Building a Maritime Air Force

Re-equipping the P-3s was recognized as a key project by the Air Staff after the 1991 Defense Policy Paper , and two requirements emerged: airframe life extension and a new tactical suite. Project Kestrel was developed to rebuild aircraft that had already exceeded their designed fatigue life. Lockheed Martin and subcontractors Dae Woo of Korea and Jetstream of Scotland garnered a contract to build new wings, horizontal stabilizers, and a centerline underskin for the fleet. The whole fleet should be ready by 2000, and the P-3s will gain a life extension of up to 20 years.

Project Sirius will address the ASW sensors, including the now obsolete magnetic anomaly detection gear, the ESM system and the aircraft communications equipment, plus a high-capacity computer system to integrate the new sensors and new tactical displays. The 1997 Defense White Paper gave the go-ahead for Project Sirius. There is no obvious replacement for what has become the classic maritime patrol aircraft—a problem shared by P-3 operators worldwide. Reworks and upgrades are inevitable and the RNZAF is showing the way.

Fighter replacement studies by the RNZAF in the early 1980s revealed that modern sensors and avionics could be installed in rebuilt A-4 airframes at a fraction of the replacement cost. A modern navigation-attack system to give the aircraft a credible antiship capability earned top priority.

Lear Siegler of the United States (now merged with Smiths Industries of the United Kingdom) won the contract. Under Project Kahu, an APG-66 multimode radar, a Litton inertial navigation unit, a radar warning receiver, and digital auto-pilot were combined with a Head-Up Display and HOTAS (Hands O Throttle and Stick) to re-equip the elderly Skyhawk with a modern weapon system. Service life has been extended to about 2005, and other upgrades are in hand. Most of the work was done in New Zealand by No. 1 Repair Depot at RNZAF Base Woodbourne.

Project Kahu did much for Air Force morale and credibility. "The Skyhawk went from an aircraft with no systems you could rely on to one with the capability of modern front line fighters, at a fraction of the cost," a Skyhawk squadron commander told aviation writers. Commenting after the first two Vanguard deployments to South East Asia for the rebuilt aircraft, Wing Commander Ian Gore said that the combination of good training, the fully integrated Kahu system, and the AIM-9L Sidewinder meant that the Kiwi Skyhawks could take out Thai F-16s and British Sea Harriers in exercises: "Since we updated the Skyhawk, the total suite is superior," he said.

The Navy is replacing its 30-year-old Westland Wasp helicopters with Kaman SH-2G Super Sea Sprites that will operate from the older-Leander-class frigates and the new ANZAC class. The SH-2Gs will be equipped with radar, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), and ESM, and will be fitted to carry Maverick missiles, torpedoes, and depth charges. Pending first deliveries in 2000, the service will operate four SH-2Fs.

 

 
 

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