Politics

Singapore F-15 base scrapped for Ohakea

The Government has scrapped plans to create a base for a squadron of Singaporean fighter jets, citing the excessive costs involved.

However, New Zealand may yet host the country’s fighter aircraft, albeit for short periods, with Defence Minister Ron Mark instructing officials to look into what is possible.

In early 2017, the National government announced it was speaking to Singapore about setting up a permanent training base at Ohakea for one of that country’s F-15 fighter jet squadrons.

But its successor has now confirmed the idea won't get off the ground.

Mark told Newsroom both countries had agreed not to move ahead with the Ohakea plan, citing “the significant investment in infrastructure” which would have been necessary.

"It is clear that locating Singaporean F-15s at Ohakea on a long term basis was not feasible without significant investment to alleviate the strain operations would place on the capacity of the airfield and the airspace above it.”

“The concept received strong support from local and central government and I took a hard look at official advice on multiple aspects of the proposal throughout the year,” Mark said.

“However, it is clear that locating Singaporean F-15s at Ohakea on a long term basis was not feasible without significant investment to alleviate the strain operations would place on the capacity of the airfield and the airspace above it.”

Singapore had agreed that the costs were an important factor in the final decision, he said.

National defence spokesman Mark Mitchell, who oversaw some of the initial work on the Ohakea plans as defence minister at the time, said he was disappointed by the Government’s decision.

“When we were in government, when I was minister, there was momentum behind it: there was definitely a commitment from both parties, the local mayors had all come together and were working, and it seemed to be moving in a very positive direction.”

Mitchell said project costings hadn’t been finalised when he was minister and accepted the price tag may have been an issue, but he believed basing the squadron in Ohakea would have boosted the local economy.

Strained Singapore ties

The decision follows what have been at times strained bilateral ties between the two countries.

Singaporean officials were reportedly angry at the Government’s failure to consult the country before implementing the foreign buyers' ban, which breached a free trade deal between the two countries (Singapore was later granted an exemption to address the concerns).

Mitchell said the Government “had no idea” about how to handle international relationships, with its handling of the foreign buyers' ban unlikely to have helped the Ohakea discussions.

“That stuff matters: if governments sit around the cabinet table and say: ‘There’s a policy here that’s not very good for us, we haven’t been consulted’, that doesn’t add to your motivation to work on other projects.”

However, Mark said the F-15 decision had not damaged the “incredibly strong” relationship between the two countries.

“The level to which the cabinet pursued and pushed this opportunity demonstrated just how highly we value our relationship with Singapore.”

Pressure on the defence estate

While the cost of the project appears the primary factor for the Government’s decision, another complication may have been the need to relocate 5 Squadron to Ohakea from Whenuapai due to the $2.3 billion purchase of new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for the RNZAF.

Mark said the F-15 decision had highlighted the significant pressure on the NZ Defence Force estate, “due to divestment decisions in the past, a lack of investment in the existing estate and a lack of forward thinking by successive governments”.

The closure of Wigram and Hobsonville air bases, coupled with increased urbanisation around Whenuapai, meant the NZDF faced constraints on the types of aircraft it could operate - an issue which would be at play in future work on the defence estate.

However, the Government believed it was possible to host fighter jets in New Zealand for shorter periods of time, and Mark said he had asked officials to look at options for Singaporean planes to visit in the future.

If that was possible, NZDF training schedules would be structured to ensure base capacity, safety, and RNZAF work were not compromised by any Singaporean visits, he said.

Mitchell was supportive of the plan, saying greater defence cooperation would help to make the bilateral relationship stronger at a time of growing challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.

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