Saturday, July 4, 2020

Why defence needs to think local

Australian premiere Scott Morrison has announced that country will be spending $270 billion on defence because we are living in a "dangerous world". Essentially the Australians have decided that if push comes to shove with China they cannot be certain that the US will be there for them. 

Now while Responsible Defence does not believe that the People's Republic of China is an immediate threat, and sees this development more as Australia bending over in the shower for the US defence industry (to raise spending to 2% of GDP) it is pretty obvious that China under Emperor President Xi is not afraid to use its power to get its way internationally and that the Chinese Communist Party's 1984ish response to Covid-19 bodes extremely poorly for any world order centred on Beijing as opposed to Washington. Thus while New Zealand may not want to be as intimate with US defence interests as Australia we can't ignore the fact that the CCP are only friendly when we do what they want -- which is essentially not friends at all.

All this begs the question of what happens if history was to repeat and a Covid-19 triggered depression in turn set off a major war (e.g China vs the USA) as it did with Japan during the 1930s?

Now the problem with thinking about wars is the tendency of people to think about the last one they were in. That becomes the model and almost a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.The New Zealand defence establishment has a huge role (and budget) for maintaining New Zealanders strategic mindset locked in the history of World War Two. "We will remember them" they intone with religious conviction. And yet anyone who has studied the history of World War Two for more than five minutes can see that New Zealand's role in it was more of a giant cock-up than any result of clever strategic thinking.

The first problem with New Zealand in World War Two was that we thought we were part of Britain (which is actually about as far away from our country as you can get but still be on the same planet). This meant that when Japan attacked Malaya in December 1941 (at the same time as Pearl Harbour) New Zealand's only fighting division was in North Africa pushing back the Italian and German encroachment on Tobruk which the Australians had held so magnificently. In response to Japan's threat to their north the Australians withdrew all their divisions from the Middle East and brought them home to defend Australia (something the British were in no condition to do). But the 2nd New Zealand Division stayed in North Africa and fought its way up Italy along with the Americans and British. While New Zealand raised a two brigade (one short) 3rd New Zealand Division for the Pacific it (and much of the rest of New Zealand's contribution to the defence of the Pacific) was considered by our allies (Australia and the US) to be more of a token than serious effort by our country.

The real problem here was not small size, or lack of industry, it was a naive world view and a complete failure of strategic imagination. We suffered from the same problem as Britain, namely that the officers who joined the British Army were not that nation's best and brightest but were wedded to tradition, past stories of glory and a terrible need to prove themselves. The result was the disaster at Dunkirk where 400,000 soldiers - the cream of the British Army - had to be rescued by ordinary British boaties in the process losing 63,400 armour and vehicles and 2,500 field guns (basically all its heavy weaponry to fight invading panzers and dive bombers) along with 3,500 lives. To paraphrase Churchill -  never in the field of human conflict have so many professional military men had to be rescued from their own incompetence by so few civilians.


Of course nobody says that. The tradition is "the miracle of Dunkirk". But you only have to look into the eyes of the survivors photographed after the evacuation to see they had no confidence in their commanders left. They were beaten by a foe that had simply ignored tradition and used technology.

So let's have quick look at the NZDF today. What do we find? We find a cadre military wedded to tradition, past stories of glory and a terrible need to prove themselves. We find a naive world view and a complete failure of strategic imagination. Our military are as slavishly devoted to the US now as they were devoted to the British in World War Two.

This means we have a land force equipped with 100 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles with 25mm cannon which is no match for any other AFV in the world. We have some short range anti tank missiles (Javelin) and a few low level anti aircraft missiles (mistral), We have a few historical 105mm field guns. We have half a dozen very nice helicopters, and a handful of air transport planes. We do have six COIN aircraft which can do aerobatics but unlike all the alternative models we could have bought aren't that well armed. We have one landing ship designed after a channel ferry which can carry one company to the islands. We have two frigates which are about as much use as HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were in 1941. We have a very large oil tanker that cost half a billion dollars and on order we have six Poesidon anti submarine warfare aircraft which are about the only seriously dangerous things in our inventory - assuming they ever get here.

Its not so much a military as a bunch of warring departments squabbling over ranks, responsibilities and who gets to do what. Pretty much like Britain in the early stages of World War Two. If this was suddenly called on to defend New Zealand against a serious amphibious strike force it would not stand a chance.

So what are the strategic problems? 
  1. We have very little fuel storage, one refinery in the far north and one production platform in the Taranaki. Without fuel everything else becomes impossible.
  2. Almost all our equipment and ammunition comes from the other side of the world. That's a very long supply line. And we have very little integration with local manufacturing
  3. Our military are not much defence
  4. We have no plan.
Now what are our strengths?
  • Our people while certainly a lot flabbier than they were in the 1940s are still pretty sporty, and (as we have discovered during the covid-19 pandemic) quite disciplined.
  • We will not starve - there is heaps of food.
  • We have some amazing local manufacturing talent
  • Scion has a perfectly feasible plan to manufacture liquid fuels from wood and wood waste
  • We have developed protocols for dealing with disasters and are getting better at managing them.
Then what would a conflict look like?

