Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kiwi Kool-Aid

I just got in a book called Topped Gun:Requiem for the Skyhawk by Ross Ewing and I have been looking through it. It is not only a history of Skyhawk service with the RNZAF, but a look at the history of the RNZAF and of the politics that terminated that Skyhawk service. Which prompted me to go look for New Zealand news.

Prime Minister Helen Clark managed to recently get 40 minutes of meeting with Admiral William Fallon to discuss areas of mutual concern as the admiral stopped in Christchurch while visiting the US Antacrtic base at McMurdo that is supported through New Zealand. One of the things discussed was the ongoing unrest in Fiji which has been simmering for years. Another area discussed in the continuing refusal by New Zealand of any ship that is either nuclear powered or nuclear armed, this prohibition dates back to a mid-80s Liberal government expressing displeasure at French nuclear testing. This policy ended up isolating the RNZAF from exerices it had hosted or participated in in the past, exercises like RIMPAC in Hawaii or Cope Thunder in the Phillipines or the home hosted Triad exercises that saw Australian and American planes flying in New Zealand. This matter was touched on but New Zealand is sticking with its non-nuclear policy. Both sides said to the media that on many fronts they share similar viewpoints.

New Zealand needs to be concerned about Fiji since the islands are close by and in the past it has been Kiwi forces that have stepped in to help quell things. In the past that meant Army troops boarding C-130Hs and flying to Fiji with all their kit. They still can, but the motorized kit of the Army is too big to be carried by the C-130s. Also in the past, it might mean dispatching some A-4Ks, now that is impossible. And it should not be when one looks at the history of the air combat arm.

New Zealand bought 14 A-4Ks in 1970 because they were battle proven and flexible aircraft that could handle various missions. In the 1980s New Zealand spent $70million to buy from the Royal Australian Navy their surviving 10 A-4s after the RAN retired its aircraft carrier. Then in the 1989-91 timeframe under Project Kahu, the RNZAF spent $128million on the 22 plane fleet upgrading them. A new glass cockpit was installed, HOTAS, HUD, completely new wiring, new wing spars, new wing skins, APG-66 radar from the F-16, and capability to fire AGM-65 Maverick missles, AIM-9L Sidewinders, or drop 1000lb laser-guided bombs. With an agreement from Australia to base six A-4s at Nowra to support RAAF training, it seemed the A-4Ks would settle down for another 15 or so years of active life to go with the one time A-4Ks fired guns in anger back in 1976 to help capture a Taiwan fishing vessel fishing illegaly in New Zealand waters. Then in 2000 Helen Clark's Liberal government came into power. Overnight it was announced that the air combat power of the RNZAF would be disbanded because of the overall permissive environment existing world wide. Many citizens spoke out against this disbandment but the policy was set in stone. By the end of 2001; 2, 14, and the illustrious 75 Squandron would stand down. Not even 9/11 and RNZAF A-4Ks stationed in Malaysia to support RAAF F/A-18s transiting for Afghanistan in September would stop the stand-down. So on 13 December, 2001, the colours of all three flying squandrons were retired as 32 years of Skyhawk service ended under cloudy skies. PM Helen Clark was not in attendance, she was off in the UK attending a different funeral.

And yet four years later, even after all the animosity over the retirement of the Skyhawks, Helen Clark's Liberal party somehow kept power, albeit in a shakey coalition. And just as suddenly as back in 2001, her party knew how to operate in secrecy to avoid backlash during an election. As one of the opposition parties campainged under a platform that included bringing the Skyhawk force back to flying, Clark's government secretly sold all 17 A-4Ks and 17 jet trainers to an American company for $110 million.

With cruise ship tourism expected to hit $250million this year and more people becoming aware of how beautiful New Zealand is due to people like Peter Jackson filming his LoTR movies there, not to mention the war on terror that New Zealand's old ANZUS partners [Australia and the United States] are carrying out, that idyllic notion of New Zealand operating far from the world troubles is vanishing even as Helen Clark's government pretends they can skimp on national defence while trying to be involved in the world.

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