Antarctica’s geopolitical storm: With New Zealand in the eye


New Zealand is a critical jump off point for nations sending supplies, personnel to Antarctic research facilities. Christchurch International Airport hosts the New Zealand and American Antarctic operations. It is an ideal location as one of the closest airports in the Southern Hemisphere able to land Antarctic bound aircraft with the American McMurdo base near to the New Zealand Scott Base, named after British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who died in an ill fated expedition to beat Norwegian explorer Roald Amunsden to the South Pole in 1912.

With oil and mineral resources on the wane in some parts of the world, nations are starting to eye up Antarctica. Exploration has not yet shown what minerals or energy sources exist down there, but the untapped reserves are thought to be considerable. With the potential for a minerals race in which nations try to find a way around the legal and physical hurdles, a very real thing, it the last geographic bastion free from economic development may be in jeopardy.

Nations such as China are becoming interested in what exists down there. China has no claim to the ice and no national presence in the way that New Zealand or the United States have, but that has not stopped significant interest being expressed.

New Zealand’s Ross Sea Dependency is about to have its sovereignty tested. With more international interest in the area, the potential for finding ships that have no good reason to be in those waters is going to increase. With that comes the potential for conflict. Thousands of kilometres away from civilization and in some of the coldest, most hostile waters in the world Royal New Zealand Navy frigates might find themselves confronting ships from bigger, more aggressive powers who have not the same regard as we do for the rule of international law.

How would we react? Would we escort them out of the area? Arrest them? Open fire?

The Ross Sea has a range of important marine species in its waters, some of which are in serious decline elsewhere. Opening up Antarctica would potentially threaten them.

But there also exists the potential for a major environmental disaster. Aside from many nations not having the same regard for the Antarctic environment that New Zealand does, many are also less prepared for dealing with the stark environmental challenges of doing anything at all down there. If, for example there was a major oil or fuel leak from a ship or rig or other facility somewhere, it could be days before any ships could reach it, days before anyone could know the actual nature and extent of the emergency, during which time, the ability to control the damage would have significantly decreased.

We might be a small, peaceful nation trying to make our way responsibly in this world, and well done for doing so, but we need to have an honest conversation about our role in looking after Antarctica. One that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Defence white paper a sign of changing times: Part II


Yesterday I mentioned the changing national security environment that New Zealand finds itself in. The national security environment, which just like like the economic, political and social and physical environments which it finds itself increasingly integrated with, evolves in response to a range of inputs. To ensure New Zealand is secure the New Zealand Defence Force must evolve with the environment in which it finds itself operating.

That means being appropriately equipped for the challenges that may arise in that environment. New Zealand has an army, navy and air force. It spends about 1% of its G.D.P. per annum on defence, which is consistent with the last 20 years. Governments have tended to put big purchases until they are absolutely needed, which has led to some equipment now being too old to upgrade any further and more and more prone to failure – cases in point, the aging P-3K Orions and C-130J Hercules aircraft whose proneness to equipment failure requiring emergency services to be on standby are increasing along side the annual maintenance costs.

Whilst the Defence Force has the primary role of protecting New Zealand from attack, it also has a number of other roles:

  1. Disaster relief
  2. Search and Rescue
  3. Assisting authorities in civil emergencies

This is why Minister of Defence Ron Mark has in the last week announced replacements for the P-3K Orions. 4 P-8 Poseidon aircraft based on the much newer 737-800 airframe are to be purchased at a cost of $2 billion. These will be used for maritime patrol, surveillance as well as search and rescue. New Zealand has a large maritime zone to patrol that our small navy will not be able to cover on its own.

I expect in the next year or so that an announcement will be made on the replacement aircraft for the C-130J Hercules, which is based on a 1954 airframe. Front runner and personal favourite is the A400M from Airbus, which has extra carrying capacity, can operate from short runways and on Antarctic ice. Likely cost is around $2 billion.

The Royal New Zealand Navy will in the next decade need to seriously overhaul its two A.N.Z.A.C. class frigates or replace them. H.M.N.Z.S.’s Te Mana and Te Kaha were part of a plan to build three frigates in the 1990’s to replace the outgoing Leander Class ships. Whilst unlikely to be used in fully fledged combat situation, both have participated in United Nations maritime enforcement operations against pirates as well as Ross Sea patrols. Perhaps the major argument against new frigates is the cost – $470 million a piece for the two frigates, which I found questionable whilst knowing cheaper ships with similar capabilities existed then.

The New Zealand Army has 105 L.A.V. III vehicles of Canadian manufacture. The purchase of so many was questionable at the time – and still is today when one considers that only a fraction of them have been used in deployment. The cost at the time was $665 million, and replaced M-113 A.P.C.’s even though the latter still performed the functions expected of them. New Zealand should be open to considering whether we need all of them and whether they still fit our operational requirements.

