Media reports in New Zealand have indicted the NZ Defence Force may be considering acquiring between two and four C-17s to replace its C-130H Hercules and Boeing 757 transports in service.
First reported with little accompanying detail on Auckland’s Radio ZB on December 13, the story has spread across social media in the past week, particularly after a December 16 article in Flightglobal which stated there was an order pending for two of the 10 ‘white tail’ C-17s Boeing is building from an “undisclosed customer”.
Australia requested four of the white tails in a November 12 US Defense Security Cooperation Acquisition (DSCA) notification, while Canada has confirmed it is seeking one additional C-17 (dubbed CC-177 in RCAF service) to take its fleet to five. Boeing is closing the C-17 production line in 2015 and has built the white tail aircraft, so-called as they were built without an order, in anticipation of being able to sell them to new and existing customers. Other potential customers reportedly included Algeria, India (which already has 10 C-17s in service or on order), the UK, and interest from current and new Middle Eastern C-17 operators such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
New Zealand identified a requirement to replace its C-130Hs and 757s in its latest Defence Capability Plan released in June in which it said the “project will consider all options to maintain the current range of capabilities including strategic and tactical transport of people and cargo, airdrop, low level and high level missions, aero-medical evacuation, and backup search and rescue capabilities.”
Until recently it was thought the Airbus A400M was a potential front-runner to replace the C-130Hs, but anecdotal reports indicate there is still some concern in NZ over that aircraft’s relative immaturity and smaller customer base compared to the proven C-17.
While there has been no formal acknowledgement of the interest from NZ defence officials, the proposal has seen in principle support from NZ Labor opposition leader Phil Goff, but has been criticised by the minor New Zealand First Party. In a December 15 statement, New Zealand First defence spokesman Ron Mark said his party was “stunned” at what he described as the “C-17 fantasy”.
“There’s no question the C-17 is a magnificent strategic airlift aircraft, but our needs are tactical not strategic,” Mark’s statement read. “Worse, if we purchased only a couple of C-17’s, it is more likely these aircraft would combine with the Royal Australian Air Force in what our Prime Minister would talk up as some ‘ANZAC squadron’. It is cut, cut, cut in terms of operational capability, but above all, operational flexibility.”
While there has been no official talk of establishing an ‘Anzac squadron’ of C-17s, as Australia will soon have a fleet of up to 10 C-17s in service and USAF C-17s regularly visit Christchurch in support of US Antarctic interests, there is already an established support base in the region which can be leveraged to sustain a potential small fleet of Kiwi C-17s.
But at up to US$400m (NZ$517m) each including support infrastructure, spares and training, such an acquisition would comprise a huge chunk of the NZ annual defence budget of about NZ$3 billion.