RNZAF B757 aircraft come to the end of their service life around 2020. Will this week's budget see a commitment to their replacement?

Boeing Going Gone?

The Defence White Paper and subsequent Defence Capability Plan, both published in 2016, set out a path for replacement of platforms that are approaching end of service life. The RNZAF’s two Boeing 757-2K2 are included on that list with a shelf life of around 2020. That’s not a long time in aircraft acquisition terms.

I’m writing this article three days before the delivery of the first budget of the Labour/NZ First/Green government. Money is tight, demands are many and the Finance Minister, Hon Grant Robertson, has already indicated that the $20b defence hardware investment agreed to, in principle, by the previous government is fair game.

In a perfect world, New Zealand should have a strategic airlift capability. However, these aircraft have become more commonly associated in the public’s mind with Prime Ministers waving at media from the top of the steps or trade delegations attending various regional summits. In the latter role, they often do the rounds of Pacific states to ‘pick up’ those who can’t get their delegations there under their own steam. While it’s true that they can and have flown to Antarctica, taken troops into theatre and delivered humanitarian assistance, none of these outcomes specifically require a commercial airliner owned and operated by Defence. A Government looking to cut costs might well have these aircraft in their sights.

Acquired second-hand in 2003, the B757s have had significant modification since 2007 enabling passenger (VIP and trooping), freight and aero-medical roles. All things considered, they are very useful aircraft. The original purchase plus modifications cost around $221m. The next iteration will be much more.

So what are the options?

  1. Do nothing. The Government may try to squeeze a few more years out of them and hope it becomes someone else’s problem. This might be attractive because, at least for now, it’s free.
  2. Like for Like. Replace the B757s with a similar type of aircraft as envisaged in the Defence Capability Plan. Unlikely that we will hear this decision in the 2018 budget. A comparable aircraft is the Airbus A321 (Particularly the Long-Range variant). Coincidentally, Air NZ have 13 A320/321NEO aircraft on order which would simplify engineering and logistic support greatly.
  3. Merge roles. Get rid of the B757s and assign their tasks to other aircraft such as the tactical airlift replacement for the C130 Hercules. Some possibilities:
  • C130J – but doesn’t have anywhere near the range, payload or speed of the B757
  • Kawasaki C2
  • Airbus A400M

This option may require an increase to the number of airframes for the C130 replacement fleet (also out of service at the same time – 2020) and would represent an increase in cost. Military aircraft are always more expensive than civil. Important note for politicians – you can’t paint an airliner grey and call it MilSpec.

  1. Lease. Lease a replacement for the B757s with a comparable commercially available aircraft such as the Airbus A321. This option also has the advantage of NZDF not owning the aircraft and therefore not having to pay depreciation and capital charge back to the Government. Large platform purchases can have a seriously negative impact on operating funds.
  2. Outsource. Get rid of the 757s and outsource the tasks. Does the Prime Minister need to fly around the world in an RNZAF aircraft? Why not an Air NZ one? And if the ‘look and feel’ matters, I’m sure the Government, as majority shareholder, can squeeze a little extra artwork in between the Lord of the Rings and All Black paint jobs! The UN already outsource troop movements and Kiwi personnel have often travelled in and out of theatre in this way (sometimes the toilets even work!).

So how will it play out? I don’t think we will see a commitment to replacing the 757s in this budget and it is possible that their replacement will be canned. If we do see replacement plans – either now or in the next couple of years – and it comes at the cost of other more essential military platform upgrades then the Minister of Defence, Hon Ron Mark, is going to find himself in a very awkward position.