The New Zealand Air Force is set for a major upgrade following the billion-dollar-purchase of five new Super Hercules aircraft featuring infrared cameras and high-speed satellite communications.
The new aircraft will be able to carry heavier payloads, travel faster and further, and will be fitted with specialist capabilities including a wide bandwidth, or the range of frequency required to pass a specific signal, to enable real-time data streaming.
Cabinet selected the five Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules transport aircraft in 2019 as the preferred option to replace the existing fleet of five ageing C-130 Hercules aircraft.
Defence Minister Ron Mark said along with the new fleet, the spend-up totalling $1.521 billion, will deliver a full mission flight simulator and other supporting infrastructure.
"The flight simulator will help us to build and maintain crew skills, and allow more demanding training scenarios to be attempted without risk to personnel, and while preserving flight hours for operational tasks."
Mark said the investment means the Air Force will remain available to undertake operations in New Zealand's immediate region, as well as support our interests in Antarctica.
He said earlier this year that New Zealand's forces have been run off their feet providing support for the Australian bush fires, the Whaakari/White Island eruption, and responding to COVID-19.
The new equipment will make the Air Force's fleet "among the most capable in the world" because the satellite communications system will allow imagery, video and data to be streamed in real-time, with the capability to undertake aerial surveillance.
Mark said the aircraft will be able to carry out transport tasks, particularly useful on humanitarian and disaster relief operations and search and rescue missions.
The Government has also approved $21 million to upgrade systems in the Air Force NH90 helicopters to comply with regulatory and operational requirements.
Who did we buy them from?
The new Super Hercules aircraft have been acquired through the United States' Foreign Military Sales process as part of a package that includes aircrew and training for maintenance.
The Government also purchased four military-style Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft in 2018 from the US. Those aircraft replaced six ageing P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft that were in operation since the 1960s.
Mark said as with the decision to acquire the P-8A Poseidon fleet through the Foreign Military Sales process, it "allows collaboration with other nations on developments and system upgrades that will be necessary over the life of the aircraft".
For example, the upgrade of the NH90 helicopters will be undertaken in cooperation with a number of other nations who operate the same equipment including Australia, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, and Norway.
It will allow New Zealand to "share development costs amongst all participating nations, which means this approach is less expensive and risky than pursuing a bespoke solution".
But the new fleet won't be arriving anytime soon. Mark said the Super Hercules aircraft will be delivered in 2024, with the full fleet operating from 2025, allowing for a "phased retirement" of the current fleet.
"Without upgrading these systems the NZDF aircraft may be restricted in operations in both controlled civil and military airspace. Funding for this project will be provided for from NZDF baselines."
Why do we need to upgrade?
The current Air Force fleet is ageing and has become unreliable.
Mark revealed to a select committee in June 2019 that the entire fleet of C-130 Hercules aircraft was grounded for repair - not a single one of them was available for use.
Documents obtained by Newshub last year showed that since 2016, $97.7 million had been spent on maintenance and repair costs for the C-130 Hercules and Boeing 757 fleets.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's staff purchased a commercial airline flight ticket for her in July last year in case the Defence Force plane taking her home from Melbourne broke down - and it did.
Former Prime Minister John Key had to be rescued back in 2016 when a 757 broke down twice, stranding him and a delegation of nearly 100 in Townsville, Australia en route to India.
Almost $900 million was earmarked in Budget 2020 for the aircraft replacement pending approval by Cabinet, as part of an overall $1.77 billion boost for the Defence Force.