There are only three air forces capable of attacking New Zealand: the United States Air Force; the Royal Australian Air Force and the French Armee de l'Air (from New Caledonia). The USAF and FAA have nuclear weapons but are nominally friendly. The RAAF has the South East Asian region's largest fleet of strike jet fighters and is an ally. The next largest air force in South East Asia is that of Singapore. There is, therefore, no defensive component to our air force.
The following 'friendly' jet fighters can strike Auckland
A/F-18E/F Super Hornet (Australia & US) from Norfolk Island
Dassault Rafale from Noumea
Once again the likelihood that either France or Australia would want to bomb Auckland is extremely low. Both nations can do far more damage diplomatically or economically anyway.
There is therefore absolutely no point in New Zealand maintaining a combat fighter or strike jet capability. There is no way we can maintain a fighter force able to compete with larger nations, nor do we offer any added value by trying.
The Royal New Zealand Airforce has a fleet of 8 NH90 medium lift helicopters, 8 Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite ASW helicopters, and 5 A109M training and light utility helicopters.
The NH90 helicopter acquisition process was not pretty and seems to have involved some pretty expensive living by the acquisition team. The Office of the Auditor General report here shows how the acquisition costs blew out from $500 to over $770 million dollars ($96 million each). Most other nations NH90s were far cheaper with Finland paying US$408 million ($581 million) for 20 machines in 2015. In short we either ordered gold plated helicopters or we were thoroughly ripped off. Probably both.
The Air Force's reluctance to field their helicopters in Vanuatu in 2015 was utterly embarrassing. The Air Force claimed their near $100 million military grade machines might be upset by Pacific winds (i.e salty air because the NH90s are not corrosion treated). But the helicopters have since been fielded in Fiji - one suspects after some fairly acerbic threats to Air Force staff from the Defence Minister.
The NH90 has been a troubled aircraft almost everywhere it flies. Australia grounded its NH90s temporarily, the Germans also grounded theirs. The teething problems have only claimed one aircraft loss. While they boast a glass cockpit (air force terminology for digital) and lots of nice features for pilots they are extremely expensive aircraft given their capability. They can lift 4.2 tonnes or carry 19 soldiers. They are not armed but have been fitted with missile decoy projectors.
No.3 Squadron, which flies the 8 NH90, and 5 A109Ms costs taxpayers $229 million annually. According to its website "The Squadron is annually allocated approximately 1500 flying hours for the A109 and approximately 1700 flying hours for the NH90 to achieve the stated tasks". The Iroquois the NH90s replaced flew 2560 hours annually with 40% availability. According to estimates the NH90s were meant to cost $70m per annum to operate. But that was before the cost blow out (showing the reliabillty of airforce estimates). By contrast the A109 was estimated to cost $20m per annum. If we assume a NH90: A109M cost ratio of 4:1. The A109s cost taxpayers $45m per annum while the NH90s cost taxpayers $183m per annum. This yields an operating cost to taxpayers of $107,647 per flight hour for the NH90s and $30,000 a flight hour for the A109s.
The Although RNZAF has not published availability rates the Finns have only just reached 50%, The best performance (by Belgium) is 67%. This means that on average we might expect no more than four machines to be available at any one time.
No 6 Squadron RNZAF flies 1,000 hours annually with eight Seasprite SH-2G helicopters for a budget allocation of $91 million. That comes to $91,000 per flight hour. While naval helicopters do suffer from extra maintenance costs due to salt air corrosion this is rather a lot to operate any helicopter. Those operating in the oil and gas industry certainly face the same costs.
Now while the Air Force's helicopters are doubtless way better than their civilian counterparts one cannot but help looking at the books of helicopter companies with comparable fleets. Helicopters New Zealand Global (HNZGlobal) operates the A109M, the AW139 (slightly smaller than the NH90) and the Bell 412P ( the modern Iroquois). The company operates 30 helicopters with 140 staff all over the world. The company has flown 60,000 hours for the US military in Afghanistan, and flies on major oil and gas projects. It has had no accidents. In 2014 it flew 46,202 flight hours. It had revenue of $207 million and net income of $12.5m meaning it operated globally for a cost of $194m including provision for tax (which the Airforce gets).
