June 05, 2012
SINGAPORE — The New Zealand defense ministry appears to be convinced of the value of buying ex-Australian navy Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopters, although it will face an uphill battle convincing the public of the deal’s merits.
Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman says New Zealand received an unsolicited offer from Kaman and the ministry has already done some due diligence and was authorized by the cabinet to negotiate with the manufacturer.
“We’re not considering any other types of helicopters at this stage,” Coleman says. “We are very familiar with the Seasprites and we are facing a tight budget situation.” If New Zealand were to switch to another type, it would have to retrain its pilots and invest in new training equipment.
“Some in New Zealand’s mainstream news media have been voicing concerns and asking, ‘Why are we considering buying Aussie castoffs?’” says Coleman, who spoke to Aviation Week on the sidelines of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue here. “We’ve been assured [by Kaman] the issues relating to the Seasprites have been corrected. We’re investigating further to see if the helicopters will meet our needs and see if the aircraft would achieve airworthiness certificates in New Zealand,” he says.
With 11 Seasprites, “we could end up getting the capability that meets our needs and at a very good value price,” he says. “It would be foolish for us not to consider it.” He adds that Australia spent a substantial amount of money to upgrade these helicopters with state-the-art technology, to the point where these “are effectively brand-new helicopters.”
He says New Zealand needs more naval helicopters because without them, it “can’t optimize its maritime assets.” New Zealand wants to station naval helicopters on many of its offshore patrol vessels.
Australia’s Labor government decided in early 2008 to discard the Seasprites, arguing they were unsafe. Then-Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said in a press conference in March 2008: “The Seasprite project had to be canceled on safety grounds alone.” He added: “The airworthiness and crashworthiness of the aircraft was not up to 21st-century standards and it was pretty clear the capability was not likely to be delivered in full.”
Whether the Seasprites are unsafe is a matter of conjecture. It could be argued that Fitzgibbon’s statements were aimed at tarnishing the Liberal and National parties. It was the earlier Liberal-National coalition government that signed the contract with Kaman.
Coleman says if the deal with Kaman goes ahead, New Zealand will sell its existing five SH-2G Super Seasprites to the manufacturer. Getting money for those helicopters is appealing, because New Zealand has often found it difficult finding buyers for its old equipment, he says.