Nine years ago, the decision to buy eight NH90 helicopters for the air force was accompanied by considerable fanfare. The French-made multi-purpose choppers would, said the Defence Minister, Phil Goff, be bigger, faster, more versatile and have a far greater lift capability than the ageing Iroquois they were replacing. Such acclaim was only to be expected given that they represented the biggest single defence purchase since the navy's two Anzac frigates in the 1980s. The NH90s cost $771 million, a sum which demanded everything should be done to ensure they met Defence Force requirements for military deployment and disaster relief.
Clearly, this was not done to an acceptable standard. Cyclone-hit Vanuatu has proved as much. None of the NH90s have been taken up there because they are considered too difficult to transport and are not yet cleared for "island-hopping". In addition, the air force is concerned about how the helicopters would cope with "wind-wash" in the islands. So much for Mr Goff's assurance that the multi-role ship Canterbury, now in Vanuatu, had the capacity to carry up to four NH90s, along with a Seasprite helicopter, light armoured vehicles and 250 soldiers.
This lamentable state of affairs will come as a surprise to most people, not least because of the many other reassurances that the NH90s were ideal for the joint operations that are the focus of the Defence Force. This confidence extended beyond the previous government. In 2010, before the arrival of the first NH90s, National Government Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said they would provide a quantum leap for the air force. They would, he proclaimed, be the "cornerstone of the Defence Force's capability". Two years later, even after the arrival of the first of the helicopters, the chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, was adamant that "the public can have confidence that Defence Force equipment on operations is world-class and suitable for their role".
Vanuatu has proved him wrong. The present Defence Minister, Gerry Brownlee, hesitates to call the NH90s a white elephant, preferring to describe them as "a challenging piece of kit". They are, however, obviously not suited for one of the major roles for which they were bought. Mr Brownlee is stating the obvious when he says the Government must be careful it does not end up buying more unsuitable equipment. This is reinforced by another blunder by the previous government, the buying of 105 LAVs (light armoured vehicles) for the army. Not only were far too many bought, but they were found to be vulnerable when used in Afghanistan.
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The problem of the NH90s is compounded by the fact that they are scheduled to remain in service for 30 years. The Defence Force is effectively saddled with them. The pressure is now on the Government over the next major purchase, a replacement for the air force's Hercules and Boeing 757s in the next five years. Ageing equipment that breaks down and has high maintenance costs is a bad enough look. Expensive state-of-the-art equipment unsuitable for the task for which it was bought is, in many ways, even worse.
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