Thursday, October 13, 2011

Defence for Civil Defence

The oil contamination of the Bay of Plenty following the grounding of the MV Rena on the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga is perhaps the third example in as many years of the inevitable role the defence force plays in times of civil emergency. The first example was the Pike River mine disaster, the second was the Christchurch earthquakes (which continue to this day) and the third is the Rena disaster. The simple fact is that when the poo hits the fan the Government expects to call upon a corpus of human and capital resources kept in reserve for emergency situations.

Unfortunately this is not how the military sees itself.

The military sees itself as an organisation equipped to combat similar organisations. It's a bit like a military sports team. They admire one-another's uniforms, train together, and do lots of manly boasting about how tough they are over a drink or ten (if they are the Navy). They are, in effect, the national penis.

The unfortunate thing about this outlook is that, first of all (by international standards) we are not very big, and secondly, by trying to be so hairy chested in some departments we are sinking vast amounts of taxpayer funding into resources which frankly are not very useful most of the time.

Consider these two ships

KV Svalbard of the Norwegian Coastguard
Vessel type: Naval/naval Auxiliary Vessel
Gross tonnage: 6,150 tons
Length: 104 m
Beam: 19 m
Draught: 6.5 m
Speed 17 knots
Sea-days: 300 per year
She is designed to break up to a metre of ice, flies two Lynx or NH90 helicopter, mounts a 57mm autocannon, has fire fighting capability, and oil spill tanks and equipment (because Norway has an enormous offshore oil industry). She is the largest ship in the Norwegian armed forces.

Vessel Type MEKO 200 class frigate
Gross tonnage: 3,600 tons
Length: 118 m
Beam: 15 m
Draught: 4m
Speed 27 knots
Sea days: 120 per year (NZDF Annual report)
Te Mana is a ice class 1C (minimum), carries a 127mm gun, Sea Sparrow missile system, Phalanx Close In Weapon System, six torpedo tubes, 0.50-calibre machine guns. She carries one KAMAN SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopter. Te mana has an extensive ASW capability and battle management system.

KV Svalbard cost US$80 million (when commissioned 15 December 2001). Te Mana cost US$331 million (when commissioned 10 December 1999). In other words we could have bought four Svalbards for the price of one Te Mana.

What  have we gained?

Te Mana is a fighting ship. She is built to fight hot wars against aircraft, surface combatants and submarines at the same time. But who was she going to fight? 

The Soviet empire collapsed eight years before she was commissioned. The Chinese? They still haven't invaded Taiwan a mere 100nm miles from the mainland. They simply don't seem to be interested in military confrontation. And a decade later the Indonesians still don't have a single ship to match Te Mana and they would have to get past the Australians who are the boss of the whole of South East Asia by virtue of airpower. Even if she did fight she would still do well to stop an anti-shipping missile from doing serious damage to her. USS Stark was taken out by two Exocets and she was better armed than Te Mana.

What have we lost?

We have lost the ability to better police our EMZ (the fourth largest in the world) because one ship can't be in as many places as four. We have lost the ability to operate in the ice where the Patagonian Toothfish is hunted illegally and defend our claims to the Ross Ice Shelf, and we have lost the ability to respond effectively to major environmental catastrophes such as the Rena.

The time has come to knock some common sense into the military. They cannot be allowed to get away with wrapping themselves in the flag and hiding their fundamental inefficiencies and narrow-mindedness behind World War Two tales of yellow peril invaders from the North.

We do need defence of New Zealand interests at sea but not from monocled U-boat captains or hordes of asians bent on invasion (Asian business migrants have long been perfectly welcome to settle anyway). But we need to defend our natural resources from illegal incursion and the results of occassional idiocy. The taxpayers of New Zealand should demand more value from an organisation with well over four billion dollars worth of assets than what they are getting.