The Helicopter Line flies AS350 squirrels (similar to the A109M) for the tourist trade. It's hourly charge (obviously including profit, and provision for taxation) is $750 per hour.
In short compared to New Zealand helicopter companies the RNZAF No.3 and No.6 Squadrons look like pampered pussies who are costing taxpayers vast amounts and delivering a pitiful 3,200 flying hours for the price a private firm can deliver 46,202. Put another way the Airforce is 22 times less efficient than a private firm. It is also notable that the RNZAF flew not one helicopter in Afghanistan.
If a company like HGNZ provided more of our military helicopter services taxpayers could probably spend $150 million per year extra on health, or education.
No. 40 Squadron operates 5 aging C-130H Hercules aircraft and 2 Boeing B-757 passenger-freight combi aircraft. It's budget allocation is $263 million dollars for 1,450 flight hours for the B-757s and 1,810 flight hours for the C-130Hs. On average that means the RNZAF No.40 Squadron costs $80,674 per flight hour.
The C-130s are very old and have been the recipient of expensive refurbishment projects to extend their lives. According to this article in Time magazine the cost to the US Air Force of operating the C-130J (the latest version of the Hercules) is $20,270 per flight hour (US$14,014). Obviously the US Air Force flies a lot and has economies of scale. This UK National Audit Office report says the RAF Hercules fleet costs $507 million (UKP245 million) to provide 29,820 Hercules flight hours which comes to $17,002 per flight hour. If we assume $20,000 per flight hour is a reasonable cost then the RNZAF costs four times more than it should.
The economics of operating widely used commercial jet-liners like the B-757-200 is obviously not much of a secret. This article has a run down on average airliner costs. It says the B-757 would cost a commercial operator around NZ$12,126.60 (US$8,383) per hour. This charter flight site (a NZ one) says the cost of chartering a B-757 (including profit to the operator, obviously) is around NZ$20,690 per hour. Again the RNZAF costs four times more than chartering commercial freight aircraft.
Already NZDF makes extensive use of chartered aircraft. To fly three light armoured vehicles to Afghanistan It reportedly cost $700,000 to charter a Qantas B-747 cargo plane. The B-747 normally costs $27,000 per hour to operate and the flight to Kabul takes 23 flight hours (23 x $27,000 = $621,000) so a charter cost of $700,000 including extras, insurance, risk pricing etc seems fairly reasonable. Let's put it this way, no Air Force would have been able to deliver them cheaper.
The NH90s too were air delivered by charter aircraft as well. The first models were delivered on a Ukrainian Antonov AN124, the largest freight aircraft in the world and the only aircraft capable of delivering the NH90.
In both cases the defence force told politicians the NH90 and LAV3 were transportable in by C-130H. This was a bit of a porkie as both systems have to be partially disassembled first and the range limitations on the loaded C-130H makes the exercise futile.
There are very few occasions when the RNZAF actually needs or uses military skills to fly transport missions. Most missions are airport to airport which could be done more cheaply with commercial leasing.
If we used more leasing for half our missions taxpayers could benefit from $130 million dollars to spend on health, education or export developments.
No 5 Squadron RNZAF flies six P-3K2 Orion aircraft at an annual cost of $202 million for 2,400 flight hours at an annual cost of $84,166 per flight hour.
Unlike helicopters and transport there are few civilian equivalent services to maritime patrol. The nearest is scientific research. Figures from the Airborne Research and Survey facility of the UK National Environmental Research Council annual report show the facility cost $1,807,984 (UKP873,000) and provided 245 flight hours or $7,379 per flight hour. Admittedly this is government funding and the aircraft and sensors on NERC funded aircraft aren't as expensive as those of Anti Submarine Warfare aircraft like the P3K2. However A320 and B-737-700 aircraft cost around $10,250 per hour to fly for commercial aviation so there is a pretty huge discrepancy of about eight times a normal jet airliner to contend with.
