One of the RNZAF's two 30 year-old 757 aircraft at Melbourne Airport in 2019. Broken down. The Prime Minister was forced to return home on a commercial flight.

With the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers due to meet on Friday with regional security issues at the top of their agenda, New Zealand’s Defence chiefs have given a revealing account of the state of the country’s defence forces.

Their account raises real questions about the credibility of New Zealand’s claim to have a viable Defence presence in the Pacific in the event of any conflict.

Present equipment is ageing and becoming more difficult to maintain, while an acute shortage of personnel means that purchasing new capabilities is having to be deferred.

Last year the chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshall Kevin Short, said New Zealand had only three capabilities that could survive in a “hot” contested environment; its two frigates (one of which is undergoing a refit in Canada), its SAS troops and its P3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft.

A measure of the age and state of our defence assets came when the vice Chief of the Defence Force, Air Vice Marshall Tony Davies, last week told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee that on the Prime Minister’s recent trip to Singapore and Japan, the Airforce 757 VIP aircraft had managed to fly five legs with her on board without reporting a fault.

“That’s not normal,” he said.

The 757’s notoriously poor reliability is such that journalists travelling on it to Australia this week for the annual trans-Tasman summit were advised to make contingency bookings with commercial airlines in case it broke down.

POLITIK One of the RNZAF 757s flying for Dutch budget airline Transavia in the mid 90s.

The 757s were originally purchased by Dutch budget airline Transavia and first flew in 1992.

They were purchased by the Air Force in 2003, and Davies told the Committee they were expected to continue flying here until 2028.

But he conceded there were problems finding parts for them.

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Maintenance was becoming difficult, and the company contracted to service the engines took three or four times as long as the contract specified.

At an earlier meeting of the Committee, the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshall Kevin Short, said that the time taken to overhaul a 757 engine had gone from 90 days to 300 days.

“And as a result, we ended up having to buy two extra engines to make sure the aircraft was available more often,” he said.

The lamentable state of the two 757s is echoed across the Defence force by other assets, particularly the five 57-year-old C130 Hercules transport aircraft operated by the RNZAF.

“It’s very old, and we’ve got corrosion and other issues with it,” said Short.

“ And so one of the airframes, for instance, was actually out of service for 11 months well past the operating life of that particular airframe.

“But we are managing that, and I think as of today, we’ve got three airframes available for tasking.”

The Government has committed to replacing the Hercules fleet, and five new aircraft will begin arriving in 2024, with the entire fleet operating from 2025.

The other elderly aircraft in the RNZAF are six P3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft which were purchased in 1966.

They will be replaced later this year by four P8 Poseidon aircraft.

Davies explained that because of the way funding for the air force had been organised over the years; planes were left to the very last before they were overhauled and updated.

“If you look back and think in the past, we bought the P3 in 1966; the next upgrade for the P3 was in 1982, and then we did another upgrade to the aircraft in 2005,” he said.

“That’s the way we did defence capability in the past.

“We would buy something; wait for it to deteriorate to a sad state and be like 15, 20 years after we bought it, and then we’d have this big leap and spend a lot of money and then it wastes away again.

“So I’d characterise that was how we used to do it.”

So now, the Air Force has entered into a contract with the US Air Force which means it will be part of their system of continual upgrade. That would mean we’re being upgraded every two or three years.

POLITIK One of the RNZAF’s current C130 Hercules aircraft at Vung Tau airbase in Viet Nam during the war in 1969 with NZ soldiers from 161 battery standing alongside.

But there are not just problems with ageing equipment.

The whole Defence force is stretched in terms of personnel.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare has declined to give National’s Defence spokesperson, Tim van der Meulen, the number targets for its current recruitment drive — which may suggest that they are substantial.

But Davies told National’s Gerry Brownlee at the Committee that a decision to defer an ice-strengthened southern patrol vessel for the Navy was because the Defence Force was stretched managing the $5.6 billion procurement of 43 Bushmaster vehicles for the army; the four P3 aircrafts, and the five replacement Hercules as well as a substantial upgrade to the Te Kaha frigate.

“We have taken already the initial business case to cabinet on the Southern Ocean patrol vessel, and we were due to bring back a detailed business case late last year,” said Davies.

“From our side, we were also looking at the challenges we were having to projects in delivery, particularly all those impacts that Covid was having on us.

“And we looked to focus our workforce on ensuring the delivery of that $5.6 billion that was already invested in.

“And so that was a conscious decision of us just to put on hold the Southern Ocean patrol vessels due to the fact of us wanting to have more people working on the challenges that we were seeing with the projects.

“So it’s a deferral at the moment.”

The Ministry has estimated the cost of the vessel at between $300 and $600 million.

But previously, Henare has suggested that funding might become a factor in defence procurement.

In July 2021, he told the Committee that whilst projects had not been cut from the 2019 Defence Capability Plan, it would be redrafted to align with Government priorities because of fiscal constraints due to the cost of the pandemic.

The Select Committee highlighted in its report that the Minister said he was working with the Minister of Finance on reviewing the plan.

And in March this year, Michael Swain, deputy secretary for Defence Policy and Planning at the Ministry, told Reuters: “Due to the impact Covid has had on the fiscal environment and emerging personnel pressures from other projects, this work has been deferred.”

The World Bank reported that in 2020 New Zealand spent 1.56 per cent of its GDP on Defence.

ACT is calling for that to be raised to two per cent, and National Party members approved a remit at a recent regional conference calling for the same target.

National’s Defence spokesperson, Tim van der Molen, asked Henare whether the current level of expenditure was “an appropriate level of commitment from our government.”

Henare said he had spoken with New Zealand’s bilateral partners, including Australia, at the recent Shangrila Defence dialogue in Singapore.

“None of them; in fact, nobody that I spoke with mentioned New Zealand spend, nor did they request that we invest more,” he said.

Current Defence spending at $2.5 billion a year is the fourth largest Government spending commitment after health, transport and education.

Moving to two per cent of GDP a year would add another one billion to the Defence spending, still less than health, education or transport.

And though Australia may not have raised the spending level with Henare, it is a constant niggle between the two countries that Australia spends $48.6 billion and New Zealand spends $2.5 billion.

That is why our equipment is so old and unreliable.