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On the war purposes of our massive defence spend-up

Gordon Campbell on the war-fighting purposes of our massive spend-up on Defence

First published on Werewolf

ron-mark-imageIf you’re willing to believe Defence Minister Ron Mark, our defence forces will be operating in future like a high-tech version of Oxfam. Yes, we’re going to be spending $20 billion on Defence in the years out until 2030, but allegedly… “Much of the spend has been driven by climate change,” Mark claimed with a straight face this week.

As Mark tells the story, climate change is putting the onus on New Zealand to help our island neighbours with rescue and recovery missions that are only likely to increase, given the expected rise in climatically-driven natural disasters in the Pacific. Oh, and if and when disputes arise over fish stocks, our military will also be on hand to conduct “stability operations”. That new Defence gear will also come in useful, Mark indicated, for taking scientists to and from Antarctica.

Basically, Mark conducted a masterclass in political spin to a media that seemed more than willing to treat this grotesquely unbalanced allocation of taxpayer resources as a good news story – ie, as old gear being replaced by new gear, all the better to help our Pacific neighbours in their coming times of need. Really? That line of thinking not only ignores the competing claims that Pharmac, or public health, or schoolteachers have to this kind of largesse. Even if the colossal spend-up was being motivated by the climate threats facing our Pacific neighbours, it would be only a gold-plated ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ response after the disasters have struck. Pacific island states might prefer that we put more effort into preventing the causes of climate change, rather than helping out with the consequences.

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What was almost entirely missing from this week’s treatment of the Defence Capability 2019 spend-up was its war-fighting dimension. The elephant in that room is China, the only regional power that can justify this new mega-investment in our ancient Cold War military alliances. Yet China barely figured at all in this week’s media coverage, despite China being the avowed target of our “Pacific Reset.”

We should keep on asking (a) the extent to which the containment of China is driving these purchases of military hardware and (b) whether we should be heading down a militarised path of confrontation with our main trading partner, at the behest of our Anzac pals in Canberra. Australia has been very forthright about its concerns regarding the rise in China’s military force projection capacity. It has similar concerns about Beijing’s rising diplomatic profile in the Pacific, and its promotion of Belt and Road “aid” projects that readily turn into debt traps. The Pacific Reset is, in fact, our response to China’s use of debt diplomacy.

How do our Australian allies view the operational context for our belated military spend-up? Well, in Australia’s Defence circles these days there is much excited talk of a “forward-defence-in-depth” strategy to be delivered by Australia, the US and Japan - which is being welcomed as a potential ‘sixth eye’ in the 5 Eyes alliance. The forward defence force projection that’s being mooted by the Aussies would largely be orchestrated out of three bases – Lombrum (and the adjacent Momote airport) on Manus Island, Guam in Micronesia and Okinawa. The Australian bases at Darwin and the RAAF base at Tindal in the Northern Territory are also seen as being part of the same defensive/offensive chain.

The strategic aim being… to actively cancel out both China’s long range strike capability and its ability to enter the sea and air approaches across the South China Sea, the Philippine Sea between the first and second island chains, and the South Pacific. As this recent analysis by one of Australia’s leading military think tanks put it, the overall aim has to be “to kill the archer before he can release his arrow”. Yikes. Where does New Zealand fit in?

This [“forward projection” strategy] could be [advanced] through practical measures such as providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and boosting the Pacific Maritime Security Program, as well as through joint training and exercises, along with staff exchanges. Australia’s approach should also see deepening partnerships with New Zealand, Britain and France to respond to a range of non-traditional security threats facing South Pacific states.

Thanks to the new Poseidon aircraft we’re buying, New Zealand will now be better placed to contribute to the ISR dimension of force projection mentioned above, as will the new UAVs we also have on our shopping list – these will help to free up the Poseidons from maritime patrolling for missions further afield. Through soft diplomacy, New Zealand will also be tasked with managing those “non-traditional security threats facing South Pacific states” which – drat it – don’t seem to regard China with the desired level of concern:

The challenge, of course, is that not all states are willing to openly identify the increasingly assertive Chinese state as a threat that they must respond to….For many South Pacific states, the challenges posed by the effects of rising sea levels and the impact of climate change are existential. The immediate risks come from non-traditional threats such as transnational crime, people smuggling and illegal fishing.

What I’m getting at is that any of the rescue and recovery functions in the Pacific that our new, expensive hardware may (occasionally) perform, will be occurring under the umbrella of an aggressive force projection strategy across the Asia-Pacific region that’s led by Australia, the US and Japan. To the country on the receiving end of “forward projection in depth” (even when deterrence is the avowed intention) the strategy will actually look a whole lot more like naked aggression. In the Asia-Pacific region there are any number of potential flashpoints – the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, the South China Sea trade routes etc. Moreover, the current trade rivalries between China and the US and the “strongman”personalities of Xi and Trump make the risk of sudden escalation far more tangible than it was in the 1990s, and there are even fewer recognised channels for the peaceful resolution of disputes. We’re co-operating in the planning for war, under the cover of climate change. As the Aussie Defence boffins put it:

With active flashpoints in Asia, including Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and the East China Sea, making the prospect of a US–China conflict in the next decade a real possibility—particularly when misunderstanding of each other’s strategic calculations and lack of escalation-control mechanisms are added into the mix—we can’t assume that such a war is a ‘low probability/high consequences’ contingency. Recourse to war in the 21st century is likely to be more rapid than in the last decades of the 20th century. That’s because of the blurry line between activities meant to stay below the threshold of conflict and acts that are seen as escalatory, along with the lethality of modern long-range weapons and the complexity of modern warfare. These factors combine to make a purely operationally defensive posture less and less relevant.

