Combat Airforce

Combat Airforce

Combat Airforce

This review finds that any expenditure on an air combat force is completely unjustifiable. The simple problem is the extremely high cost of these systems and a 99%+ probability that they will never be used.

The traditional justification for New Zealand owning and operating combat aircraft is to defend New Zealand. In point of fact, however 75 squadron simply ended up being a junior squadron of the Royal Australian Airforce. In their 30 year operational life the A4K Skyhawks only once fired their weapons outside of training and that was a warning shot across the bows of a fleeing fishing boat. You don't need a jet to intimidate a fishing boat.

The biggest problem faced by all combat aircraft based in New Zealand is that of range. Most combat aircraft have a maximum strike mission radius ( hi-lo-hi) of less than 600 nautical miles. This is enough to attack Norfolk Island from Auckland should Australia menace us. Only with inflight refueling could most combat aircraft extend their range to strike a fleet maintaining a mid-ocean blockade (of oil for example). And inflight refueling aircraft cost $100s of millions of dollars each. Only the Russian SU-27 Flanker has a range that gets within cooee of Noumea and while a lethal weapon it is difficult to see why we would want to spend huge sums of money to attack a French territory.

The simple fact is that New Zealand is well outside the range of any ground based air combat force that might conceivably attack us.  They would also be out of range to support ground forces in the Pacific unless political support allowing operations from other Pacific nations is forthcoming. This means that any air combat force we have would end up in Australia. The only possible use for a New Zealand jet force would be to provide pilot training for Australia however Australia already has extensive pilot training facilities of its own using the BAE Hawk Lead-in fighter trainer.

The only remaining justification for combat aircraft is to combat an air terrorist threat. An air terrorist threat could take the form of a hijacked airliner (eg 911) or a stolen collectors aircraft.  In both cases there is no real need for combat aircraft performance as the target is unlikely to be able to shoot back. The same is also true when it comes to interdiction or support operations in the Pacific. Aside from the Australians and the French no Pacific Nations operate combat aircraft in the South Pacific.

Photo: Boeing

The Boeing F/A-18 is used by Australia and Malaysia but costs around US$70 million a unit and has a combat radius of little more than 500 nautical miles without refueling

Of course, as demonstrated in the British invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas one of the best ways to extend aircraft operational ranges is to dispense with the need for a heavy concrete airstrip. The Harrier VTOL aircraft could operate from both carriers and island bases and also enjoyed the combat advantage of vector-in-forward-flight manoeuvre.

The Harrier is however being replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Joint Strike Fighter is still in development for the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The Marine Corps version will have Short Vertical Take Off and Landing capability. This aircraft could operate from any Island under New Zealand protection including the Kermadecs, the Cooks and even the Tokelau Islands.
The F-35 is being adopted by Australia and has a target cost of 1997US$35 million a unit. In reality the cost will be a good deal more than that (double being conservative).

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is being adopted by a range of nations including Australia. The Marine Corps version will have VTOL capability.

One aircraft would, of course, be an operational nonsense. Typically squadrons operate with 12 aircraft although this could be reduced to as few as eight if necessary. Even eight F-35s would cost a minimum of NZ$560 million and probably through cost-escalation (an inevitable feature of US military procurement cycles), spare parts etc closer to $1 billion. This is 25% of the notional defence equipment capital budget. Even on an annualized basis over the 30-year life of the system $33 million a year plus $87 million a year operating costs (the amount the Skyhawks cost) is a ridiculous amount of money to spend so that we can take the odd pot-shot at a fishing boat. In terms of this study that would be a $3 billion investment with a 95% probability of being completely wasted.

Training Combat Aircraft 

There is one useful application combat aircraft could provide and that is training. This could include providing an Aggressor force for the Australians to practice on (an aggressor force is equipped to simulate potential opponents) or other arms: e.g the Navy and the Army. 

This requirement depends very much on the doctrine a force adopts.  The doctrine adopted by this study is not one based on high intensity combat. This study is based very much on the assumption of low intensity conflict.  As such there is little need to train New Zealand forces (in New Zealand) to work with air combat forces.

Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles

As a footnote to this item on combat aircraft it should be noted that even now before the threshold of the Study period (2010) there is significant research and development going on into unoccupied combat aerial vehicles. By 2020 such vehicles will have combat capabilities far in advance of human occupied aircraft and may be better described as multi-target, re-usable anti-aircraft missiles. They will fly faster, higher and turn faster than any human body could tolerate. Such systems will make attacks by human flown bombers almost certain suicide. Instead it is likely that human flown jets will become the control platforms for large number of pilotless UAVs. These tiny UCAVs will be far stealthier and far more accurate than modern attack aircraft. As a result the war in the air can be expected to become increasingly an electronic war with opponents attacking one another's control signals and trying to hack one another's systems in real time.

Photo: Boeing

Boeing's X-45 unpiloted aerial vehicle has already dropped munitions in flight tests. It is not the only combat UAV under evaluation.

 In the meantime this is not to say that there is not a risk that terrorists could not hijack civilian aircraft or ships in order to attack New Zealand targets - unlikely though it may be. In such a circumstance any Government may be reluctantly forced to have the aircraft shot down or ship sunk. Shooting down a lumbering civilian airliner does not require the agility and advanced weapons systems of a modern combat aircraft. As we shall see there are other platforms capable of mounting air-to-air weaponry.