Foreign Affairs

Govt mulled new base for Singapore fighter jets

The Government contemplated building a new air base to house a squadron of Singapore fighter jets in New Zealand, newly released documents show. However, worries about the impact on New Zealand’s own military ultimately killed off the plans for good.

In December, Defence Minister Ron Mark told Newsroom the Government had decided against establishing a permanent training base at Ohakea for one of Singapore’s F-15 fighter jet squadrons.

While the National government initiated discussions with Singapore in early 2017, Mark said the potential costs were too high to justify the project.

Now, Cabinet papers released to Newsroom and published by the Ministry of Defence have offered some insight into the lengths officials went to as the Government tried to see if it could make the plans work.

A December report from Mark and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said an official assessment of the proposal was “strongly in favour on foreign policy grounds”, given New Zealand’s shared strategic interests with Singapore and the likely benefits for the bilateral relationship.

However, the overall assessment was only marginally in favour, with some small long-term economic benefits for Manawatū but a number of negative environmental impacts.

“While the initial cash injection looks lucrative, the benefits would not be enduring and may displace other construction activity.”

An earlier, more detailed Cabinet report raised specific concerns about the impacts on community wellbeing of noise from the F-15s - one of the loudest aircraft in the world.

Acoustics experts had said at least 75 percent of Sanson properties, as well as the local school, would require acoustic insulation. NZ Defence Force (NZDF) personnel and their families who worked and lived at Ohakea would be in a noise zone where buildings were normally deemed uninhabitable - something that would require $24 million of noise insulation to partially mitigate.

There were also concerns about air and water pollution from extra fuel emissions and used munitions, while the discovery of toxic compounds from firefighting foam used at Ohakea had placed “a significant strain on NZDF’s long-standing relationship with the local community”.

“Although local mayors are still enthusiastic about the proposal, residents’ tolerance of local defence operations has diminished and the noise impact of the F-15s is expected to exacerbate this.”

Previous defence projects at Ohakea, such as the Project Takitini construction of helicopter hangars and support facilities, had not “notably altered the region’s economic fortunes” despite the short-term boost from construction work.

“While the initial cash injection looks lucrative, the benefits would not be enduring and may displace other construction activity.”

Defence Minister Ron Mark says New Zealand is still keen for Singapore's fighter jets to train here in short bursts. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The reports also alerted ministers to the likely impact on the NZDF’s own activities at Ohakea - increasingly operating as the country’s primary air base due to operating constraints at Whenuapai forced by nearby residential developments.

While there would be some benefits from the two countries’ forces training together, basing the F-15 squadron at Ohakea would reduce flexibility for future changes in capability.

Singapore would become the largest operation on the base “by a big margin”, and there would be both operational inefficiencies and safety concerns from mixing New Zealand’s trainee pilots with the fighter jets.

“It is highly unusual and challenging to mix high performance fighter jets, helicopters and elementary pilot training aircraft within the same airspace.”

As the Government sought to find a way to make the proposal work, officials carried out a “desktop study” to look at alternative options which included basing the fighter jets at a civil airport.

Expanding the size of Ohakea was considered but ruled out due to the airspace issues which would remain, while constructing a new, purpose-built air base at Waiouru was “found to be theoretically possible” but requiring investment from the Government.

Singapore had signalled its own logistics and cost constraints when the alternatives to Ohakea were raised.

'Short bursts' possible, infrastructure review planned

Speaking to Newsroom, Mark said the Government was continuing to explore opportunities with Singapore and was happy to host the F-15s in “short bursts”, as was already happening.

“I’m all about strong relationships and there are huge advantages in having our militaries together - we've worked together for generations now.”

While local mayors had been disappointed by the decision, basing the new P-8 surveillance aircraft at Ohakea would provide a boost for the region, he said.

Concerns raised by officials about the strain placed on Ohakea were why the Government was working towards a review of the defence estate and infrastructure.

“When I go into camps and I see exactly the same barracks that I entered as a recruit are still there exactly the same as they were in 1971, and I’m told they were exactly the same then as they were in 1948...it does leave me wondering what the hell. It’s depressing actually,” Mark said.

The National Party has called for the discussions with Singapore to be revived, saying in its international affairs discussion document that joint initiatives like the Ohakea proposal improved bilateral ties.

However, National’s defence spokesman Mark Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment about the Cabinet papers and the concerns they raised about the proposal.

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