Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wait? What Submarine Problem?

Am I missing something? Is there some huge discussion or debate happening somewhere in secret that I am unaware of? Because I hear a great deal about the housing shortage almost every day, but nobody but nobody seems to be talking about the submarine threat.
I know housing is a problem partly because of the complaints and partly because the government has a billion dollar programme earmarked for affordable housing. But the government is planning to spend forty percent more, ($1,400 million) on aircraft to fight submarines and I would have thought that if killing submarines was worth more to Kiwis than affordable housing, someone would have said something.
Also at 2015 procurement costs to the US the Poesidon cost $256 million per copy, so be careful about that budget of $1.4 billion. As with the NH90 helicopters which were meant to be $550 million but suddenly became $770 million there is ample room here for unexpected cost escalation.
But let’s get this straight: the RNZAF’s proposal to acquire the Boeing P8A Poesidon is not about providing a maritime patrol aircraft for search and rescue of people at sea. A search and rescue aircraft costs way less than half as much as the Poesidon. Poesidon is not for fisheries patrol or search and rescue. It is a precision submarine hunting weapon for finding stealthy enemy submarines and destroying them.
But so far I have not heard a single public figure expressing concern about the Chinese putting air independent propulsion on their new class 039 submarines. I haven’t heard anyone raising the alarm about Indonesia’s acquisition of Korean built Type 209 submarines. Nor have the truly paranoid expressed concern about Australia replacing its Collins class boomers with the quiet Shortfin Barracuda class to be made in France. In fact New Zealanders seem to be blissfully unconcerned about the new generation of stealthy submarines.
There is good reason for this. There isn’t a threat. There never has been a threat. Even in World War Two, while we were visited by advanced Japanese and German submarines, none of them did any damage. Most of the losses in or near New Zealand waters were due to the German armed merchantmen Orion and Komet. And in the whole of that epic struggle RNZAF no.3 squadron (based in the islands) did not sink a single submarine of any kind. In fact the only loss of shipping to submarine attack in New Zealand’s history was the Rainbow Warrior attacked by French agents who arrived by commercial airliner and civilian yacht.
In fact even the defence strategic plan doesn’t have much to say about a submarine threat either. There are good reasons for this.  First of all New Zealand has a huge number of sea lane options for its trade. To blockade New Zealand at sea would be far more expensive than simply diverting cargoes by making a better offer to suppliers. Second, most of the submarines in the world today are either eighties relics that even a P3K Orion can find or extremely expensive modern stealthy ones (US$500m plus). To divert an extremely expensive warship to attack a minor shipping target like New Zealand while engaged in a war at home is highly unlikely. Expensive warships are for fighting other expensive warships and New Zealand is not a source of strategic resources like oil worthy of interdiction.
There is also a shortage of submarines in the world for a Poesidon squadron to attack. The Indonesian fleet is a handful of boats, which will expand to two handfuls. But the TNI is essentially a defensive force structured to keep the huge archipelago nation from falling apart. Similarly China (largely penned in by the US fleets and its allies, Japan and Korea). While China has a fleet of almost eighty submarines, they are mostly noisy, short range diesel boats intended to protect its handful of nuclear deterrent missile subs. The Russian Pacific fleet of over twenty boats, But these are mostly eighties relics which will almost certainly be targeted at the US and its North Asian allies. In short looking for subs around New Zealand today is almost like looking for UFOs. Sightings are that rare.
That means a Poesidon squadon is a bargaining chip for military alliances. But having a fleet of sub hunters puts New Zealand in a difficult strategic position. The capability means allies are keen to rope you in. But is that what we want? Killing someone’s half billion submarine and its crew is a very good way to ensure you earn their owners enmity for a long time. If the Australians want to kill Indonesian submarines why should we do it for them? If the US wants to kill Chinese submarines, why would we want to draw China’s ire. The advantage of sending SAS is that the SAS can (in theory) be limited and extremely precise in who and what they take out in the name of New Zealand. A sub hunter is either killing a sub or it isn’t. In short do sub hunters provide the strategic profile New Zealanders want?
By contrast a maritime surveillance aircraft is a completely different capability and presents a wide range of options. Their role is aerial observation of our fisheries and search and rescue (fishing and boats as small as two metres can be seen from space, subs can’t). Essentially all you need is forward looking infra red, synthetic aperture radar, and maybe laser radar (lidar) and all of that can be retrofitted to almost any aircraft or drone, for that matter. That gives you a civilian capability to monitor our EEZ and provide search and rescue with the option for armament in the very unlikely chance we need it.
Instead the Government has gone straight for an American subhunter. I can understand why the US is pressuring New Zealand to spend 2% of its GDP on defence. The US is the world’s biggest arms manufacturer. It’s diplomacy is to force demand from its allies to help the US industrially. But 2% of our GDP is no small amount of money. It is far more than we spend on say, the Police. In fact its the same amount as we spend on all roading, cycle paths, public transport and road policing combined. We all use land transport every day. Military systems either sit in storage or are far less efficient than civilian alternatives. Buying overly expensive aircraft to address non-existent threats is putting America first, not New Zealand.
And it’s not like saving $700 million by buying maritime surveillance aircraft instead of sub hunters would be false economy. Spending that sort of money on education for under-privileged and facilities for our Universities would make one hell of a difference to our economy. There are a wide range of things wrong with our economy that would be transformed by dropping three quarters of a billion of capital spending on them. Moreover if you are trying to kill subs it is better to buy the latest technology for hunting submarines when you need it, not thirty years before hand.Otherwise you spend thirty years on expensive upgrades all for no purpose.
The simple fact is maritime surveillance aircraft with the necessary range and capability can be bought for less than $100 million each. There are plenty of alternatives. All an aircraft needs is the sensors I mentioned earlier. You can put them on commercial passenger planes, business jets (because they use less fuel), civilian or military drones (which use even less fuel) or military transports if you are focused on interventions when you arrive. The US Coastguard uses the Super Hercules C-130J. That’s one option. Another is the KC-390 transport jet from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer could also replace the old C-130H Hercules. It’s built with a radar capable of tracking fifty ships simultaneously off the shelf, and plenty of room to launch rescue equipment also provide the maritime patrol function as well.
Nor should we forget that very soon New Zealand will have its own satellite launching facilities. By launching communication satellites and buying and developing long range drones (there are plenty of drone firms in the world) it would be more than feasible for New Zealand to turn a maritime surveillance problem into an industry that other nations would be keen to emulate. I'm thinking here of Chile, Peru, South Africa etc. This is what Singapore does when it faces a defence problem. It turns a cost into an opportunity that can generate profits and jobs at home.
If any other government department came to the government with its hand out for $1.4 billion for a device whose principal function dealing with a problem as rare and unlikely as a UFO it is unlikely it would get funded. But because it is defence suddenly people get hairy chested and start talking all sorts of patriotic nonsense about weapons and war which has nothing to do with either the problem or the most efficient solution. In my view New Zealand is too small for this kind of profligacy, and at very least we need to have a sensible debate before spending almost 1% of our GDP on a military tool we will almost certainly never use for its intended purpose.