The air force's new flying machines

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 7 February 2023

The first of the air force's new Poseidon aircraft has landed in New Zealand. But is this the sort of workhorse the military needs?


Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Our old heroes of the Air Force, the P-3 Orions, have retired after 56 years of service - and the first of the flash new Poseidon P-8As has arrived. 

But is the accusation that we've chosen the gold-plated replacement a fair one? 

And is Green Party criticism that we should be moving away from operating weapons of war valid? 

"They are a weapon. They're an advanced weapon," says David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University.   

"They're a maritime patrol aircraft that's designed for a whole range of tasks, and those tasks range from, at one end of the spectrum, search and rescue, and responding to humanitarian assistance and disasters in the Pacific, and fisheries patrol; but they're also a high-end platform for anti-submarine warfare ... essentially for being able to detect what's on the surface and what's below the surface. 

"So to pretend that these aircraft are only really about search and rescue, or humanitarian assistance, or environmental monitoring really misses the point. 

"These are aircraft that have the ability to work with partners, and work in a range of environments including more dangerous and non-permissible environments, and to be able to carry on and advance New Zealand's interests in regional and international security."

Capie thinks we need to get out of the mode of thinking our Air Force is only used for emergencies. 

"Surely one of the lessons that's come home in spades over the last couple of years is that we're living in a much more challenging and dangerous world," he says.

"We shouldn't be panicky or hysterical about the challenges that are out there, but I think we do need to recognise that the world is a more challenging place and New Zealand's national interests, and security interests, are being challenged - and we need to think about how we best want to respond. 

"One of the criticisms is that this is really a gold-plated aircraft that's really about anti-submarine warfare ... and it's really about buying into, or tying yourself into your big allies' concerns about security, and not about independent foreign policy. 

"But I really think an independent foreign policy in many ways is about giving the New Zealand government choices. And the P-8 can do that huge range of tasks from the softer end, from the search and rescue, from trans-national crime, fisheries and so on - but it can also provide New Zealand governments with options and choices in the event of a much more dangerous and challenging scenario in our region." 

The Detail also talks to the man in charge of the new planes, Wing Commander Mark Whiteside, who is the Commanding Officer of the Poseidon Transition Unit at the Ohakea air base. 

He runs us through the nitty-gritty of the upgrades, including that the Poseidons fly about 25 percent faster than the Orions with a cruise speed of 440 knots. 

And while they can't remain airborne for quite as long as the Orions, if we are on international exercises with other P-8 nations - including the US, UK and Australia - they can be re-fuelled mid-air. (We don't have a refuelling tanker.) 

Wing Commander Mark Whiteside explains why six down to four is actually an upgrade - listen to the podcast to find out why. 

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