• An RNZN SH-2G(I) Seasprite.

Credit: NZDF
    An RNZN SH-2G(I) Seasprite. Credit: NZDF

The number of operational SH-2G(I) Seasprite naval helicopters in the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has been reduced from eight to five, it has emerged.

The NZDF confirmed to ADM on 2 July that a Seasprite Sustainment Work Program was initiated in mid-2023 to cut the fleet by three platforms. This will provide additional spare parts to support the remaining five helicopters and increase availability.

There have been growing concerns in the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), which operates the Seasprites from its ships, that due to difficulties supporting the helicopters they would not be able to remain in-service until a replacement is introduced.

Availability rates for the eight Seasprites have crashed over the past few years with just 17 per cent recorded in 2022 and 19 per cent in 2023 - from a high of 38 per cent in 2019. Since their introduction into service in 2017 the Seasprites have not met their allocated flying hours. In 2024 the fleet achieved just 429 hours against an expected 850. This is a significant fall from over 1,000 hours achieved on average up to 2020.

With fewer aircraft to support and a new supply of spare parts, the NZDF’s 6 Squadron - which operates the Seasprite helicopters for the RNZN from RNZAF Base Auckland (Whenuapai) - could sustain higher levels of availability to allow them to meet required government outputs.

A reduced fleet of five aircraft could mean that an average of three aircraft are available at any one time, with the other two conducting depot-level maintenance. However, due to unscheduled maintenance events it is likely that even fewer will be available.

It was the original fleet of eight that was supposed to allow three ships to operate Seasprites concurrently. But with the mothballing of the RNZN’s two Offshore Patrol Vessels due to lack of crews, fewer aviation-capable ships are available for deployment anyway.

A spokesperson from the NZDF told ADM that the original aircraft manufacturer Kaman continues to play a “modest” role as a source of supply for a number of spares.

“Local companies Beca and Loop Technologies have supported obsolescence treatment for various software, aircraft and simulator systems,” the NZDF spokesperson added.

Originally 10 SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopters were acquired from the Royal Australian Navy in 2016 under the Maritime Helicopter Replacement Programme (MCHP) to replace an older fleet of five SH-2G(NZ) helicopters in-service since 2001. Two of the platforms were used for spares and training.

The Seasprites will be replaced with new helicopters under the Maritime Helicopter Replacement (MHR) programme. A Request for Information was released in April 2023 calling for a proven and capable maritime helicopter that is widely used internationally with a global logistics supply chain that will last for the 25-year operational lifespan of the aircraft.

The NZDF wants to move away from operating orphan fleets of second-hand helicopters that are difficult to support long-term.

Contenders include the MH-60R Seahawk from Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky, the AW159 from Leonardo, the NH 90 NATO Frigate Helicopter from Airbus Helicopters and the Bell 412 Multi-Mission Helicopter from RSG Aerodesign.

The budget for MHR was slated at NZ$1 billion in the Defence Capability Plan 2019 although a new DCP is expected later this year will provide an updated schedule for the MHR.

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