Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

New Zealand is to replace its ageing McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fleet with 28 Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs, originally built for Pakistan, under a leasing arrangement announced on 1 December by defence minister Max Bradford.

New Zealand will pay just NZ$12.5million ($6.72 million) a year for the 28 aircraft under back-to-back five-year contracts, with an option to buy at the end of the 10-year period. The deal includes NZ$200 million-worth of support and activation. A new F-16 costs around $20 million depending on specification.

The new aircraft are expected to enter operational service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 2001. Final lease negotiations are still under way.

The lease "-will reduce the risks associated with 1950s designed aircraft and avoid a NZ$54 million upgrade that would have been necessary if New Zealand had kept the Skyhawks until 2006/7", says Bradford.

The minister says that the lease would save New Zealand NZ$431 million over the life of the F-16s, compared with the costs of purchasing new strike fighters early in the next century. Funds for the lease arrangement will be taken from existing New Zealand defence budget allocations.

The RNZAF F-16s will initially be equipped with AGM-65 Maverick and Sidewinder missiles drawn from existing service stocks. An initial enhancement to the new aircraft is expected to take place in 2001-2 with the introduction of a new airborne laser designator to support ground strike operations.

Officials from Israel's Rafael in Australia have confirmed that the F-16 option has seen them significantly step up marketing efforts in New Zealand for the company's Litening targeting and navigation pod system. The New Zealand Department of Defence is planning to open a competition for the designator requirement in 2000.

Source: Flight International