Defence offensive

Officials told to halve price on air force Orion upgrade

A $2.3 billion defence spending plan is stalled before cabinet after ministers rejected a bid by defence officials for a high tech military upgrade of surveillance aircraft.

A confidential long-term defence development plan, obtained by the Sunday Star-Times, was to go to cabinet tomorrow with a $390 million bid to upgrade “mission systems” on the air force Orions.

Clark and other ministers baulked at the cost and have asked officials to come back with an option at half the price, stalling the development plan, which maps out defence spending over the next 10 years.

Clark said the government, having already scrapped the $550 million high tech military option named Project Sirius, was not going to tolerate officials bringing it back under another guise.

“Officials beaver away but the government is not going to tolerate a reinvention of Sirius under another name and there has been no determination on what the plan is for the Orions until we get some sensible advice,” Clark said.

“We wanted to use civilian systems wherever possible. There’s no doubt the radar is shot. These are old planes that need work on them but there’s a big difference between that and the full scale anti-submarine warfare.”

Cabinet papers show about half the $2.3b tagged for defence projects over the next 10 years is to be spent on the air force.

The money includes $511m for new helicopters, $250m to upgrade the Hercules transport aircraft and $100m to buy two VIP jets.

The hefty Orion upgrade bid put forward by officials ignores a review chaired by Clark’s department last year, which recommended a cheaper option, centered on improving maritime surveillance around New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Sources said the plan foundered at the cabinet committee stage and would not be put before the full cabinet until a cheaper option was found.

Last year’s review said the expensive option would only be needed to equip the Orions to “engage in major coalition war with advanced military nations” – using them to locate targets for attack by other fighters and ships.

The Orion equipment defence officials want includes sophisticated radars, computers and electronic sensors used to detect targets and also communications and eavesdropping equipment.

In a previous bid for new Orion electronics, which the government rejected in August 2000, defence requested high-tech combat systems made for Australian and US Orions by the US arms giant Raytheon, now L3 Corporation.

L3 Corporation president Bob Drewes was in New Zealand four weeks ago for meetings with defence officials during the preparation of their proposals. Last year’s review said “high quality commercial systems”, including military communications equipment to allow co-operation with Australia, could be sourced for $10-12m per aircraft – less $75m for the six Orions. However, the papers show defence officials offered ministers three options, ranging from $345m to $410m.

Defence was also proposing $50m of new weapons and self protection equipment for the Orions for operating the aircraft in combat zones.

About $30m was also set down for new anti-submarine weapons from the Orions and frigates, suggesting defence hopes to maintain its anti-submarine capabilities despite the government already deciding that is not a priority.

The long-term defence plan includes 23 planned major projects with $1.2b earmarked for the air force, $830m for the navy, $213m for the army and $50m for joint projects.

The navy equipment includes an equivalent of the air force’s Orion upgrade, with a hefty $600m scheduled for upgrading the two Anzac frigates’ electronic combat equipment in 2012-13.