SINGAPORE — The New Zealand defense ministry appears to be convinced of the value of buying ex-Australian navy Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopters, although it will face an uphill battle convincing the public of the deal’s merits.
Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman says New Zealand received an unsolicited offer from Kaman and the ministry has already done some due diligence and was authorized by the cabinet to negotiate with the manufacturer.
“We’re not considering any other types of helicopters at this stage,” Coleman says. “We are very familiar with the Seasprites and we are facing a tight budget situation.” If New Zealand were to switch to another type, it would have to retrain its pilots and invest in new training equipment.
“Some in New Zealand’s mainstream news media have been voicing concerns and asking, ‘Why are we considering buying Aussie castoffs?’” says Coleman, who spoke to Aviation Week on the sidelines of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue here. “We’ve been assured [by Kaman] the issues relating to the Seasprites have been corrected. We’re investigating further to see if the helicopters will meet our needs and see if the aircraft would achieve airworthiness certificates in New Zealand,” he says.
With 11 Seasprites, “we could end up getting the capability that meets our needs and at a very good value price,” he says. “It would be foolish for us not to consider it.” He adds that Australia spent a substantial amount of money to upgrade these helicopters with state-the-art technology, to the point where these “are effectively brand-new helicopters.”
He says New Zealand needs more naval helicopters because without them, it “can’t optimize its maritime assets.” New Zealand wants to station naval helicopters on many of its offshore patrol vessels.
Australia’s Labor government decided in early 2008 to discard the Seasprites, arguing they were unsafe. Then-Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said in a press conference in March 2008: “The Seasprite project had to be canceled on safety grounds alone.” He added: “The airworthiness and crashworthiness of the aircraft was not up to 21st-century standards and it was pretty clear the capability was not likely to be delivered in full.”
Whether the Seasprites are unsafe is a matter of conjecture. It could be argued that Fitzgibbon’s statements were aimed at tarnishing the Liberal and National parties. It was the earlier Liberal-National coalition government that signed the contract with Kaman.
Coleman says if the deal with Kaman goes ahead, New Zealand will sell its existing five SH-2G Super Seasprites to the manufacturer. Getting money for those helicopters is appealing, because New Zealand has often found it difficult finding buyers for its old equipment, he says.
For example, the air force’s eight Douglas A/TA-4K Sky Hawk ground-attack aircraft have been in storage and waiting for buyers for the past 10 years. Coleman, however, says New Zealand has just secured a non-military buyer for the Sky Hawks and will be disclosing the details in the coming days.
An earlier impediment for any sale had been obtaining U.S.approval, he says. New Zealand’s Sky Hawks are fitted with a Westinghouse (now ) APG-66, the same type of radar carried on Block 15 fighters.
The air force, meanwhile, has a requirement for advanced, single-engine, fixed-wing trainers and new multi-engine, fixed-wing trainers. It uses 12 Pacific Aerospace CT-4 single-engine trainers and five Beechcraft King Air 200 multi-engine trainers.
The country’s air force chief, Air Vice Marshal Peter Stockwell, told Aviation Week in February that these were inadequate.
The leases on the aircraft expire at the end of June, and Coleman says they will be renewed as an interim solution. “We will need new training aircraft and I’d be expecting to receive some initial advice over the next six months.” Asked when New Zealand will be in a position to order new trainers, Coleman says: “Over the next couple of years. I can’t give a more specific time frame. But we know we’ve got to do something.”