In light of the instability in the south Pacific with nearly lawless situations existing in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and tensions involving world powers such as China, the ability to deploy N.Z.D.F. assets in the South Pacific should be New Zealand’s biggest external priority.

Whatever happens New Zealand needs to maintain the ability to operate with Australian Defence Force assets, as those of our longest and most immediate ally. Whilst there are differences in terms of priorities, Australia understands that the protection of the south Pacific is a major security as well as the place where peace time operations such as disaster relief and surveillance are likely to be performed.

There will always be a need for a Defence Force, contrary to what some on the left think. Our military is also not just a fighting force as I have mentioned above. It performs a variety of peace time roles as well and we owe it to our servicemen and women to make sure the armed forces they serve us so well in are appropriately equipped for the future.

New Zealand tough to invade say Swedish analysts


The other day a report came out. It was by Swedish analysts who had analysed the difficulty of invading countries. As it turns out, New Zealand is one of the hardest. But are we?

While it is true that New Zealand poses little military threat to other countries, our still relatively clean environment, well developed infrastructure and good communications would make us an attractive target for resource hungry nations. We have mineral resources untapped that are attracting the interest of significant mining operators and have large oil and gas reserves. And with the Ross Ocean prone to preying trawlers operating without permission in the Ross Dependency, there are significant marine resources at stake as well. All this needs to protected.

So to do our little island neighbours, who are too small to protect themselves. Whether it is a policing operation such as the joint RAMSI mission in the Solomon Islands in 2005, a disaster relief operation, or a military operation against militant infiltration from elsewhere, few if any of these nations are able to look after themselves.

The catch for an potential invader is not so much in our military, which is barely able to perform the basic training we expect it to undertake, let alone mount any prolonged large scale operation – in war or peacetime – outside of New Zealand.  Indeed perhaps the largest military deployment in the last two decades was providing security for the Christchurch C.B.D. red zone during the relief and recovery efforts post-earthquake.

I cannot remember hearing of the 2 light infantry battalions in the army for example ever being at full strength. The Royal New Zealand Airforce is looking to replace very old transport planes and surveillance aircraft that were both first manufactured in the late 1950’s. The Defence Force is planning to spend $15-20 billion over the next 15-20 years overhauling its equipment – an expenditure that has caught flak from people on the left unable or unwilling to understand you cannot run a Defence Force, just like anything else, unless you invest in it.

Our strength lies in our geography. We are 2100km at least from Australia, our closest geographic neighbour. Logistically supporting an invasion of another country so far from supply bases across potentially very stormy seas would be problematic for just about any nation.

And, let us be honest here. Unless is a United Nations sanctioned military operation – as far fetched as that sounds – are New Zealanders actually likely to support the use of our military for anything other than disaster relief or protecting our immediate assets? Most New Zealanders including myself for example did not support the army being in Afghanistan when the alleged fire fight took place several years ago. Nor have we particularly smiled upon the Iraq operation, as with good reason, many believing that it was an extension of the war that started with the U.S. led invasion in 2003.

A lot of the terrorism around the world exists for simple reasons:

  1. Alleged injustices being perpetrated by foreign powers of a grave nature and a reluctance among the perpetrators to address it, causing anger and stoking ill will
  2. Religious fanatics – groups such as Islamic State trying to wage holy war or jihad
  3. Deliberate destabilization of Governments or societies in order to achieve some sort of dominance leading to armed conflict with a loose – if even existent – respect for international legal norms

Since New Zealand does not generally support these types of activities, either by other governments or entities, it has managed to stay safe when few nations in the west have managed to escape militant strikes – Spain in 2004; Britain in 2005 and 2017; France in 2015; various attacks in Germany and smaller incidents in Australia, Belgium, Sweden, United States and so on. New Zealand needs to remain careful and continue screening people before we let them settle here.

 

A.N.Z.A.C. Day not a glorification of war


On Wednesday morning, thousands of people all over New Zealand gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to attend the Dawn Service, acknowledging the sacrifices made by the New Zealand Defence Force. They gathered to remember those that had gone to war and never came home, those that fought and came home bearing both physical and mental scars. They came to say thanks.

But they did not come to glorify war.

Across all of the ceremonies I have been to in Christchurch, not one struck me as vaguely promoting war or militarism. Not one failed to mention the horrendous loss of life and the effects on society that are felt from having lost so many people.

So, whilst we see plenty of coverage about our soldiers going away in the two world wars and fighting on foreign battlefields, I do not believe that there has been any effort to downplay the losses. This is irrespective of whether they happened on the sun baked slopes of Gallipoli, in the muddy hell of Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Cambrai. It is irrespective of whether they died in the skies above Britain, at sea fighting the Germans or Japanese or in the Mediterranean theatre.

