The early retirement of the last three P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) from the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) will leave a six-month gap in capability.
No 5 Squadron, which operates the P-3K2, completed a final flypast with the three aircraft at its home on Base Auckland, Whenuapai on 24 January ahead of a final flight to RNZAF Base Woodbourne on 31 January to be put into storage.
The original P-3K2 fleet was six aircraft. Three have already been placed into storage at Woodbourne.
However, the replacement P-8A Poseidon fleet of four aircraft is not due to stand up until July leaving the Squadron with no operational platforms to conduct maritime surveillance across an extensive South West Pacific area.
Wing Commander Glen Donaldson told ADM that this gap in capability will be filled by using other NZDF assets and asking for help from partners.
He explained that some of the Search and Rescue (SAR) standby element will be taken on by the RNZAF’s 40 Squadron with its C-130H tactical transport aircraft that can perform offshore missions and smaller scale operations and tasks within New Zealand can be picked up by 42 Squadron operating the King Air 350 aircraft.
But for longer range regional commitments WGCDR Donaldson said the NZDF has engaged with partners including Australia and the US Coast Guard as well as the French based in Noumea “to try and get some more contribution in areas a little bit further south of the equator as well”.
“It is very much a team effort, not just from the RNZAF perspective but from the maritime patrol community in the Pacific as well. It is a massive area, a big commitment and it is something that No 5 Squadron has always prided ourselves on covering. But for six months we are going to need help from our partners and friends across the road,” he added.
The cause of the early retirement is largely down to lack of qualified staff as the NZDF has been experiencing a significant attrition of personnel up to levels of 15 per cent in some units.
Donaldson said that the personnel issue is being addressed with recruitment ongoing “with people coming through the system for the P-8A and the C-130J that will be coming online. From my perspective it is an exciting time: we are a little bit rebuilding, but in 2-3 years’ time we will have a very capable and busy air force”.
The transition to the P-8A is ramping up. The first P-8A arrived in New Zealand on 13 December 2022 with the second, third and fourth expected in February, March and April 2023. No. 5 Squadron will stand up its capability to conduct Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) and Search and Rescue (SAR) mission on 1 July.
The P-8A Poseidon Transition Unit at Ohakea has three crews in operation, including the initial crew that has been training with the US Navy for the past three years.
“Then we have had our first two line crews go across early last year  to train up so they’re effectively hitting the group running with the Test and Evaluation Program with three crews,” Donaldson said. “We have two more crews that will go to Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida for training.”
The P-8A transition course in the US lasts about six months during which pilots will go through specific pilot training and the sensor operators will complete specialist radar or acoustic training. The technical coordinators and warfare officers will conduct individual training and then all the individuals will come together to complete joint crew training.
Organic P-8A training in New Zealand will not start until late-2024 or 2025 depending on the introduction rate and stand-up for facilities and people. The contract for the P-8As includes training facilities such as classrooms, flight deck simulators, weapons tactics simulators, virtual maintenance trainers and course materials.