The ability of small air forces to define, develop and maintain a credible level of air combat capability has always been a challenge, but it may be becoming an impossibility if New Zealand's scrapping of its deal with the USA for 28 Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs is anything to go by.

Cost constraints aside, what the end of that deal also points to is a growing divide between the drive by Western air power doctrine to achieve new links between technology, information and space, and the reality that most air forces simply cannot afford to keep pace.

For some nations, the USA included, the upside of this process is a virtual guarantee of air superiority in almost every aspect.

But a legitimate question emerging; from the collapse of the deal must necessarily be where does, or could, a New Zealand-type air force fit into the technology-information-space equation which the expeditionary air force is modelled upon? The answer appears to be that it doesn't unless it proceeds with something akin to an F-16 deal to provide its air force with some teeth. As one air force chief says, why bother with an air force at all if you don't really need one, and, even if you think you do, what is the point if you cannot afford to give it the teeth to do the job properly?

Air forces principally exist to protect national sovereignty, and not to engage in expeditionary campaigns. As East Timor showed last year, air forces, without the implicit links that an alliance such as NATO demands, can get along together and provide a unified force when needs arise.

What begins to emerge is the idea that modern air power theory is aligned too closely with the needs of the US Air Force and its European cousins, and a fresh look should be taken at the needs of non-NATO medium to small air forces. In New Zealand's case the air force needs aircraft that can loiter for extended periods and respond to tasks ranging from fisheries surveillance to, if needs be, air-to-air combat or surface strike: a scenario familiar to numerous air forces.

Using current air power theory, the RNZAF should operate two classes of aircraft to meet what are seen as separate missions, a maritime patrol aircraft and a maritime strike fighter. But this theory runs headlong into budget realities and the fact that New Zealand cannot afford to operate both types of systems. It needs, therefore, to develop its own air power model, rather than get hung up on its historical record of providing expeditionary forces in support of allied operations. And it must pursue a force development process that does not collide with economic reality.

This raises the inevitable dilemma of what is on offer in the world's military aircraft markets? Are such air forces to fulfil their needs with hand-me-downs from the major defence nations whose requirements are entirely different?

Perhaps the world's manufacturers are too closely aligned with the leading edge of air power theory and are overlooking a largely unrecognised market among smaller air forces for something other than secondhand air superiority fighters.

As well as aircraft such as the Joint Strike Fighter and Eurofighter, perhaps there is a need to look afresh at solutions that may have more in common with the hybrid escort fighter/light bomber concepts that emerged during the Second World War.

In the contemporary context, that suggests an affordable twin-engine aircraft which retains an ability to perform meaningful air-to-air combat, probably through a combination of long range radar and beyond visual range missiles, but which could also perform cost-effective shipping surveillance and interdiction, or search and rescue. Such an aircraft may not necessarily have supersonic capabilities, but would certainly need a high subsonic dash for combat. It would need endurance and payload capacity, a crew of two or even three if an operator station was available.

And the market for such an aircraft will not begin and end with New Zealand either. It may well be the case that by going backwards and re-examining the lessons of earlier aircraft, a new solution could open up for air forces trapped in the current air power web.

Source: Flight International