In a few days time, New Zealand will have the air combat arm amputated from its air force.
Without its fighting arm an air force becomes demilitarised.
The Skyhawk jets, which comprise the current air combat wing, have for the last 30 years been meeting a regional defence
and security commitment in South East Asia.
It is a role previously met by RNZAF Canberras and prior to that by RNZAF Venoms based in Singapore. Earlier, New
Zealand had an air combat presence in the Middle East with a Vampire jet fighter squadron at Nicosia, Cyprus, and
shortly after World War 2 it had piston engine Corsair fighters as part of the occupation forces in Japan.
During that war New Zealand air combat units served with distinction in the two main theatres in Europe and in the
Pacific. In fact the origins of the present leading Skyhawk squadron go back even to World War 1, when No.75 Squadron
was formed as a fighting unit of the Royal Flying Corps.
That historic lineage is about to come to an end. The two current Skyhawk squadrons, one from Australia, are about to be
disbanded, their Royal colours laid up and hundreds of servicemen and women made redundant. The Maachi jet trainer
squadron will follow suit.
The decision to disband the fighting force is controversial and has come about in the absence of public discussion. In a
recent Colmar Brunton poll conducted on 24-25th September it was revealed that over 70 percent of New Zealander voters
did not want to see the air combat force scrapped.
The situation is reminiscent of a recent public vote in Switzerland that revealed that 80 percent of voters there did
not want to do away with their Army, as some had suggested. The Swiss decided against the move, the strong public
feeling being that "peace, harmony and independence were too important to be taken for granted."
So what is New Zealand about to give away? For that is effectively what the country will be doing as the financial
return from the sale of any worn military equipment is, always, minimal at best.
The A4 Skyhawk, or "Heinemann's hot-rod" as it is known amongst pilots after its American designer Ed Heinemann, is a
combat proven aeroplane that has seen service in over 10 other air forces including the US Navy, the US Marine Corps,
Israel, Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Kuwait and Brazil.
The Skyhawk first flew in 1954. A number of improved models were forthcoming and New Zealand's purchase was of a very
advanced model, capable of carrying its own weight in fuel and munitions, prompting another nickname, "the bantam
The A4 has featured in at least three war zones, the Vietnam War, the Israeli wars in the Middle East, and the Falklands
War where Argentinean A4s, were it not for bomb fuse settings, would likely have crippled the British naval force. Its
combat attributes include its small size, its ruggedness and reliability, and an excellent pilot escape system.
In the 1980s all the New Zealand Skyhawks received a major refit and refurbishment under Project Kahu (Kahu is Maori for
Hawk) which included state-of-the-art radar, navigation and weapons systems. The aircraft was fitted with a "head up
display" for the pilot and had defences against both radar and heat seeking missiles. It was also fitted with the latest
model "Sidewinder" heat seeking defensive missile and infrared homing air-to-ground offensive missiles.
The New Zealand Skyhawks have never been in action but have served as a threat to do just that on at least three
occasions. It is not generally known that New Zealand Skyhawks were very nearly sent to fight in the Gulf War with at
one stage New Zealand Skyhawk pilots being readied to fly Kuwaiti A4s in that war. Not widely realised either is that
Kiwi A4s were held in Singapore at readiness to support ANZAC landings in East Timor when troops were about to be
inserted against a backdrop of air superiority uncertainty.
More recently, when the war in Afghanistan commenced, No.75 Sqn Skyhawks were already in Singapore and could readily
have been made available. This is reminiscent of RNZAF Canberra bomber involvement from Singapore in the 1960s
Indonesian stand off that became known as the "confrontation."
Although NZ's air combat force has not been used in action it has nevertheless been a significant deterrent. That
deterrent and the choice, to use them or not, are about to vanish.
As it turned out, the Kuwaiti Skyhawks were bought by Brazil, a country New Zealand is keen to trade with. It has been
suggested by some, perhaps cynically, that NZ should sell its A4s to Brazil in the advancement of trade. Others, perhaps
less cynically, have noted that trade and defence, while related, are not exchangeable.
With the end of the country's air combat arm comes an end to years of tradition along with immeasurable, irreplaceable
air force experience which many people have devoted or given their lives to develop. New Zealand appears to be
witnessing an age-old pendulum swing that has seemingly, some would say, swung too far to the left.
It is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened, as the following excerpt from a circa 1909 poem called
"The City of Brass," bears witness:
"Swiftly these pulled down the walls that their fathers had made them, The impregnable ramparts of old, they razed and
relaid them, As playgrounds of pleasure and leisure, with limitless entries, And havens of rest for the wastrels where
once walked the sentries, And because there was need of more pay for the shouters and marchers, They disbanded in face
of their foemen their yeomen and archers."
The Skyhawks are planned to make a farewell flight over New Zealand on Tuesday [11th December] which will be the last
time that combat aircraft are seen in New Zealand. Ours, that is.