Sunday, January 6, 2008

NZDF and 'the ice' - more commitment needed!

Stuff has two stories today once again demonstrating our military's narrow frame of reference when it comes to equipping itself for potential missions.

The Japanese whaling fleet is once again wreaking havoc in the Southern Ocean - with the Australian military copping flak for failing to live up to undertakings to maintain surveillance{ http://www.stuff.co.nz/4346118a11.html } while a British trawler (Argos Georgia - intent on ravaing Toothfish) is locked in the ice { http://www.stuff.co.nz/4346591a11.html}. Meanwhile duty Ministry Jim Anderton says the military are too over-stretched to operate in the Southern Ocean. Too short-sighted more like.

The Navy has five vessels capable of operating in the Southern Ocean. Two expensive ASW frigates, two OPVs (still being trialled) and the Canterbury LSV. The OPVs and Canterbury are Lloyds C-class and so aren't really meant to go into the ice. The frigates can go into the ice but because they are so expensive they have chewed up all the Navy's potential resources.

By contrast my Review (using the same amount of capital) postulated purchasing two research vessels (of the kind used by Nordic oil men), two environment patrol vessels (as used by South Africa to patrol for raiders on the Patagonian toothfish), two Lloyds B-class transport ships (as used by the Chilean Navy to service its Antarctic bases), and two ice-breaking environment patrol vessels ( as used by the Norwegians to safeguard Norways northern coast all year around. Any one of those vessels (although the ice-breakers would be the best choice) could have carried out these missions with ease.

It isn't that the Navy couldn't have resources available for such operations. They just didn't want to. Saving whales and extracting fishermen are not jobs that the Royal New Zealand Navy has much interest in. Exactly what the RNZN is interested in, however is unclear. For some time it seemed to want to join the Royal Australian Navy but now that it has got Project Protector delivered it is torn between being an inadequate combat navy (with only 2 frigates) an inadequate fisheries protection agency (2 OPVs for the 4th largest EEZ) and an army transport which has already managed to kill one of its crew.

The fact is the RNZN needs at least four more OPV/EPV vessels to cover the amount of sea that it needs to operate in. What it does not need is two MEKO class frigates. Unfortunately military machismo runs deep and the need for a boat with big guns is crucial to the self-image of our Navy officers. However as I have always argued, in reality the only kind of ships the RNZN is ever likely to need to counter in our quarter of the Earth's surface is unlikely to have any weapons at all. Big guns are simply redundant.

New Zealand has long held a protectorate claim to the Ross Sea Ice Shelf under the Antarctic Treaty. In practice we have done precious little to protect the Antarctic and relied almost entirely on the United States to support our access to the Pole at all. If New Zealand wants to be taken as seriously as other Antarctic protectorate nations (such as South Africa, Australia and Chile) we should do a good deal more to demonstrate our logistical commitment to the ice.

So far our Navy's contribution is inadequate and our airforce's capability is failing. The C-130Hs are being re-winged so they can keep flying but they remain very very old aircraft. Its plans to acquire Airbus A400m's seem to overlook the fact that as yet no A400M as flown yet alone landed on the Antarctic. By contrast my Review proposed the IL76MF - a much larger aircraft design than either the C-130 or the A400M which has been landing on ice for decades. It also proposed the DHC-6 light operational aircraft which also has a long history of operations on the ice.

And while the Antarctic is a demilitarised zone the fact is that every Antarctic treaty nation relies on its military to provide the services to operate in such an environment. New Zealand's Army however only operates the Pinzgauer light operational vehicle which might be able to cope with summer roads but certainly nothing else. By contrast my Review recommended the purchase of 48 BvS210 armoured all-terrain transports - closely related to the "Hagglunds" tracked vehicles used at Scott Base.

Once again none of this was ever beyond the potential of NZDF/ NZDM planners. They just weren't interested in thinking about the Antarctic. It is an omission that New Zealand as a nation may yet come to regret.