The Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, Air Marshall Tony Davies; Defence Minister Judith Collins and the Secretary of Defence, Andrew Bridgman at the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Scrutiny hearing on Defence yesterday.

The Air Force 757 that broke down with the Prime Minister on board in Port Moresby on Sunday is considered so unreliable that it carries a substantial stock of spare parts when it travels overseas.

And the plane also carries an Air Force maintenance team on board ready to make running repairs.

Unfortunately, a replacement for the part that failed in Port Moresby, a junction box, was not in the stock on board the plane on Sunday.

The Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, Air Marshall Tony Davies, a former 757 pilot himself, told a Parliamentary Select Committee yesterday that there were now doubts whether the two 757 planes could keep flying until 2028 as had been hoped.

“We had hoped to get those aircraft to 2028,” he said.

“We’re not saying that’s impossible, but in the ratio of time they spend on maintenance and the costs of actually maintaining them, are getting to the point where we’re saying, how much longer can we keep going with this?” 

Defence Minister Judith Collins had a somewhat more colourful view of their age.

“I refer to them as classic cars with wings and as someone who owns classic cars, they are more a thing of beauty,” she said.

“These are beautiful planes; very nice, stylish, very nice.

“But. (pause)

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“Our people do a brilliant job keeping them going.”

Collins was anxious to emphasise that the 757s were not the Prime Minister’s planes.

“It’s very important for the Prime minister and delegates and delegations and media to be able to go on these trips, which you all know is incredibly important for trade,” she said.

“It’s not simply his plane.”

Air Marshall Davies made the point yesterday that the 757s have a much wider role than simply providing transport for the Prime Minister and his business and media delegations.

“If you consider the workload that it does take on, it’s as useful, if not sometimes more useful to us than to see the C130s,” he said.

“Together, the two of them form a transport pool, and probably around 60 to 70% of their tasks are very similar to them.

“Just how busy that 757 has been in the last three months; it’s done 96 flights.”

Collins will have an opportunity to outline plans for their replacement when she brings a new Defence Capability Plan to Cabinet later this year, setting out a timetable for Defence purchases.

Earlier this year, she told POLITIK she hoped that would be in July, but she told the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee yesterday that now might be August or September.

That plan will set out new capital procurement proposals, which are likely to be implemented from the 2025/26 Budget.

The current Budget year provides $487 million for Defence purchases, mostly the replacement C130 Hercules aircraft.

But they are expected to be mostly paid for by the 25/26 Budget, which will drop to $124 million, leaving room to begin another round of new procurements.

The 2019 Defence Capability Plan indicated that tenders for 757 replacements would be called this year and could cost $300 – $600 million.

Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran suggested to former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins that the Government could lease aircraft to do the job.

Collins wasn’t so sure.

“We’re talking big money, whether it’s leasing or anything else,” she said.

“And there are always issues around that because these planes will be called to go into places as they were when a 757 had to go out to Noumea, where there was civil unrest.

“With some charters or leasing, you could have real problems with the terms of those leases and charters should you go into war zones or civil unrest.

“So, there’s all sorts of things to be weighed up.”

The other 757 is currently undergoing long-term maintenance with Air New Zealand and will not be available until the end of next month.

Collins issued a warning to defence contractors like the airline.

“One of the things that we know is the issue around the maintenance contracts that we have, and some of these are really very expensive,” she said.

“And, there are reasons for that, but I want to put it absolutely on record that I expect that  NZDF and MoD will be working very hard to make sure that they get value for money, but also to say to those people providing those contracts that they need to understand that these are tough times.

“And I will not have the NZDF or MoD or the New Zealand taxpayer treated like a Father Christmas, and we will be expecting to see contractors and others who are involved in the maintenance contracts and have that wonderful brand of New Zealand attached to the work that they do to come to the party because it’s simply not fair that our  people are put under enormous stress by demands from some of the commercial sector.”

The whole question of money for Defence is plainly going to be an issue once the Capability Plan is published.

That plan will build on the Defence Policy and Strategy Statement, which was released in the run-up to the election in August last year so therefore it didn’t get the attention that might have been expected.

But it emphasised that New Zealand’s prime area of defence interest was the Pacific.

“Defence will act early and deliberately to shape our security environment, focusing in particular on supporting security in and for the Pacific,” it said.

“This proactive approach means that the weight of our Defence effort needs to shift to more actively shaping New Zealand’s security environment in order to prevent conflict and activities that threaten our interests.

“This focus on the Pacific reflects the importance of our immediate neighbourhood to New Zealand’s security and the relationships and obligations we have in the region.”

That view was echoed at the Committee by the outgoing Secretary of Defence, Andrew Bridgman.

“The Pacific was a very big focus of the defence assessment, and then the defence policy strategy statement, and there will be a similar focus in terms of the defence capability plan,” he said.

“So the challenge with the area that emerges is almost two issues; one is climate change, and the other is geostrategic competition.”

POLITIK A French Navy sealift vessel

The 2019 Capability Plan provided for a sealift vessel for the Navy for the Pacific.

“The capability will provide a highly flexible military asset, including hospital facilities, planning spaces, and self-defence capabilities,” the plan said.

“It will also provide support for the deployment of a range of capabilities, including Special Forces, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and NH90 helicopters.

“The enhanced sealift capability will also improve the New Zealand Defence Force’s amphibious operations.”

The 2019 plan proposed that tenders be called for the vessel this year with an anticipated cost of $1 billion.

The plan also proposed a $300- $600 million specialist Southern Ocean patrol vessel capable of operating in Antarctic waters..

The Labour Government implemented neither proposal.

And Collins warned that costs had continued to go up.

Ammunition was up 600 per cent, she said.

But Defence faced a changed and challenging environment.

“It’s tough because you have things like climate change or climate disasters happening at you,” she said.

“At the same time, you’ve got geopolitical tensions, all sorts of tensions over the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea around the Philippines; all those sorts of areas where it’s  tough.”

She didn’t need to add that in that tough environment, elderly planes that break down constantly simply don’t cut it.