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On the NH90 helicopter debacle

On the NH90 helicopter debacle

By Hugh Webb
April 25, 2012

How wonderful it would be if all the generals were as astute as the Auditor General. I applaud her for her candour over the Defence selection of the NH90 helicopter (which may well turn into a white elephant). There is, however, a much bigger picture as to how this may have happened. If we step back to Helen Clark’s premiership and examine a few facts, the plot thickens considerably.

There were several manipulative stratagems put in place by Clark to achieve pacification of the armed forces in keeping with the anti-military leanings of the Helen Clark, Richard Northey, Jim Anderton, Fran Wilde, Trevor Mallard, and Mark Burton cabal. The first five of these politicians were those that sandbagged David Lange over the USS Buchanan visit.

The most significant ruse followed Helen Clark’s 2001 direction that the State Services Commissioner would oversee the selection of the new Defence and single service chiefs “to keep the selection process at arms length.” As soon as a politician makes a statement like that, alarm bells should ring, just as they did when Jim Bolger said: “There is no corruption in New Zealand.” On the face of it this was well intended, but if you dig a little deeper you can work out that using SSC would allow government specifications to be inserted into the selection process that had other than military purposes.

In the event, the selection of CDF reached down two ranks, bypassing more senior competent officers who were more eminently suited to take up the appointment. Both the new CDF and the new CAF were helicopter pilots and I understand that the latter was a very good one. Now, take this in the context of Helen Clark’s intention to dismantle the RNZAF Strike Wing. To select a fast jet pilot would not do at all, even though the prime function of an air force is to have a strike capability. To cement this all in place, the government approved the purchase of very expensive and untried helicopters; just as they agreed to buy very expensive and less than useful light armoured vehicles for the NZ Army. One does not have to be too cynical to assume that Helen Clark chose to blow the entire Defence capital equipment programme on equipment that would never find its way into a combat situation.

No doubt those who justify these programmes will say what wonderful work is being done by the newly blunted NZ armed forces. There is no doubt that individual units perform to the best of their professional ability, given the misdirection of defence. Indeed, the Maritime Wing has always performed with distinction. However, it would appear that all concerned at a political level have forgotten the ten principals of war (which are universally accepted by other nations).

The first and foremost of these is: “Selection and maintenance of the aim.” Another is: “Offensive action.” To defend a country all three services must be capable of offensive action. This means strike aircraft, fighting ships, and armoured attack vehicles (if you expect a land war). Light armoured vehicles are useful only if you buy the right ones. NZ did not.

For a maritime nation such as ours, the air force and the navy must be up front with a coordinated strike capability. With huge areas of sea to cover, the RNZAF could (with suitable strike aircraft) cover long distances very quickly. However, while the air force cannot board ships, the navy can and that is where they work together. The army is also needed, but not equipped with non-amphibious top heavy and vulnerable light armoured vehicles.

Helicopters are always very expensive to operate and even attack helicopters such as the Apache are only effective in an air superiority environment. That environment is provided by strike aircraft. Helicopters are expensive because the entire power-train including blades, hubs, masts, shafts, and gearboxes are finite-lifed and must be replaced with new parts after a specific number of hours service. I do not believe that workarounds mooted for the NH90 problems will be operationally effective and without problems such as additional weight penalties.

By establishing our defence aims first, one would quickly conclude that helicopters should not be prioritised at the expense of furnishing an air strike capability.


Squadron Leader Hugh Webb, RNZAF (Rtd), defence commentator, is a graduate of the RNZAF Command and Staff College (now reorganised and shifted to Trentham). Hugh is currently resident in the UK, but has had articles and many letters published in national dailies and Scoop between 1990 and 2008.

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