Chapter 6. ‘I see no submarines’—Upgrading the Orions

Table of Contents

History and Background
Project Kestrel
Project Sirius
The Failure of Project Sirius and its Metamorphosis into Project Guardian
The Orions in Action
The Upgrade

Prior to the debate over the leasing of the F-16s, the New Zealand Government had already committed itself to extending the structural life of the P-3K Orion aircraft which provide New Zealand’s maritime air patrol capability. In the 1997 Defence White Paper, the Government acknowledged that New Zealand’s Orions had far exceeded their planned service life, but the planning for refurbishment and/or replacement of major structural components was well underway. However, the White Paper also went on to note that:

There are serious deficiencies in the Orions’ sensor suite that impairs its ability to carry out both surface and sub-surface surveillance tasks. These will be addressed (Project Sirius) as one of the most important priorities in the rebuilding of the NZDF’s capabilities.[1]

The re-winging of the Orions, Project Kestrel,[2] was intended to extend the life of the airframe for some 20 years. Project Sirius was intended to replace the aircraft’s tactical system, in order to provide an effective maritime patrol capability, with the ability to work alongside coalition partners.

Approval in principle to pursue the project was given by the National-led Coalition Government in March 1998, with an estimated cost of NZ$236 million. Following Labour’s return to power, the Minister of Defence sought direction on the future of the Orion Maritime Patrol Force, and whether Project Sirius should proceed. By this time, the costs associated with the project had more than doubled to NZ$562.1 million.[3] The Government rejected the proposal and decided not to proceed with Project Sirius.

This chapter explores the events that led to the initial decision to proceed with Project Sirius, and subsequent events that led to its cancellation. It then goes on to examine the recommendations of the Maritime Patrol Review of February 2001,[4] and the decisions taken by the Labour-led Government in relation to maritime air patrol three and a half years later, to proceed with Project Guardian.[5] Project Guardian is itself a comprehensive upgrade of systems for the Orions, which is similar in many respects to the original Project Sirius. The major elements which have had a bearing on the metamorphosis of Project Sirius under National into Project Guardian under Labour will be highlighted.

History and Background

In late 1944, the Government purchased for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) its first four Short Sunderland Mark III flying boats.[6] These aircraft were based at Hobsonville and were used to transport freight into the South Pacific. As part of the restructuring process following the Second World War, the RNZAF in June 1953 took delivery of 16 refurbished Short Sunderland flying boats for maritime reconnaissance. These were assigned to No. 5 Squadron based at Lauthala Bay, Fiji, and performed a maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare role. In the Defence White Paper, Review of Defence Policy 1961, it was noted that the aircraft had first entered service some 25 years previously, and were now an old design.[7] There were no suitable replacement flying boats available, and a suitable land-based aircraft was to be considered. That aircraft was to be the Lockheed P-3B Orion.

The Chief of Air Staff appointed in June 1962 was Air Vice Marshal Ian G. Morrison, who was to oversee the modernisation of the RNZAF. Morrison saw the three elements of the Air Force—strike capability, transport, and maritime patrol—as being of equal value, and sought improvements in aircraft in each area. He sought a replacement for the Sunderlands and found it in the Orion. Five new Orions were ordered in March 1964, and delivered to No. 5 Squadron at Whenuapai between September and December 1966. The cost was to be NZ£8.7 million, including support equipment. In light of the contemporary debate about Project Sirius, the comment on the purchase in the 1966 Defence White Paper is noteworthy:

The Orion is the most modern and effective surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft available anywhere, and will put the RNZAF on a basis of full compatibility with the RAAF and the United States Navy in this important role.[8]

The Orions proved to be a valuable asset, and over the next decade performed their surveillance role with distinction. However, by the late 1970s it was clear that their avionics suite had fallen behind recent improvements in capability overseas, and the 1978 Defence Review foreshadowed a progressive upgrading of capability to enhance their compatibility with allies and to improve their effectiveness.[9]

A two-phase modernisation process, Project Rigel, was decided upon to provide a comprehensive systems upgrade, and in July 1980 the Boeing Company was awarded a contract for Phase One of the project. Phase One included improved data systems, modernised tactical displays, and improved surveillance and navigation equipment. A significant enhancement of radar capability and night search capability was included, with a new infra-red detection system. The first modified aircraft was completed in November 1983, and the last in May 1984.[10] The total cost for the first phase was NZ$42 million.[11]

The 1983 Defence Review noted that the project was nearing completion and would provide ‘a capability for surface surveillance by day or night which will be second to none’. It went on to say, though:

The need remains to improve the aircraft’s ability to detect and attack submarines and to upgrade its effectiveness in electronic warfare. It is intended to undertake a second phase of the Orion modernisation programme for this purpose.[12]

This was not to happen however. With a change of government, the 1987 Defence White Paper spelt out the Labour Party’s priorities. There was still a recognition that maritime surveillance was important, and that aircraft were required to ‘provide the means for quick reaction, and for monitoring both submarine and surface activity’. The White Paper acknowledged that improved systems had been installed in the Orions and noted that ‘improved acoustic and electronic capabilities for both the RNZN and the RNZAF will be considered’.[13]

Tenders were called for Phase Two in 1988, but the project failed to proceed when the RNZAF was unable to get a commitment from the Government for the proposal.

[1] The Shape of New Zealand’s Defences, a White Paper, Ministry of Defence, Wellington, November 1997, p. 49.

[2] ‘What’s the latest with Project Kestrel?’, RNZAF News, July 1996, vol. II, pp. 6–7.

[3] New Zealand’s Orion Maritime Patrol Force, Office of the Minister of Defence. Paper attached to POL (OO 1993).

[4] Maritime Patrol Review, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Wellington, February 2001.

[5] Phillip McKinnon, ‘New Zealand to request tenders for Orion upgrade’, Jane’s Navy International, June 2003, p. 7.

[6] Matthew Wright, Kiwi Air Power, Reed Books, Auckland, 1998, p. 109.

[7] Review of Defence Policy 1961, Government Printer, Wellington, p. 15.

[8] Review of Defence Policy 1966, Government Printer, Wellington, p. 17.

[9] Defence Review 1978, Government Printer, Wellington, 1978, p. 39.

[10] Geoffrey Bentley and Maurice Conley, Portrait of an Air Force, Grantham House, Wellington, 1987, p. 175.

[11] Gordon Campbell, ‘More Sirius money’, New Zealand Listener, 20 May 2000, p. 31.

[12] Defence Review 1983, Government Printer, Wellington, 1983, p. 31.

[13] Defence of New Zealand, Review of Defence Policy 1987, Government Printer, Wellington, 1987, p. 33.