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Into the 21st Century


The new century opened with a huge challenge for the Air Force, as the Air Combat Force faced the prospect of disbandment.

On 8 May 2001 the Government announced that the Air Combat Force would be disbanded. Operational activities continued until November then the Air Combat Force, comprising Nos 2, 14, and 75 Squadrons with Skyhawk fighters and Aermacchi jet trainers, was officially disbanded on 13 December 2001.

In July 2001 elements of the RNZAF's Air Command were integrated into the new NZDF Joint Force Headquarters (HQ JFNZ) located at Trentham. In that period the SH-2G Seasprite entered service for operation from our frigates.

However, the terrorist attacks in the USA (9/11) led to conflict in Afghanistan and NZ joined the coalition for Operation Enduring Freedom. The RNZAF deployed NZ SAS troops to the region, and once the NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team was established in Bamyan province, RNZAF Hercules became regular visitors into Afghanistan.

No. 5 Sqn Orion surveillance aircraft were deployed to the Gulf region to assist in patrolling the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, where an allied task force was monitoring all sea and air movements in and out of the area.

The RNZAF also supported the NZ Defence Force engineering unit that deployed into Iraq in 2004 as part of the UN-mandated response after the Iraq war of 2003.

These events in the Middle East underlined the RNZAF’s new emphasis on strategic and tactical air transport, maritime surveillance and response, and operating helicopters in support of our Army and Navy.

At the same time events in the Solomon Islands meant a considerable commitment of NZDF elements, including the helicopters of No.3 Sqn, to the Solomons in 2003.

Meanwhile a number of natural disasters in the region, including the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, tropical cyclones in the South Pacific and the 2008 Samoan Tsunami demanded short notice long-range airlift by our Hercules, reconnaissance flights by the Orions and deployments to Samoa by the helicopters.

Those operational demands underlined the need for upgrading and reequipping our aircraft fleets.

  • The Boeing 757s (acquired in 2003) were given an improved freight handling capability and multi-role functions
  • The C-130 Life Extension Programme is intended to keep the Hercules operational out to 2020
  • The P-3 Orions began an extensive equipment upgrade to fit them for contemporary surveillance and response tasks and keep them flying into the 2020s
  • The Iroquois and Sioux helicopters had to be replaced.

European helicopters were selected; 

  • The AugustaWestland A109 has entered service to take over the light utility and training role
  • The powerful NH90 tactical lift helicopter is replacing the Iroquois for tactical airlift tasks.

The 2010 Defence White Paper confirmed the place of the RNZAF within the NZ Defence Force and established a firm commitment to aircraft upgrades and replacement. First of the new projects will be a pilot training capability which may see changes or replacements for our Airtrainer fleet.

The RNZAF continues to undertake a variety of tasks, often at short notice, while with its new and upgraded aircraft our Air Force is now well placed to meet the demands of the 21st Century.