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Military Jets Bow Out - What We Are Giving Away

In a few days time, New Zealand will have the air combat arm amputated from its air force.

Without its fighting arm an air force becomes demilitarised.

The Skyhawk jets, which comprise the current air combat wing, have for the last 30 years been meeting a regional defence and security commitment in South East Asia.

It is a role previously met by RNZAF Canberras and prior to that by RNZAF Venoms based in Singapore. Earlier, New Zealand had an air combat presence in the Middle East with a Vampire jet fighter squadron at Nicosia, Cyprus, and shortly after World War 2 it had piston engine Corsair fighters as part of the occupation forces in Japan.

During that war New Zealand air combat units served with distinction in the two main theatres in Europe and in the Pacific. In fact the origins of the present leading Skyhawk squadron go back even to World War 1, when No.75 Squadron was formed as a fighting unit of the Royal Flying Corps.

That historic lineage is about to come to an end. The two current Skyhawk squadrons, one from Australia, are about to be disbanded, their Royal colours laid up and hundreds of servicemen and women made redundant. The Maachi jet trainer squadron will follow suit.

The decision to disband the fighting force is controversial and has come about in the absence of public discussion. In a recent Colmar Brunton poll conducted on 24-25th September it was revealed that over 70 percent of New Zealander voters did not want to see the air combat force scrapped.

The situation is reminiscent of a recent public vote in Switzerland that revealed that 80 percent of voters there did not want to do away with their Army, as some had suggested. The Swiss decided against the move, the strong public feeling being that "peace, harmony and independence were too important to be taken for granted."

So what is New Zealand about to give away? For that is effectively what the country will be doing as the financial return from the sale of any worn military equipment is, always, minimal at best.

The A4 Skyhawk, or "Heinemann's hot-rod" as it is known amongst pilots after its American designer Ed Heinemann, is a combat proven aeroplane that has seen service in over 10 other air forces including the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, Israel, Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Kuwait and Brazil.

The Skyhawk first flew in 1954. A number of improved models were forthcoming and New Zealand's purchase was of a very advanced model, capable of carrying its own weight in fuel and munitions, prompting another nickname, "the bantam bomber."

The A4 has featured in at least three war zones, the Vietnam War, the Israeli wars in the Middle East, and the Falklands War where Argentinean A4s, were it not for bomb fuse settings, would likely have crippled the British naval force. Its combat attributes include its small size, its ruggedness and reliability, and an excellent pilot escape system.

In the 1980s all the New Zealand Skyhawks received a major refit and refurbishment under Project Kahu (Kahu is Maori for Hawk) which included state-of-the-art radar, navigation and weapons systems. The aircraft was fitted with a "head up display" for the pilot and had defences against both radar and heat seeking missiles. It was also fitted with the latest model "Sidewinder" heat seeking defensive missile and infrared homing air-to-ground offensive missiles.

The New Zealand Skyhawks have never been in action but have served as a threat to do just that on at least three occasions. It is not generally known that New Zealand Skyhawks were very nearly sent to fight in the Gulf War with at one stage New Zealand Skyhawk pilots being readied to fly Kuwaiti A4s in that war. Not widely realised either is that Kiwi A4s were held in Singapore at readiness to support ANZAC landings in East Timor when troops were about to be inserted against a backdrop of air superiority uncertainty.

More recently, when the war in Afghanistan commenced, No.75 Sqn Skyhawks were already in Singapore and could readily have been made available. This is reminiscent of RNZAF Canberra bomber involvement from Singapore in the 1960s Indonesian stand off that became known as the "confrontation."

Although NZ's air combat force has not been used in action it has nevertheless been a significant deterrent. That deterrent and the choice, to use them or not, are about to vanish.

As it turned out, the Kuwaiti Skyhawks were bought by Brazil, a country New Zealand is keen to trade with. It has been suggested by some, perhaps cynically, that NZ should sell its A4s to Brazil in the advancement of trade. Others, perhaps less cynically, have noted that trade and defence, while related, are not exchangeable.

With the end of the country's air combat arm comes an end to years of tradition along with immeasurable, irreplaceable air force experience which many people have devoted or given their lives to develop. New Zealand appears to be witnessing an age-old pendulum swing that has seemingly, some would say, swung too far to the left.

It is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened, as the following excerpt from a circa 1909 poem called "The City of Brass," bears witness:

"Swiftly these pulled down the walls that their fathers had made them, The impregnable ramparts of old, they razed and relaid them, As playgrounds of pleasure and leisure, with limitless entries, And havens of rest for the wastrels where once walked the sentries, And because there was need of more pay for the shouters and marchers, They disbanded in face of their foemen their yeomen and archers."

The Skyhawks are planned to make a farewell flight over New Zealand on Tuesday [11th December] which will be the last time that combat aircraft are seen in New Zealand. Ours, that is.

END


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