Huge savings if defence is revamped

The cost of military equipment is always hard to comprehend. How can a small frigate cost more than half a billion dollars, Army radios cost tens of thousands each and a few Skyhawk jets cost more than $200 million a year?

The latest example is a Defence request for $445 million for new Project Sirius electronics for the six Orion aircraft.

Pause and think about that price – $445 million. That would be enough to buy a new computer for each of the 224,000 secondary school students in New Zealand. How can this be the price of electronics for six aircraft?

The reason is that the equipment is not for catching illegal fishing boats or search and rescue – the roles we associate with Orions. Internal defence papers, not planned for public view, explain that Project Sirius is designed to equip the Orions for high-tech coalition warfare in wars far from New Zealand and the South Pacific.

When the Government says it can’t afford to raise the benefits cut by Jenny Shipley in 1991, or fund numerous other pressing social needs, there would need to be a very good reason for this huge expenditure on Orion electronics.

But the Orions, like the Skyhawks, have never been used in combat since being bought 30 years ago. Their hugely expensive combat capabilities are maintained to please our allies, not deter enemies.

The real work they do, like exclusive economic zone surveillance, doesn’t require the expense of Sirius. There’s not a very good reason at all.

The case against the proposed new Orion equipment is clearcut. The Government’s Defence Policy Framework, released last month, gave priority to effective maritime surveillance capabilities within our economic zone and those of the Pacific Island states. These words are used to justify Project Sirius.

However, the tender documents for Sirius, released under the Official Information Act, state that Defence officials envisage the upgraded Orions “will be employed as part of a larger coalition force integrated into an international, probably United States-led, coalition maritime order of battle.”

They say that “the most likely scenario for deployed operations is for two aircraft, three crews plus maintenance and operational support deployed to a forward operating base for an extended period,” with logistic support from the US military.

Their other long-term role is submarine hunting. The tender documents include detailed specifications required for nuclear and non-nuclear submarines, including a design goal of being able to detect a submarine periscope at, say, a distance equivalent to just of Coromandel from central Auckland.

In contrast, the Orion’s core work of economic zone surveillance is described in the papers as a complementary civilian task. The equipment needed for this “non-military national task” is dismissed in one sentence as being inherently covered by the military capabilities. Economic zone work is not mentioned again through the subsequent 200 pages of detailed requirements and specifications.

If the Government is serious about economic zone protection – an important task for New Zealand – it will plan strategies and equipment specifically for this role. The result would be better surveillance of the seas around New Zealand at a much lower cost than Sirius.

As usual, after supposedly studying New Zealand’s special needs, Defence officials are recommending that Project Sirius comprise exactly the same equipment as went into Australia’s Orions. The excuse is that inter-operability with Australia is valuable.

It’s a fake argument. When patrolling the New Zealand and Pacific Island nation economic zone, our Orions run independently. Inter-operability is for faraway wars, “particularly [with] the US, in order for contributions to be effective.”

The Orions did not help to restore peace in Fiji, the Solomons or East Timor. The Sirius equipment is designed for a Gulf War-style combat. This is the Orion role of which few New Zealanders have heard.

The US Navy’s website describes how, during the Gulf War, more than half of the 105 Iraqi naval vessels destroyed were first detected by US Orions, directing strike aircraft to them.

Orions were described as “ideally suited for anti-surface warfare operations and made the difference in coalition efforts to destroy the Iraqi Navy.” This is what New Zealand’s Orions would have been part of when the previous Government sent two aircraft plus crews to the forward operating base of Diego Garcia in February 1998, when war with Iraq was again threatening.

Fortunately, that time, war was averted.

Am I saying just get rid of the Orions’ military roles? Yes. Our Orions’ anti-submarine and anti-surface capabilities are leftovers of decades-old defence priorities. No one can credibly argue that they are a priority for a New Zealand-oriented defence policy today.

The Sirius Orion equipment was promoted by the National Government’s Defence Minister, Max Bradford – but when the multi-party Defence Beyond 2000 select committee report set priorities for defence last year, it did not rate a single mention.

The central conclusion of that report, echoed in the Government’s policy framework, is that a small country like New Zealand cannot afford to maintain all its historic military roles. Priorities must be set and some things must go.

The 1984-1990 Labour Government shied away from these decisions, pouring public money into the Anzac frigates and deferring other hard decisions. Thus Defence escaped change and a decade later the same issues of relevance and unaffordability must be faced.

The Government has no mandate to raise military spending, especially when extra spending is badly needed elsewhere. But military spending will inevitably rise, despite the absence of military threats to New Zealand, unless the Government faces up to the hard decisions and gets rid of marginally relevant, but horrendously expensive, capabilities such as fighter jets that never fight.

The first thing to go should be Project Sirius (a decision is due next month), followed by the Skyhawks and Defence’s plans for more frigates. Then, with literally billions of dollars saved, the Government can get on with building a defence force for New Zealand.