Once again we also face the question whether a naval patrol aircraft equipped to find and fight submarines or a coastguard aircraft to monitor fishing boats. For 99.999% of the time a search and rescue equipped coastguard aircraft would be more than sufficient.
If the flight hour cost of this service was halved to $42,000 per flight hour we could either double our EEZ coverage or liberate $100 million for education or health or science.
The RNZAF has reinstated n0.14 Squadron in 2015 and bought 11 Beechcraft T-6 Texan 2s for $154 million so it can put on air show displays! Really? Yes, really. That's what they think a good use of $154 million is. The public stage excellent air shows at Wanaka and Masterton without the benefit of $154 million subsidies for their machines.
The Texan II was investigated by Congress for cost overruns and has missed out on a wide range of contracts in the US and in our region. Most other air forces fly the Pilatus PC-21 instead. The Texan II is intended as a pre-jet air trainer for higher risk manoeuvres. Unlike basic trainers where student and trainer sit side-by-side for ease of instruction in aircraft like the Texan II, Pilatus PC-21 and Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano the trainer and instructor sit in a line in ejector seats. This is because the aircraft can also carry weapons. The EMB 314 is the most heavily armed. Most other air forces in the region use the PC-21 for air training and counter insurgency (COIN) operations. The Texan II is therefore a poor man's fighter.
The RNZAF says they will deliver 15-20 "appropriately trained pilots" annually. Sorry, but why do we need to train so many pilots on a fighter precursor trainer when we don't have any fighters, and don't need them either? What we have is a lot of helicopters and large four engined turbo props. Training in aerobatics in a fixed wing aircraft isn't much use when the operational aircraft are either rotary wing or lumbering great transports incapable of acrobatics.
In three years the RNZAF will have trained at least one pilot for every single aircraft it operates (including 21 helicopters, and the trainers themselves). In six years it will have trained two pilots for every aircraft it operates. WTF for?
The country is awash in private flight schools. People pay money to learn to fly and the RNZAF thinks it should hire and pay them to learn to fly instead. It's insane. Whoever approved this is clearly innumerate.
What this is really about is giving some old jet jocks an excuse to blat around in a high performance turboprop courtesy of the taxpayer. It also looks suspiciously like the RNZAF wants to reform the waste of money no.75 squadron again.
At present the Royal New Zealand Airforce is preparing to perpetrate another massive taxpayer rip off of New Zealanders. It is advising the government that at some time in the near future it will need to replace the aircraft of no.40 (transport) squadron and no.5 (maritime patrol) squadron. Airbus Industries is already proposing the A400M to replace the five C-130Hs of no.40 squadron. This all by itself would cost over one billion dollars as the aircraft are $200m each. Another option is to follow the Australians lead and buy the huge C-17 Globemaster. These aircraft are close to $400m each.
Then there is the replacement for the P3K Orions. The eight Poesidon ASW aircraft Australia is adopting cost A$500m each. Even if we re-equipped no.5 squadron with four instead of the current six that would be $2 billion dollars. That's $2 billion for aircraft for hunting non existent submarines.
There are alternatives that are far more reasonable. But perhaps the most important of all is that the cost is only due to the need to maintain the illusion that we have an air force. Replace the air force with a coastguard and the answer is obvious. You do not need eleven military aircraft in two squadrons. Augmenting air capability with our new space capability you could merge both functions into one squadron of six and save taxpayers a fortune.
Don't expect military people to endorse this plan. They are primarily focused on their own careers and that means bullshitting the New Zealand public.
Much of what our Air Force does can be done far, far cheaper by civilian agencies. The only argument for doing these things with a military service is if the aircraft carry weapons or use military training (e.g paradropping onto a target). This suggests that we need to consider very carefully what we want military aircraft for.
Helicopters: $150 million
Transport: $130 million
Patrol: $100 million
Total: $380 million per year