As per the analysis in Responsible Defence website it is pretty obvious that the main flashpoint between China and the USA is Taiwan. China has reneged on the one country two systems agreement over Hong Kong and is ready to completely annex that city state. In terms of power this is an Tiger chomping a small bug. But in turn it is leading US hawks to seek to legislate for the defense of Taiwan as China has never relinquished its claim on the island as a domestic territory. The territory of Taiwan, like Hong Kong, is a case of one nation two systems.

But Taiwan (with the US Seventh Fleet in support) is no bug. It's more like a porcupine for the Chinese Tiger to deal with. And why does the US want to defend Taiwan? Because Taiwan has the most important technology firms on the planet and whoever controls technology wins. So given that Taiwan is divesting from China and wresting control of Taiwan is as crucial as access to fuel it makes it an obvious point of conflict.

So for China to attempt to take Taiwan would suggest 1) desperation 2) Chinese strength 3) US weakness (either in resolve or actual strength). Strategically China would probably seek to draw the US across the Pacific in defence of Taiwan. Once the US was fully committed it would then hope to win a stunning victory.

Another path to the same thing is a North Korean incursion into South Korea (remembering Seoul is 23.8km from North Korea). The North Korean dictator steps over the line says "sorry, not sorry" and everyone rushes for their guns. When the USA is fully committed the Chinese again move to affect a stunning victory.

Let's not forget stunning victories happen. The Japanese stunned Europe at Port Arthur in 1904 when they sank the Russian Pacific fleet. The Germans stunned Europe when they defeated the low countries and France in six weeks in 1940. The Americans stunned the Japanese at Midway Island in June 1942. So when the shooting starts the world can change shape with disorienting suddenness.

One oft-discussed Chinese king hit strategy involves electro-magnetic pulse weapons. Electro-magnetic pulse weapons send a wave of intense radio frequency energy which will induce a crippling current in any circuit within the vicinity. The vicinity can be 900 miles if enough energy is used. While chemical explosions can be used to generate these pulses, nuclear detonations are far more deadly. This means wiping out power systems, communications and computer systems, not to mention satellites. The theory goes that the US would be blinded and confused while China unleashed its conventional forces and overwhelmed Taiwan.

Frankly this sounds to me more like a silly thriller than credible strategy. Nuclear powered EMP would expose China to a retaliatory US nuclear strike which is unlikely to be muted. But instead of arguing the details let us simply imagine that there has been a helluva war in the northern hemisphere; usual trade routes are closed; communications is closed because of the vicious cyber battles, and all we really know is that there is a serious risk that some "motivated buyers" from the northern hemisphere are seeking local real estate in a manner not seen in these islands since the 1840s.

 What do we need? What do we do?

Well, first of all we need fuel. Without it we can't even farm let alone fight. In reality we would find that hard. We don't produce enough conventional fuel (10m barrels) to supply our demand (60m barrels) from fossil fuels. We would need synthetics and they take a long time to bring online. But let us assume that by some miracle of good planning New Zealand has implemented Scion's second generation biofuel plan and we can turn wood and wood waste into a drop-in replacement diesel, jet fuel and some petroleum.

Second we need to be dangerous enough that our "motivated buyers" decide there are cheaper options. This is where you need a better military than the one we have. One that is better integrated with national manufacturing and less driven by tradition and more driven by technology.

So how do smaller forces defeat bigger forces? The short answer is better intelligence, better use of terrain and lots of harassment. That means the ability to produce weapons and weapons platforms as they are lost. It means using guile instead of overwhelming budgets like Lt Gen Paul Van Riper in the Millennium Challenge or the cunning demonstrated by Iran in its drone attacks on Saudi oilfields and in capturing CIA stealth drones. It means not doing what you are told by industrial powers and thinking for yourself.

As detailed on the Responsible Defence Website New Zealand has the engineering ability to produce such systems but does not have the manufacturing base to do so. Why not? Because unlike Singapore our military planners and specifiers would rather have a nice time being wined and dined in France or the US than thinking about the role of local  manufacturing in national defence. That means that all the billions they spend (raised from New Zealand taxpayers) end up going to foreign firms to keep their production lines rolling rather than ours.

In 1940 Britain was one of the world's leading manufacturing nations. In six weeks military idiots squandered years of production, lost thousands of lives and left Britain precariously in danger to the German military. Fortunately Britain's airforce rose magnificently to the nation's defence and a few repaid the debt of Dunkirk. That could only happen because Britain was an industrial power, and it was an industrial power because HM government spent a fair sum on British equipment. 

The lessons of history are fairly clear. Instead of intoning "We will remember them" maybe its time we opened our minds and actually did.