The challenge posed by Lethal Autonomous Weapons

There are several significant challenges that are posed to the campaign against L.A.W.’s. One of these is that right now, already in significant and growing numbers across several nations are military drones used for surveillance and destroying targets from a distance. These are generally referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (U.A.V.’s)and include various American models such as Global Hawk, Reaper, Predator, Grey Eagle and others.

However I am talking about a type of weapon that is likely to start appearing in the near future. I cannot quite envisage what one would look like, but I would assume it to be like a drone or – possibly later on – an upright robot, with lethal capability, that can function without human input. And these are not some imagined weapon system inspired by science fiction so much as an ethically questionable and soon to be taken next step from the development of U.A.V.’s as military weapon systems.

Drones have a controversial record in terms of military applications. Their soaring use in Somalia, Yemen and also around Pakistan and Afghanistan by the United States military has been raising questions for years. President’s George W. Bush, Barak Obama and now Donald Trump have all escalated their use in the absence of conventional air power for dealing with targets. Tragically a large number of strikes have ended disastrously with civilians targetted at funerals, weddings and on family holidays, and not surprisingly the Governments of the nations where these strikes have occurred have strongly remonstrated with the operators of the drones – almost exclusively the United States military.

New Zealand has an interest as a nation of peace in ensuring we have no part in the development of what I expect will be a weapons system that even on its best day will find itself a foul of international law. L.A.W.’s represent a move into a future type of warfare where man is not the actual combatant any longer and that his ability to make battle field specific decisions will be increasingly done by machines.

From 3,000 kilometres away at the moment, a controller in the U.S. Airforce or Army will be watching a target with a view to determining whether or not an assassination strike is feasible. They will be making a split second judgement on whether to permit the drone to fire a Hellfire rocket that a split second later explodes in a fireball as it crashes into a target that might be a car, a house or some sort of armoured vehicle. There might be children playing in the streets, or people at the market buying food. The drone controller can instruct the drone to pull back and way further instructions. For a terminator the difference might not be much, but it is potentially disastrous. From 3,000 kilometres away or more, a controller at a computer will be watching really high resolution imagery being fed to them by the camera on the device. They will be able to see everything including the potential target. It sees a potential suspect outside a house with contacts. They are doing something, and there are children kicking a football around. Too close, but how will they tell the L.A.W. to not fire its weapon?

L.A.W.’s are coming and they represent an extremely dangerous development in military drone technology. There is a closing window of time to build up a coalition of nations that refuse to have anything to do with them. The military industrial complex will not be happy and nor will some politicians both in domestic and international circles, but do we honestly really need to add L.A.W.’s to human-kinds already dreadfully diverse array of killing people?

I think not.

N.A.T.O. wants more New Zealand help in Iraq

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has asked New Zealand for more assistance in Operation Inherent Resolve, which is its operation in Iraq. The New Zealand assistance consists of 143 military personnel who are based at Camp Taji and train Iraqi soldiers.

The answer should be a clear and unequivocal “no”.

The reasons why New Zealand should say no to a N.A.T.O. or other request for help in Iraq are numerous:

  1. The whole “War on Terrorism” is the result of an attack on the United States, that whilst totally unjustifiable by any reasonable measure, no one should be surprised was coming – you cannot go on interfering in Middle Eastern nations affairs with the primary agent of interference being ones military, and not expect some sort of violent reaction
  2. Some of the key players in the Middle East are funding terrorism themselves and yet we deal with them
  3. It has no relevance to New Zealand whatsoever – New Zealand should completely withdraw the N.Z. Defence Force from the Middle East and only support United Nations sanctioned operations
  4. We have more urgent problems closer to home with countries like Papua New Guinea being close to becoming a failed state where an intervention might become necessary

The only instances that the New Zealand Defence Force should be deployed for war in are:

  • If Australia is attacked
  • If New Zealand is attacked
  • If the United Nations requests New Zealand deploy military forces
  • An emergency threatening the national security of any one or more of our Pacific Island neighbours

The first two instances are self explanatory. An attack on Australia is an immediately dangerous attack on New Zealand because of the proximity of the two countries to each other, but also the very long, close and deep ties both countries have.

There may arise a time when New Zealand is requested to supply military forces. When this happens, the Prime Minister signs a warrant that permits the Defence Force to use lethal force. New Zealand’s last large scale deployment was to East Timor starting in 1999 following its decision to vote for independence and widespread violence by pro-Jakarta militias as a result.

This fourth scenario is the one with perhaps the most obvious shade of legal grey. An attack or hostile activities in the South Pacific, which is widely viewed as New Zealand’s “back yard”, would have little trouble overwhelming the very small military establishment’s in any one of these countries. In 2003, in an effort to stop the Solomon Islands from becoming a failed state with lawlessness and a potential haven for militants, Australia and New Zealand mounted the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, which wound up in 2017.

My estimate of N.A.T.O., along with its fellow Cold War alliances, is that its usefulness has expired. Its eastward expansion is something that has long antagonised Russia, which to its credit has not tried to establish a 21st Century version of the old Warsaw Pact. Whilst the geopolitical conditions of the Cold War are present in many ways, the U.S.S.R. whose containment N.A.T.O. was established to check no longer exists and many of the old Warsaw Pact countries have been admitted to N.A.T.O.


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.