the Skyhawks. He also said that some of the Skyhawks had leaves etc from the tops of the trees in their fuselage as they clipped them.

      He was always of the view that they actually suited out terrain – certainly in the central NI quite well.

      • Deadly_NZ 9.1.1

        If it was about 1986 then it would be the F14 Tomcat. I was fishing at top of North Island, when some F14’s came screaming thru, followed by some Skyhawks (you could not call it chased by as they could not keep up.)

        But it was quite a sight to see these huge F14’s at about 500 ft and just under the sound barrier just lift their noses, a flame a100 ft long shoots out from the back the wings sweep back, a huge bang and they were gone. just Skyhawks left looking lost. and 26 years later I can still see it in my minds eye.

        • Descendant Of Smith

          Yeah it was around then – I just left living in Wanganui and had gone back for a few days to catch up with people.

        • ghostwhowalksnz

          1986 US Navy Tomcats training in NZ ?? During the Lange years.??

          What you saw are Aussie F111 swing wing bombers, which often came to NZ for training ,( we have more mountains). From memory they had a number of crashes while here

    • Deadly_NZ 9.2

      If it’s anything like their cars then here’s why.

  10. Sanctuary 10

    As Marty has pointed out, the maintenance of an air combat capability over the last decade would have cost us a fortune, for absolutely nothing. Personally, my philosophy on military spending is you spend the absolutely smallest amount you can, until a threat appears. When it comes to re-arming for a threat, people always forget the criticality of TIMING. In the 1920s-40s, for example, the Italians rearmed to early, and were stuck with a load of out of date rubbish, the Germans rearmed in time to have good technology in 1940-41, but the western Allies rearmed last – and had a plentiful supply of excellent weapons by 1943-44.The USSR is slightly different, because although they had a huge army equipped with mid thirties gear in 1941, they effectively completely re-armed after their catastrophic defeats that year, and of course they had to rely (like us) on the USA to basically gave them everything apart tanks and guns.

    When a threat does arise, you then use GOVERNMENT arsenals to build as cheaply as possible the types of weapons needed to equip a citizen army to defeat that threat, then once the threat has gone you demobilise and disarm as quickly as you can. Anything else risks creating a wasteful military-industrial complex, whilst even a modest professional army has a vested interest in military adventurism. Let’s face it – if our army was made up of 3-4,000 balloted conscripts, would it still be in Afghanistan? Or would hundreds of letters to the editor written by disgruntled young people (not to mention fretful parents), studies and jobs and careers interrupted, have seen the pointlessness of our part in Afghanistan exposed to the voting public?

  11. Draco T Bastard 11

    and of course they had to rely (like us) on the USA to basically gave them everything apart tanks and guns.

    For a country that had everything supplied to them they seemed to make a hell of a lot.

  12. Sanctuary 12

    “…For a country that had everything supplied to them they seemed to make a hell of a lot…”

    The overall impact of U.S. lend lease is complex, but only those with a political agenda dispute whether or not it was critical to the USSR defeating Nazi Germany. Probably the most straightforward illustration of the impact of American aid is in trucks. Sure, the T-34 and Katyusha rocket were Soviet made – but the USA supplied the USSR with over 700,000 trucks (three quarters of all the trucks the Soviets had), along with 75% of their tyres, and it was these trucks that carried the fuel, food (3.8 million tons worth from the USA) and ammunition that sustained the great Soviet offensives of 1943-45.

    In addition, almost all the footwear ( 15 million pairs – including the warm “Russian” felt lined boots) of the Red Army came from the United States.

    Aircraft, tanks, fuel and aluminium is a good example of the more subtle nature of lend lease. The United States supplied the USSR with almost 230,000 tonnes of aluminium, about two full years of use. The T-34 tank may have been a Soviet designed and built vehicle, but US sourced aluminium was crucial in the manufacture of both it’s and all Soviet aircraft engines. Because the Americans made the Soviets pay hard cash for a scarce strategic material like aluminium was, the Soviets reserved it for engines and other important components and built most of their aircraft from wood – something which put Soviet aircraft at grave disavantage (yes, I know the Mosquito was made of wood, but how many of those are left? Metal aircraft are much superior for a whole range of reasons – which was why the USSR loved the 7,500 or so American metal Aerocobra and Kingcobra fighters supplied to them, but rejected by American pilots for their poor performance) and prolonged the Germans ability to contest the air war over Russia. In fact, it was only the USAAF shooting the Luftwaffe out of the sky over Germany in 1944 that finally gave the Soviets air supremacy, a point seldom considered by Russophiles. Similarly, while the USSR produced ample fuel, their fighters relied on US supplied high octane fuel (to the tune of 2.5 million tonnes) for improved combat performance. Oh and BTW – the Americans also supplied over 3,500 well built, twin engined, and metal medium bombers!

    Finally, WHEN the aid was delivered is important. Soviet production was at it’s lowest in the last few months of 1941 and the first six months of 1942.The Soviets were unable in any way to even remotely replace their terrible equipment losses during this time. This was EXACTLY the time US and British arms (as opposed to raw materials) shipments were at there highest. So “paltry” though the thousands of weakly armed and flimsy tanks sent to the USSR at this time may have been,they were delivered at a vital time.

    Fascinating, but off topic. 🙂

  13. Jenny 13

    Bring on the day when the airforce have to run a cake stall to keep their planes flying. And schools and hospitals are fully funded.

    Funny how for the right there is never enough money for the later.

    there is no money.”

    “…..there is no money”.
    “There won’t be money for us and there won’t be money for Labour,”

    John Key

    But for war and the weapons of war, there is always an open cheque book.

    • Colonial Viper 13.1

      But for war and the weapons of war, there is always an open cheque book.

      US Defense spending has long been considered sacrosanct. Amazingly, and possibly a sign that some corners of the US recognise what a grave financial situation it is in, the Pentagon is pushing for tens of billions of budget cuts across the US armed forces.

      • ghostwhowalksnz 13.1.1

        Not really cuts, they having a plateau with total spending , as proposed by Obamas people and Gates.
        The military will use Congress to get around it .

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