All of the ceremonies set an appropriate tone, sombre and respectful. The high losses suffered are shown in the number of war memorials all over New Zealand from little towns through to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and so forth.

One concern I had was upon finding out decades ago that World War 1 was also the “Great War”. It did not bother me so much until I started to question what I was taught about the war and whether those teachings were honest. On the whole I think my education has been relatively honest about New Zealand’s involvement in the wars. When I saw the phrase “Great War” several years ago, I asked and it was explained to me that the name is not from any descriptor seeking to make the war look good or grand in any way, but a simple acknowledgement that the scale of the destruction in the countries affected had – until World War 2 – no parallel.

I am further assured by the words of General TIm Keating, Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, who said that the ongoing and increasing popularity of A.N.Z.A.C. Day is not related to any glorification. Rather those that were children 30-40 years ago and now have children themselves who lost grandfathers and uncles, great grandfathers and great uncles in the wars. They are now wanting to show their children what it means to go to an A.N.Z.A.C. Day Dawn Service, to listen to the stories shared and appreciate what past generations have done for the country.

Like a lot of boys when I was younger, I was fascinated by war stories and the battles fought. I played computer games and read magazines from the bookshop. I participated in mock infantry charges and watched documentaries on television, such as “The World at War”. Whilst it made me interested in the how and why of battles being fought, listening to the stories of the service personnel who were there, one realizes that sometimes the real war was about surviving the elements in whatever form one found them.

Then I saw Saving Private Ryan. Any jingoistic ideas I had about war and the reasons for war were splattered on the floor when I dropped a half litre bottle of coke that I had just opened. Aside from the sheer savagery portrayed in the movie it rammed home the futility, seeing how it had marked Ryan all these years later as a war veteran. The realism was so strong many veterans who had been in France on D-Day in 1944 could not watch because it brought back too many bad memories.

And when service personnel come home from war, a lot leave the services. They go into farming, or train as teachers, or lawyers, or doctors – something more constructive than killing people. But they never forget where they went and what the saw. And whilst bullet wounds generally heal, the mental scars are often more impervious.

Whilst I will be pro-military, it is not because of a revision of my thoughts on war. It is horrible, senseless and usually started for reasons that are questionable at best. It is because no sane country leaves itself unprotected in a day and age where future wars are going to be about geopolitics and resources. I will be pro-military because the New Zealand Defence Force is an honourable and professional outfit to be a part of, and – despite the investigation into the fight in Afghanistan – does not believe in nor participate in the use of torture.

One day the Defence Force may have to fight. Like all I hope it never comes and that future generations of soldiers will not find their names etched into the cold hard gravestones like their forebears. But I don’t think anyone of them will be going to war any more enthusiastically than any of their many predecessors.

 

Big spending decisions looming on New Zealand Defence Force


At the weekend, the bi-annual Warbirds over Wanaka airshow was held in Otago. One of the highlights of the airshow was a pair of United States F-16 combat jets that were flown in from Okinawa, Japan, to perform for the crowd. A few years ago this probably would not have been possible and it points to a warming in our relationship with the United States that in the couple of years the United States Airforce has also appeared at the Royal New Zealand Airforce Air Tattoo in 2017.

However, a failure of the R.N.Z.A.F. C-130 Hercules, meant that one of the displays of the United States Airforce F-16’s was delayed because the C-130 was supposed to play a supporting role but was not able to due to a mechanical failure. Whilst one should expect mechanical failures, these are going to grow in complexity and frequency on aging air frames.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft for example are based on a type that had its first flight in the 1950’s. The air frames that New Zealand has have been in the Royal New Zealand Airforce for as long as I can remember. Whilst they have been great aircraft and have served really well, it is time to replace them. Further upgrades are not going to work on air frames that are naturally getting more and more expensive to maintain year in year out.

A second aircraft that is due for replacement is the P-3K Orion surveillance/patrol aircraft. It, like the Hercules is based on a very old air frame, and was first introduced to the R.N.Z.A.F. in the 1980’s. It is also based on an air frame that is at least 50 years old. The R.N.Z.A.F. has 6 Orion aircraft in service.

Minister of Defence Ron Mark has indicated that the Orions and the Hercules aircraft are both up for replacement. However Mr Mark says that a decision on their replacement types is some way off as he has a Defence white paper to review. Then a capability plan needs to be prepared and reviewed, before a review of the Government’s ability to deliver on the plan.

The chances are very slim, if not non-existent, but I still believe that there should be a small number – 12 would be adequate – of combat jets. It does not need to be a fifth generation aircraft like the American F-22 or F-35. A small number of Saab JAS-39 Gripen multi-role aircraft so that we may maintain some sort of parity with Australia would be quite adequate. The JAS-39 also has an added benefit of being able to take and land on short runways, so should there be a conflict in the South Pacific where a military response is needed we will hopefully not need to rely on Australian support that might not be there.