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Heather Roy's Diary

Friday, August 15, 2008

Heather Roy's Diary

I'll Take An 'A' 4 Accountability, Please
This week I called on Defence Minister Phil Goff to launch an independent inquiry into the series of lost sale opportunities and questionable decisions by his Government around the maintenance of the Skyhawks at Woodbourne Air Base.

My call came after I learned that water is seeping in and pooling under the white latex coating that protects these aircraft from the elements and preserve them in a saleable condition. When this occurs, someone must drain the water by piercing the bubble with a pin or other cutting-edge piece of bubble-bursting technology.

Many of you will have been following my analysis of the Air Combat Force (ACF) debacle over the past three years, and the real issue goes far beyond the latex coating and pricking of water bubbles - a practice which, according to the Labour-led Government, comes under the umbrella of 'ongoing maintenance'.

The real issues here concern Government accountability and transparency.

As a Kiwi, soldier and politician I find it galling that Labour disbanded the air combat force in the first place. What's worse is its claim that cost was the issue - if that were true it would stop pumping billions of extra dollars into health, education and welfare for little gain.

That said, relativist ethics are no justification for waste. Cutting Government waste, by improving accountability and transparency - which will be achieved through ACT's Regulatory Responsibility Bill - is a core ACT message.

Professional planners consider capabilities, not hardware. Putting aside simplistic arguments of new hardware trade-offs, and whether Skyhawk/Aermacchi was the right option, the fact remains that they were a sunk cost. The NZDF is now poorer, in terms of capability, than it was prior to the decision. Despite large sums committed to the Defence Sustainability Initiative Labour hasn't replaced the loss of our air-to-air, our air-to-ground or air-to-sea interdiction capabilities. Appointing an independent National Security Advisor and merging the MOD and NZDF to improve future decision-making is a core ACT message.

While the lost capabilities could be replicated by other choices - such as missile systems - they have not been. Presenting a clear deterrent to those who would transgress our air or sea space - whether the intent is military threat, poaching or drug-running - means having the ability to back it up. Zero tolerance for any crime, regardless of whether it is committed by foreigners or citizens, is a core ACT message.

Worse still is the signal that we have sent our allies - be that large 'A' or small 'a' - with the ACF disbandment and subsequent failure to focus on alternatives. Kiwis hate bludgers; why should any other country stick its finger in our capability dyke when we install our disrespect for them in legislation? Repealing the ban on nuclear propelled vessels in our waters and the re-development of alliances with our traditional allies is a core ACT message.

There is more core ACT policy to allude to, but you see my point. This issue goes beyond a belief in jet fighters or not. The main elements of Labour's mis-management of the ACF include:

* The assumed market value of the Skyhawk and Aermacchi jet aircraft in 2002, after disbandment, was $US110 million.

* No credible offers have been made since the jets were de-commissioned in 2001.

* The US State Department isn't the sticking point. It will only consider approval when a deal is signed in principle and knows the parties it's dealing with. Due to the US Presidential Election, no decision will be made about a sale until after a change of office occurs in January.

* The fleet sale offer provides for operational (flying) Aermacchi, and serviceable (able to be put in flying state relatively easily) Skyhawks. Neither is possible without considerable cost. The value of the thousands of items on each aircraft that expire through time or use (rotables) is significant, and even the items that only need checking or re-calibration require currently-rated technicians and special equipment.

* Up to three of the Aermacchis are grounded with major problems, and may not fly again.

* The latex coating applied to the Skyhawks when moved outdoors is incomplete - Mr Goff said in February they would be re-coated - and suffering damage. One aircraft tailfin is completely exposed, and the white anti-UV layers on all aircraft are peeling and collecting water. Humidity damage and corrosion are both inevitable consequences of this. Three aircraft are still indoors without coating.

Mr Goff told the public this week that the fleet is still worth $US110 million. To assume this is to consider that a peeling and leaking house that hasn't been lived in is worth the same as its six-year-old valuation indicated. If Labour can appoint an independent Commissioner and order an inquiry into leaky buildings, a 'leaky jet' or 'leaky contract' inquiry is not out of order.

Any potential buyer must either be a military ally of the US - of which the known bidders are not - or a civilian training contractor to the US Defence Department. If their training bids are unsuccessful, the company has no need for our aircraft. There are similar or comparable aircraft in better condition and price currently available elsewhere in the world.

Once removed from the military register, aircraft must conform to civilian aircraft certification standards (CAA/FAA). Therefore, the buyer has a cost++ scenario - ie purchase price PLUS regeneration, assuming Minister Goff's statement that there are no hidden costs to New Zealand is correct, PLUS civil aircraft compliance.

The RNZAF has spent $12 million-$20 million of its operational funding to administer the ACF Disposal Unit. This should be repaid via supplementary estimates, as it is a 'double bogey' on its capability - imagine a burglar doing over your house, storing the loot in your garage and telling you: to not use it, to keep it in good condition and to insure it until they come back.

Mr Goff said on National Radio that he would close this sale, and that I would be forced to eat my hat. In the spirit of his challenge, I've cleaned both my army beret and my mounted rifles hat ready for consumption. It is far more likely, however, that I won't have to eat either.

Of course, I predict that Mr Goff will be wrong - and to be fair, should have to eat HIS hat. I'm asking readers to suggest what type of hat the Minister should dine on should these jets still be in New Zealand on the day after the election.
Or maybe he would rather follow Keith Locke's example from 2005 and walk naked down the main street. Lodge your suggestion at before Monday at 4pm ... there may be prizes.


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