Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

New Zealand intends to retain an airborne maritime surveillance capability, says prime minister Helen Clark, adding that the outcome of an ongoing review "won't be adverse" for the Royal New Zealand Air Force's six Lockheed Martin P-3K Orions.

Clark, however, has reiterated opposition to the retention of an airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, indicating that the aircraft are likely to be equipped only for surveillance operations. The Project Sirius sensors upgrade - cancelled last year by Clark's administration - is unlikely to be re-activated.

She told the New Zealand Herald that ASW is no longer relevant and that no hostile submarine has been spotted during the Orion's 35 years of service.

An announcement on the future shape of New Zealand's armed forces is expected in May. One possibility is contracting out parts of the maritime surveillance requirement. Defence analysts suggest Clark may be considering offering the Orions to the private sector as the basis for a surveillance service.

The New Zealand Government review is also assessing future warship requirements, including the possible scrapping of the Royal New Zealand Navy's two ANZAC-class frigates. The RNZN has five Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopters on order for operation from the warships. Last year, one of the incoming Clark government's first actions was to cancel a proposed lease of 28 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters

Clark's comments have fuelled further uproar in New Zealand political circles. A statement issued by former New Zealand defence minister Max Bradford describes the comments as "sheer folly".

"Helen Clark's comments that a submarine hasn't been spotted by an Orion in 35 years are not true. Defence experts say at least 100 submarines operate in the Asia-Pacific region and they have been detected in our waters," he says.

Source: Flight International