Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Skyhawk Mythbusting

Picture credit me.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the disbandment of the combat element of the RNZAF, namely 75 and 2 Squadrons (A-4K Skyhawk), and 14 Squadron (Macchi MB-339). I was there as a guest, took the photo above, and it doesn’t seem that long ago.

In the decade that has passed, the Air Combat Force comes up from time to time again either in the media or other conversation (not least due to the debacle that was the sales process for the redundant airframes). The thing I noticed both while the force was still active and latterly is the amount of myth and misunderstanding out there on the topic, usually as not-that-funny-if-you-know-any-of-the-true-background kind of humour. The force was seen by many as at best a token, at worst as a “Dad’s Army” style joke; incompetent operators with ancient broken-down flying jalopies, just as threatening to their users as to any potential enemy.

The truth is as usual kinda different.

Growing up as a plane obsessed kid, the Skyhawk in particular was ‘our’ fast jet so I wound up focussing on it and wound up knowing possibly more than the average layperson about it (but much less than many others I know). Ten years on seems an appropriate time to kill some of the myths.

And to those readers who say this is long and boring and aren't going to read it, it's my blog so :P.

First some history.

New Zealand bought 14 brand new Skyhawks in 1970. Back then they were still very much a first line piece of equipment. It was originally conceived in the 1950’s as the smallest and cheapest way to get a nuclear bomb from an aircraft carrier to a target. It evolved into a capable light attack aircraft, and by the time we bought them, had established a reputation as a reliable and rugged little jet popular with its operators. While not a true fighter in the air to air sense, the qualities that made it a good attack aircraft also made it a useful dogfighter, hence it’s starring role in “Top Gun” in the 80’s (the USN used the Skyhawk in an adversary combat trainer role right up until the mid 2000’s). In the right hands a Skyhawk could humble a supposedly much superior aircraft. It might have been an old design, but it was a very good one.

Now on to the myths

Clapped out

This was probably most untrue thing said about them at the time of the disbandment, (one of a number of flat out untrue government public statements used to justify the decision-whether that was malice or ignorance is hard to determine), and caused a bit of offence among those whose job it was to maintain and fly the things. They were getting old and harder to maintain, but were still mission capable, i.e. able to do what they were tasked. No aircraft has an infinite life, and the end of the Skyhawk’s RNZAF career was certainly on the horizon, but clapped out they were not. Replacement by the F-16 from 2000 or so would have made it a moot point if the already signed and pending delivery deal had not been cancelled after a change of government in 1999 (the same deal would have also on-sold the Skyhawks and avoided the last decade of not selling them).

Old and Useless, always crashing

Closely allied to the ‘old’ argument is the implication that mission capability is solely determined by age. Age is a relative thing though, especially in combat aircraft. 20, 30 or more year lifespans for individual airframes aren’t uncommon these days. They might have been getting older, but they certainly weren’t useless, not least because from the 1990’s they weren’t quite the same beasts we started with in 1970.

By the early 80’s the basic 60’s avionics and systems in the jet were showing their age, and options for replacement were looked at. Since the funds weren’t around to buy new aircraft like the F-16 or F-18, the next best thing was done. We doubled the fleet size by buying ten surplus Skyhawks from the Royal Australian Navy, and rebuilt the lot by renewing parts of the airframe and replacing all the avionics with those equivalent to an F-16, optimized for our needs. The new systems also meant more modern and effective weapons could be carried. Known as the 'Kahu' upgrade, it was completed in 1991.

In terms of capability the upgrade meant effectively a brand new aircraft. In some respects the on-board systems were superior to both the FA-18’s operated by our neighbours in Australia, and the actual F-16s we scheduled to replace them. So while technically by 2001 they were 30+ year old aircraft, in other ways they were still in their prime, and still capable in the roles we used them for. It is worth noting that upgraded Skyhawks similar to ours are still in service with a couple of other countries as a front line aircraft. The US military only retired their last from true combat roles in the 1990’s, and kept a few on until a few years after we retired ours. It was certainly not in the same league performance wise as more modern types, but it was a reasonable compromise for our needs and means.

Along with the aircraft, the people maintaining and flying them were as good as anyone. It might be a joke for many Kiwi’s, but our small military is usually pretty good at what it does. Rather than always crashing, of the total of 24 operated only 7 were destroyed from any cause over 31 years. For a combat aircraft it is a very good record, and the RNZAF was very good at using the Skyhawk. It may be a small Air Force, but an incompetent one it is not and once out of a job here, the Australian and British Air forces in particular were more than happy to take on some of our pilots and technicians on reputation.

Never deployed anywhere

Unless you count the annual deployments around Southeast Asia and the Pacific for exercises, or the permanent basing of a squadron in Australia for a decade up until 2001.

Never used in combat.

The only time an RNZAF A-4 used weapons ‘in anger’ was to stop an illegally fishing trawler that was refusing to stop for the naval vessels pursuing it in 1976. While often seen as a bit of a joke, this is a pretty legitimate use of an aircraft like this in peacetime, and certainly delivered the message that we were serious about enforcing our EEZ.

What doesn’t seem to be well known is that preparations were made for deploying them for use in the first Gulf War in 1991 (we sent a couple of Hercules instead). They were also coincidentally deployed near the East Timor region in 1999 when that crisis arose, and were prepared for the possibility of being employed there also if the situation demanded it. As it was RAAF reconnaissance missions in the area at the time were counted as operational sorties rather than training ones.

Not enough of them and no-one is going to attack NZ anyway.

On the face of it it seems like a fair point, but it is actually a oversimplification that misses the real question by a wide margin, and taken to its logical conclusion brings into question the existence to the New Zealand Defence Force in general.

The thing is, the NZDF has never been capable of repelling a determined attack of New Zealand territory on its own. The intention has always been to operate with allied forces, and defending NZ’s interests is not necessarily the same as literally defending NZ soil. The question to be asked is not ‘who is going to attack us?’, but ‘what benefits do the various elements of the NZDF provide to each other and the country for the cost?’

While disbanding the ACF freed up funds for the rest of the NZDF (even if it wasn’t always used wisely, like buying twice as many new armoured vehicles as we needed), having it also provided many training and skills benefits (most of them not obvious to the layperson) both to the other elements of the NZDF making it more effective as a whole, and the country at large. Overseas they were a very visible contribution to regional security amongst our allies and trading partners. Along with the ‘clapped out’ argument, these benefits were either ignored, downplayed or completely misrepresented to the public by the government at the time.

Myths aside, by now the last RNZAF Skyhawks would have been grounded for a few years anyway. They are history. While the justification for having modern fighter aircraft in NZ is certainly arguable (despite the above I can see it both ways, although at the moment it is a moot point, since there aren’t going to be any flying with Kiwi markings anytime soon), by getting rid of them a statement is being made that not only are they not needed now, they never will be. The ‘benign strategic environment’ status suggested in mid 2001 was arguable at best then, and remains so now.

What is certain is that once gone, it is the kind of capability and skill base that takes years to re-establish if needed (waiting until you actually for-real need it is far too late) and only history will tell if it was the right call or not.

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