Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA Paul Lewis/WASHINGTON DC

New Zealand has scrapped its controversial deal to lease 28 Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs from the USA and is to retain its elderly McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks until at least 2007.

Following Wellington's decision, however, the 28 Block 15 OCU-standard F-16A/Bs are not expected to remain on the market long, with the fighters attracting US Navy and overseas interest.

Despite scrapping the deal, the New Zealand Government has deferred any decision on redirecting to other projects the budget of more than NZ$1 billion ($485 million) allocated over 10 years, despite suggestions by prime minister Helen Clarke that the money could be used to acquire Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules. Any decision in the short term is likely to be part of the 2000/1 defence budget, to be revealed in June.

A major defence review, foreshadowed by Clark and to be started shortly, is expected to re-assess Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) roles and requirements to at least 2015. The review is not expected to report back until late this year.

Defence Minister Mark Burton told Parliament that the RNZAF would operate A-4s as an "effective attack force into the future", but acknowledged that retention of the capability would be examined in the defence review.

New Zealand will be charged an NZ$11 million penalty for dropping the deal, described as "negligible" by the prime minister's office when compared with the F-16 lease and operating costs. Documents released by the former government late last year reveal that the total cost of the deal would have been NZ$1.2 billion.

Scrapping the lease comes despite an independent review set up by the New Zealand Government recommending that it should proceed, but involving fewer aircraft. Clarke rejected this approach because of the "parlous" state of the Defence Forces' fiscal position and because "such a decision would have prejudged the broader question of whether New Zealand should retain an air-combat capability. That is a matter the government wants to take more time to address."

Renewed efforts are under way to find a home for the 28 new, but stored, fighters. The USN says it is looking at the F-16s as an option to bolster its fleet of adversary aircraft used for air-to-air combat training. It had negotiated to lease 14-16 surplus Canadian Forces Northrop CF-5A/Bs (Flight International, 16-22 December, 1998).

According to the USN, the F-16s would supplement, rather than replace, its F-5E/F and Boeing F/A-18 adversary fighters.

The USN operated 28 F-16Ns - F-16C/D Block 30s with AIM-9 practice missiles and air combat manoeuvring instrumentation - from 1987-94, when the aircraft were placed in desert storage as an economy measure.

Poland is understood to be interested in the F-16s as an interim solution to its long-running new fighter requirement. The 28 aircraft have been in storage for six years and have virtually zero-hour airframes, having been moved direct from the factory to storage.

Source: Flight International