Officer's warning over resourcing sends strong message to Parliament
There are several strands to former Squadron Leader Rob Stockley's damning comments on the air force in the lead-up to the Anzac Day 2010 crash near Wellington in which three members of an Iroquois crew died. Most attention has focused on his warning to his superiors five months before the tragedy that helicopter crews were risking their lives.
This went unheeded, only for the court of inquiry report into the accident to echo his concerns with talk of endemic "risk-taking" and a "can-do" culture. But Mr Stockley's criticisms do not end there, and his complaints about air force resourcing contain a strong message for this and future governments.
Mr Stockley said it was inevitable that someone was going to die because the air force kept trying to do all it was asked with fewer resources. It could not keep beating the odds.
"They were part of the same broken system. A lack of resource and a lack of oversight allowed this unregulated system to perpetuate," he said. These resourcing issues began in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
New Zealand was far from unique in scaling back its defence spending. But it took an unusual course later in the decade when it became apparent that the end of the Cold War had not freed countries from costly military obligations. The Labour Government's emphasis on peacekeeping led it to pour most of its defence spending into the army, at the expense of the air force and the navy.
One of the upshots was that in 2010 the Iroquois had been serving with the air force for 44 years. Despite the service's well-warranted reputation for outstanding maintenance, several had crashed, including one that had engine failure in 1995. Only late last year did the first of a fleet of eight French NH90s, the replacements for the Iroquois, begin arriving in the country.
The picture is similar for the air force's Hercules transports, which are 47 years old. A recent upgrade has extended their use and appears to have reduced the number of embarrassing mechanical breakdowns. But, clearly, their age represents a considerable maintenance challenge, and raises questions about their ability to do their job.
The resourcing issue has been highlighted most recently by the vulnerability of the army's Humvee and light armoured vehicles (Lavs) in Afghanistan. Three of the Provincial Reconstruction Team's soldiers in Bamiyan province were killed last month when their Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.
It was revealed subsequently that the Defence Force had tried unsuccessfully to borrow mine-resistant vehicles from the United States. Whatever the reassurances of the Defence Minister, it was apparent that those on the ground had little confidence in their Humvees. Nor have the Lavs proved particularly successful, despite the previous Government buying a ridiculously high number of them in 2001.
The risk-taking and rule-breaking by helicopter crews identified by Mr Stockley is the result of the resourcing problems. It is not enough to focus on awareness, supervision and adherence to procedures if the demands on the force's staff have not changed.
Reducing funding without putting in place any way of measuring the impacts encourages the air force, mindful of its historical obligations, to shoulder an increasing burden. Where once a benign global political environment made better resourcing avoidable, there is now a difficult economic climate. But as Mr Stockley says, the country cannot keep asking its soldiers, pilots and sailors to keep beating the odds. The price of failure is too high.