Because the Poseidon surveillance planes and the new, C-130J-30 “Super Hercules” airlift planes are the big ticket items in the package that Ron Mark released on Tuesday, it is worth looking at them separately.

The Poseidons. Apparently, we’re buying four Boeing P-8A Poseidons to replace our old Orions, and as the Budget information leaked by National confirmed, we’re paying $1.3 billion this year in the first tranche of payments for what Mark said last year would be a $2.3 billion package. In fact, the final bill will be considerably higher.

That initial $2.3 billion estimate for instance, did not seem to include the Poseidons anti-submarine “weaponising” capabilities. So the cost of those missiles, missile mountings, training, test firings etc. will be additional. Similarly, there was no allowance for the cost of (a) shifting RNZAF No 5 squadron from Whenuapai to Ohakea, (b) of resealing and strengthening the Ohakea runway (c) of renovating the hangars at Ohakea (d) of building and sustaining the accommodation for the Poseidon crews, the maintenance staff and the skilled techies required to process the data that the new planes will be gathering.

Since all those costs will be additional, the final bill for the Poseidons (not counting the operational costs and allowance for subsequent refits) will look far more like $3 billion, at least. (A good investment though, for rescuing lost yachties in the Pacific etc? Not really. The old Orions could fly more slowly at lower altitudes.) As mentioned above, our four Poseidons will augment the 12 Poseidons operated by the Australian military as part of the ISR component of the ‘forward projection in depth’ strategy intended to contain and deter China’s military role in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Lockheed Martin Hercules C-130J-30 We’re going to be buying five of the ‘stretched’ version of the Hercules cargo airlift plane, to replace the C-130 Hercules planes acquired in the mid 1960s. Much has been made of the need to replace these elderly workhorses but the C-130J (which first flew back in the mid-1990s) is no spring chicken, either. The advantage being that it has a proven track record.

Monday’s announcement was very coy about the cost involved, which will be ‘at least’ $1 billion – but apparently, no contract has yet been signed, and no extra specifications, added software packages etc have been finalised. As National’s defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell has pointed out, this purchase was not put out to tender. That seems unfortunate, given that there are competing (and newer) aircraft that could have been considered, such as the newer, less expensive, faster, longer ranging, and higher payload Embraer KC390 which – since it uses the same engines as the Airbus 320 would have been serviceable in New Zealand, and thus could have offered maintenance savings.

Back in 2016 though and while still in opposition, Mark publicly expressed his preference for the C-130J, and so it has come to pass. It may have been the best choice, but we’ll never know. At the very least, thr failure to got out to tender has hardly been a vote of confidence by the Minister in the competence of Defence’s evaluation and procurement processes.

And the likely cost? Well, the eventual price tag will depend on what combination of capabilities – which could include self-defence capabilities, offensive missile systems, cyber defences etc - that Defence eventually settles upon. As is the case with all these acquisitions, the headline price is being denominated in US dollars and while some currency hedging by Defence is possible, that’s not feasible for a shopping list that stretches out to 2030, and beyond. So, if the NZ currency dips in value, the price for these items will rise.

Though the figures date from 2014 – and thus do not take account of subsequent inflation - the price tag for India’s purchase of six C-130J-30s may still be helpful to contemplate.

The original cost estimate was $1.2 billion. By the time the customising had occurred (in India’s case, for special forces and border security use) the total cumulative contract price had nearly doubled, to $2.067 billion.

On that admittedly rough basis of comparison, we could well be looking at a five-plane Hercules package costing US1.7 billion, or roughly $2.6 billion in New Zealand currency i.e. it would be even costly more than the price tag for the Poseidons.

Keep in mind that this expenditure is being justified in the name of defending us against an entirely theoretical threat to our security. It is not merely the peaceniks, or the Green Party that have been saying so. The NZDF Defence Assessment Plan published in mid-2015 said the threats that New Zealand faces are (a) limited and (b) of a nature that would give us ample time to upgrade and to prepare, should that ever prove necessary. As NZDF put it:

66. New Zealand does not presently face a direct threat of physical invasion and occupation of New Zealand territory. The likelihood of such a threat to the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and territory over which we have a sovereign claim, emerging before 2040 is judged to be very low, and would be preceded by significant change to the international security environment. New Zealand could therefore expect to have a reasonable amount of time to re-orientate its defence priorities should this be necessary. Although there is no direct threat to our territorial integrity, New Zealand faces a range of other threats from state and non-state actors, including cyber threats and terrorism.

