Saturday, November 3, 2007

Airforce A109Ms

The Royal New Zealand Airforce has recently announced it is spending $110 million to acquire five new A109M helicopters and a flight simulator.

The A109M is an excellent light military helicopter. Originally designed for search and rescue it has also been adapted into a missile platform for the anti-tank role, and is used widely as a light naval helicopter as well. Being small it is readily air and sea lifted with minimal adaption.

In fact the A109M is such an excellent helicopter it raises questions about why the Airforce bought so few of them versus so many NH-90s, and the future of the Kaman Seasprites.

To remind readers the Airforce acquired eight TTH-NH-90s (plus one for parts) for $750 million. That's roughly US$40 million per helicopter plus odds and ends, training, manuals, flight simulators etc. All for a helicopter that can carry 24 passengers or two tonnes.

Now the A109M can only carry six passengers and one tonne. But the real point is you get four of them for the same money as a TTH and it is far more flexible. It can carry AT-missiles or be equipped as an air ambulance. Plus, if you lose one, you haven't lost a goodly portion of your airforce. It all comes down to what you see as the main role of the helicopter.

The TTH is a utility chopper for carrying half a platoon or a very light vehicle (but probably not a Pinzgauer). It is too light to be a heavy lift chopper for any meaty loads and too heavy to be wasted on recon, air ambulance etc. In my view this is the wrong sort of machine to base your fleet on.

Light tasks require a lot of nippy light choppers. Hauling infantry from place to place is a very small part of what you want a helicopter for. Sometimes all its there to do is observe. Small choppers can drop small teams, provide low risk contact with outlying posts or operate from smaller areas. They are perfect for special forces based deployments.

For heavy tasks you need seriously big beasts. Heliharvest Ltd operates New Zealand's largest helicopters including Mi-8s and Boeing Vertol (Chinook's) quite successfully and has provided civil assistance in both Timor and after the Boxing Day Tsunami in South East Asia. If you want to move a platoon or a vehicle you need something bigger than an NH-90 and it wouldn't have costed that much more either.

But perhaps the (rather belated) interest in a better equipped airforce shows one thing that is seriously wrong with defence spending in New Zealand. And that is each arm of the armed services tendency to run to treasury whenever they think they have a need and enough politial support. Where is the capital cap on the Defence Force in toto? Does the Navy have to trade off against the Army or the Airforce or do they all just have to take turns on a thirty year cycle: first the Navy then the Army and then the Air Force? IS there an overall cap? Or can the defence force expand and expand its capital just because its kit has worn out and it prefers one set of goodies to all the others?

In theory the capital cost of operating the defence force is operationalised into the annual budget cycle. But it would be perfectly feasible to buy a huge catelogue of shiny equipment and then never use it operationally because there's no budget. IS the intention to expand the defence force budget to 1% of GDP? My study showed that this can be justified but only if half of the force is tasked with concern for civil emergencies including biological hazards and similar national risks.

One can only endorse the Airforce's decsion to go with the A109M but the worry is that it has bought it for all the wrong reasons.