Thunderbird 2. Rights Remain with original owner

Royal NZ Thunderbirds?

Those of a certain age remember the “Supermarionation” TV series “Thunderbirds”.  It follows the exploits of International Rescue (IR), a privately owned, life-saving organisation equipped with technologically-advanced land, sea, air and space rescue craft; a fleet of five platforms and launched from IR’s secret base in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Thunderbird 2, piloted by Virgil Tracy, was a multi-payload lifter

Thunderbird 2 with all modules. Copyright remains with the original owner
Thunderbird 2 with all modules. Copyright remains with the original owner

that had all sorts of detachable “Pods”, containing various configurations of humanitarian and sub-surface capabilities. These “Pods” could be put into a standard loading bay in Thunderbird 2 and deployed as needed to accident zones.

Now back to the present. New Zealand’s P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft are worn out. So, too, are our C-130 tactical airlift aircraft. This Labour/NZFirst/Green Government has to make a decision by the end of June on the last Government’s option to replace Orion with P-8 Poseidon. There’s also a heap of other things they need to decide to maintain public confidence in their commitment to the Defence Force. Hon Ron Mark talked tough on Defence capabilities in last year’s election campaign but has so far failed to fire a shot from NZ First’s policy list apart from more Limited Service Volunteers. He risks humiliation if he can’t deliver after his pitch to Cabinet with the Strategic Defence Policy Statement later this month.

NZ needs both role capabilities. We have a vast EEZ, SAR region and humanitarian responsibility before we even talk warfare. So what is shaping the conversation right now? Here’s a few points of reference to ponder:

  • Labour Party Minister of Finance, Hon Grant Robertson, has a severe case of Mother Hubbard’s cupboards.
  • The Pacific reset on Foreign Affairs led by Ron Mark’s Matua, Rt Hon Winston Peters.
  • Green Party wants to be able to rescue sinking yachties, protect fisheries and help neighbouring island nations but doesn’t want any Anti-Submarine Warfare capability.
  • Defence Minister, Hon Ron Mark has said “Climate Change” in his speeches more times in the last 6 months than in the rest of his life combined.
  • Former NZ First Party Chief of Staff, David Broome, has gone out as a consultant and recently published an article talking up the C-130J Hercules as the ultimate multi-role aircraft with RORO “Pods” for all roles we undertake (Troops, HADR, Maritime, VIP etc). According to his LinkedIn profile, he is a professional spin doctor who formerly worked for Fed Farmers so a surprising defence commentator unless he has been engaged to write these things.
  • Two of the four leased KingAir KA-350s recently announced to replace KingAir B-200 are apparently going to be fitted for short-range maritime patrol in addition to their multi-engine pilot training and light air-lift operations such as transport, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
  • Drones, satellites and AUVs were not specifically mentioned in the 2016 White Paper shopping list but are part of the broader maritime surveillance and ISR conversation.
  • There has been a long-standing discussion about an ‘Andover-sized’ transport aircraft (like the Q-300 that Air NZ flies) and a proliferation of advertising recently on the C-27J (a twin engine “Herc-looking” multi-role transport aircraft that has some shared componentry with the C-130J. It is made in Italy with US collaboration)

The choice will likely be the cheapest the Government can get away with while not being called “soft on defence”. Here’s the sort of political discussion that might be going on right now. There are 11 existing platforms to replace (5 C-130 and 6 P-3). Subtract 2 KingAirs = 9. Add some drones on order makes 6-8. Halve that number for “3 or 4 SC-130J/C-27J Buy Now” versus “3 or 4 same airframes Option to Buy”. This political tactic has been done before in relation to the ANZAC frigates and really is code for ‘No intention to exercise the option in the future’.

While more tactical airlift aircraft has merit, it shouldn’t be at the cost of maritime surveillance capability. I cannot find a single example of a force operating the SC-130J ‘Sea Hercules’ maritime variant. Only a Lockheed-Martin promo about it on their website and a reference from a Singapore air show in 2012. This potentially puts us on the bleeding edge of technology yet again. At the same air show, a ‘cheap’ variant the C-130XJ was also announced. The X stands for ‘expandable’. It’s cheaper because it doesn’t come with a range of optional “Line Replaceable Units – LRUs” that the full price version does. Sounds like “Fitted For but not Fitted With” to me. Here we go again.

Other bidders, such as Embraer and Kawasaki seem to have fallen off the radar unfortunately. And let’s not forget, if things get desperate, that there are four ‘serviceable’ Mitsubishi MU-2Fs sitting at RNZAF Woodbourne that were flown here from the US under the RNZAF’s Ground Training Wing “Training Aid Replacement Project – TARP” in 2009. Those of you close to the TARP will understand when I quote Wing Commander The Lord Flashheart, “Woof!”

FAB Virgil!