Similarly, in this 2015 speech, then- Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee flatly said there was no external military threat to the South Pacific.

New Zealand maintains a direct interest in security and prosperity in the South Pacific. We do not expect that the South Pacific will face an external military threat.

What has changed since then to alter the threat situation? As mentioned, the current leadership of the US and China leaves less room for negotiated reductions in tension. But as also mentioned above, an actual war is just as likely to be triggered by the highly aggressive “forward defence” strategies of our alliance partners. We should not be paying top dollar to become an “inter-operable” player in these exercises in brinkmanship.

Finally, many New Zealanders face a threat to their “security” that’s far more tangible than the ones being entertained by our war-gaming friends in Canberra. Right now, New Zealanders are sick and dying because (allegedly) there isn’t enough money in the kitty to buy all those pricey new miracle drugs. The life-saving cancer drug Keytruda for instance, won’t become open to generic competition until mid-2026 at the earliest and by some calculations, not until mid 2028.

In the meantime, Pharmac’s budget is being tightly controlled, and the public is being chided about the need to ration and prioritise the spending on such medicines. Ditto goes for the teachers, who have been told that there’s no more money beyond the current offers of $698 million for primary school teachers and principals and $496 million for secondary teachers. (That’s chicken feed when you're buying or upgrading modern military gear.) Obviously, Defence is not subject to the normal spending constraints. If it wants top shelf, it gets it.

Footnote One. The cost of replacing the ANZAC frigates is being kicked out into the 2030s though the repair bills and the weaponry upgrades (we’ve spent $639 million on such upgrades during this decade alone) will be a sizeable expense item in the interim. In the modern maritime warfare context, they’re also little more than sitting ducks.

That’s a problem. It reflects the basic mismatch between the gear we’re buying to keep our old alliances and traditional army/navy/air force configurations ticking over as of yore, and the real demands of tomorrow’s cyber-dominated battlefields. As the 2015 Defence Assessment Plan quoted above pointed out, the actual defence threats to New Zealand are coming from cyber intrusions and terrorism. Such threats do not require anything like the same levels of spending. To put it mildly, a frigate can’t stop a cyber threat, but a cheap cyber threat can immobilise the command and control capability that makes that expensive frigate good for anything more than tootling round the Asia-Pacific, and showing the flag. BTW, most of the jobs involved in building new frigates will be in the Aussie shipyards in Adelaide. No wonder the Aussies are keen to see us increase our defence spend.

Ironically, the vulnerability of the big ticket items to cyber disruption was cited in the Defence procurement analysis by Sir Brian Roche released last year:

Defence should give more awareness and attention to projects classified as enablers or dependencies. For example, the delivery of high-value capability such as the Future Air Surveillance Capability or the Frigate Systems Upgrade are both dependent on network domain projects that deliver the means to communicate safely (such as Cyber security).

Essentially, we’re spending huge amounts to combat phantom threats (or unlikely failed state scenarios) in the Pacific, and this new stuff will not guard us against the actual threats from cyber intrusions and disruptions - but in all likelihood, they will be vulnerable to them. Unless of course, we devote even more taxpayer money to that realm of Defence, too.

Footnote Two. China may be the least of our problems. Last year’s Strategic Defence Statement 2018 says (on page 6) that the “international rules-based order” is “the foundation for New Zealand’s security and prosperity.” Really? That’s a worry. As we have been given ample reason to believe, US President Donald Trump doesn’t like international rules and agreements, or the organisations and liberal democrats who lead them. You name it - the UN and its pesky conventions about human rights and refugees, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation, the global pact on climate change, the World Health Organisation, NAFTA etc etc All of these bastions of the “international rules based order” that is supposedly essential to our security are being treated by the current White House as unwelcome barriers to the exercise of US military and economic power.

Why, then, should we keep on spending billions of dollars on ships and planes in order to play our part in traditional commitments that seem to be increasingly meaningless to the current leader of the Western alliance to which we subscribe?

Out of the Valley

Somehow, the TV series Silicon Valley has succeeded in keeping its satire of tech company fads and terminology dead on target for five whole seasons. (Last season, the terms for managing staff included concepts such as “radical candour” and “ruinous empathy”.)

The show also boasts a killer soundtrack that ranges from hip hop to French pop music to motorik, mariachi and beyond. From season five for instance, here’s a 1974 folk rock track by a Texas group that must have been contemporaries of the fabled Austin alt country band, the Flatlanders. Uncle Walt’s Band were much folkier, and had more in common with Crosby Stills and Nash… The passage of time has made their innocence sound almost satirical, but this live version of “Getaway” still gets across their yearning to escape from the corporate sweatshop:

Mariachi served the Breaking Bad soundtrack pretty well, and this terrific mariachi version of “Walking On Sunshine” performed similar service recently on Silicon Valley

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