Just one submarine is all it takes. A comprehensive maritime air capability is essential for New Zealand.

Just One Submarine

Fathers and sons have their names in the aircraft logbooks of some of New Zealand’s six P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft. They have been maintained, upgraded, overhauled and modified for over 50 years – starting as ‘B’ models and ending as ‘K2s’ – and have served us well but their service life ends in 2025. There are big lead times to purchasing and bringing a new platform onto the flight line. Last year, Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon was selected as the preferred replacement and the date for confirmation of this (up to) $2.03B purchase has been extended a few months from March to give the new Government time to ponder it. The budget will be revealed on the third Thursday in May and it’s most likely that these aircraft will get a mention.

What is on the table? Four aircraft plus sensor systems, training and logistics. The airframe and engines themselves are about $1B. The rest is the electronics carried within and the ability to get the capability to an operational state so that the P3s can be retired. You’ll probably recognise the P-8A at a glance – it’s a modified B737-800. It’s either in service or on order by the vast majority of our allies. It can carry out tasks alone but is designed to operate with and control unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). This will be important given we are reducing our fleet size by one third.

If we sign up this year, the delivery date for the first aircraft is projected for 2020 and we will need all the time between 2020 and 2025 to manage the capability transfer. In anyone’s terms, $2B is a lot of money and there are plenty of people saying it would be better spent on – insert your favourite topic here . That is both true and irrelevant. Here’s a few important observations which include some ideas I picked up at the recent maritime security conference run by the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington:

  1. Doing nothing is crazy. New Zealand has maritime responsibilities from the Antarctic to the Equator and all the way to South America. This includes fisheries protection, search and rescue, tracking criminals (e.g. people and drug trafficking) and assistance to Pacific nations. It represents about 10% of the Earth’s oceans! The current aircraft are running out of time and delaying the purchase of replacements invites disaster.
  2. The vast majority of our imports and exports go by sea (96-97%). However, a growing aspect of our trade is carried digitally on the two submarine cables that bring the internet to NZ. From movie makers to banking, software packages and start-up game-makers, this trade will become increasingly more important. For those who say we don’t need an anti-submarine capability, contemplate this:
    1. By 2030, 50% of the world’s submarines are projected to be operating in the Indo-Pacific region.
    2. A single breach of our cables would plunge us into digital darkness with satellites struggling to cover the bare essentials only. Even an autonomous underwater vehicle, deployed by a small fishing boat, is capable of doing this sort of damage.
  3. Four aircraft is the minimum prudent number for any platform of this nature. The simple reason is that, in order to maintain a capability on task, you need a minimum of three. At any time, one will be in refit, one will be doing the task and one will be preparing to replace the task unit. The fourth is to cover the event of catastrophic failure i.e. crash, technical problem or the like. Only a gambler would operate with three or fewer aircraft, however, it is probably one of the options that the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, is considering.
  4. ‘Fitted for’ but not ‘fitted with’ is not a sensible option but it might well be under consideration to save money on systems. ‘Bring on the empty horses’ as David Niven wrote. This was done during the initial purchase of the ANZAC frigates. What point is there in flying an empty aircraft that lacks the ability to ‘see’ and interact with the broader surveillance network we are a part of? The original concept for the P-8A was that P3 systems could be transferred over to the new air-frame but this could mean taking some P3s out of service before P8s are operational. Not a good option.

On 25 April, politicians were at cenotaphs around the country making speeches and solemnly intoning the mantras of “We will remember them” and “Lest we forget”. Well here is where the rubber meets the road and this coalition, in defence terms, is a mess.

The NZ First Party, which holds the foreign affairs, disarmament (Winston Peters), defence and veterans’ (Ron Mark) portfolios was hawkish during the election campaign about its plans for the NZ Defence Force. Here’s just part of what it had to say:

Develop and maintain a marine-focused, professionally-orientated military, with a sufficient breadth of capabilities to provide operational indepen­dence, including a re-established Air Combat force and blue-water (frigates) naval elements. Create a professional armed Coast Guard as a sub-service of the Navy. Ensure capabilities to fully support and assist other Government agencies including Police, Customs, Fisheries, DOC, Coastguard, and Search and Rescue.

Meanwhile, the Green Party defence policy included this:

Phase out the ANZAC frigates as soon as possible. Not install specialist anti-submarine capability on mar­itime surveillance aircraft. Exclude participation by NZDF in the ANZUS Treaty, the Five Power Defence Arrangement and the UK/USA intelligence agreement.

And Labour, with a dollar each way, campaigned thus:

Labour broadly supports the capability upgrades outlined in the 2016 White Paper but reserves the discretion to examine further whether the proposed purchases meet capability requirements at the best value for money.

I recently published an article called “Sea Blind” which refers to the inability to grasp the strategic significance of the oceans surrounding us. Anything less than commitment to a full capability replacement will be seen by our allies and those in NZ who care about national security as a failure of political leadership. Most readers know the joke about “Just one goat…” Who wants to be the politician who decided against full maritime air capability? Will the public remember anything else they did?