Monday, November 14, 2016

Kaikoura: a different defence force would do it better

UPDATED 16 November [New text in grey]

So today (14 Nov 2016) we have had some big earthquakes. These have hit the north eastern corner of the South Island and buried large tracts of the main trunk line, State Highway One, cutting off Kaikoura.This town of about 2,000 now has no water, no sewerage, and no supply chain. It's not good.

The response so far from the defence force has been to fire up some NH90 helicopters and start loading the HMNZS Canterbury.

The defence force has rounded up an "international flotilla" of USS Sampson (a destroyer), Australian frigate  HMAS Darwin, Canada frigate HMCS Vancouver, and added offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington, frigate HMNZS Te Kaha, and the oil tanker HMNZS Endeavour to the expedition. The total complement of all these ships is 1,065 which is about half the population of Kaikoura.

Despite the fact that Radio New Zealand thinks Canterbury is a "frigate" the difference between Canterbury and the frigates couldn't be more important. Unlike Canterbury frigates can't carry cargo. They carry weapons for fighting other ships. So the three foreign frigates are only useful for supplying free helicopters. The Canadian SeaKing and US and Australian helicopter Seahawks are perhaps the best helicopters available to the operation. Getting them free from other navies is indeed most welcome. Te Kaha's Seasprite is not much use for transport as they have small cabins.

The frigates, of course, cannot dock in a small fishing village like Kaikoura, nor can they land anyone except through the helicopters. So they can sit out to sea and look impressive. Weirdly enough the galleys/kitchens of these vessels are probably the most important contribution they can make. So what we really have is  a collection of four heavily armed, takeaway bars.

The Endeavour is an excellent vessel which can supply fuel. Fuel is really important for cut off communites because it powers vehicles, tools, pumps and generators. Running out of fuel is a real problem. Getting fuel to shore, however will require a bit or work.

While the Navy helicopters are nice to have it shouldn't be forgotten that this is the South Island we are talking about. There are literally hundreds of helicopters in the South Island able to fly into Kaikoura more cheaply than the military.

The RNZAF NH90 can carry about four tonnes over a reasonable distance but compared to a truck that isn't much. The real problem with this is the NH90s cost heaps to fly. Given 2014 defence estimates which put No.3 squadron's costs at $229 million per annum and NH90 flying hours at 1700 per year, we can estimate a cost per hour of around $100,000, Every resupply trip from Christchurch or Wellington flying NH90s around Kaikoura and you've spent the equivalent of buying someone's house off them at pre earthquake rates. The government can't afford to use helicopters that expensive for very long. It would be better off leasing them.

The second problem is the HMNZS Canterbury. The Canterbury costs $67m a year to run and offers 144 sea days. The Canterbury is not huge but she is not small either. Kaikoura is a fishing village with nowhere a ship that large can berth. That means she will have to land supplies using her two landing craft. Obviously loading landing craft in the water can be a tricky operation. Not something to be attempted in difficult conditions (not unusual off New Zealand's coasts) and the 40 tonnes each craft can carry will obviously take some time to load, transport, land, unload and return. So Canterbury can provide initial aid but it too does not constitute a lasting solution.

This scenario was in fact on my mind when I put together the alternate defence system on the website.

The reason is that the Kaikoura situation is not that surprising. Wellington could easily face the same problems. The Wellington lifelines group estimates road and rail access outages to the capital could last up to three months. This is a bit of a problem in a city with no more than three days food at any one time.

Nelson, The West Coast, and Takaka face similar potential problems of isolation created by a combination of steep and unstable terrain and potential problems of poor maritime access for large ships after a major quake.

So my solution was a fleet of New Zealand built inshore patrol and utility vessels modelled after the Seacor Cheetah.

The Cheetah is a fast (up to 40 knots) crew boat with a decent range (up to 1,600nm) and cargo carrying capability. There isn't a fishing boat anywhere that can outrun her and she's big enough to be obnoxious to any fishing boat that tried to ignore her. In humanitarian situations her advantage is her shallow 2m draft which means she can berth anywhere a fishing boat can. At economy speed she burns 265 gallons of diesel an hour (carrying 25,900) but achieves 31 knots, potentially carrying 150 tonnes. Burning more she can make 40 knots. Such a vessel is perfect for multiple rapid turnaround resupply operations. Indeed she was built to outperform helicopters at precisely that task.

Operating out of Picton vessels like this could easily provide a temporary supply line to Kaikoura at quite reasonable operating costs. If, as envisaged, there was a fleet of them they vessels could be rotated so that crews and equipment could continue their maritime patrol role as well.

I confess there is a reason why I was particularly drawn to a fleet of these ships apart from their flexibility and utility. The engines are Hamilton Jets. That's right made in New Zealand. The hull is aluminium of the kind we also make. So here is a ship that could be readily made domestically allowing us to do what every other developed nation on earth does: use military spending for industrial development.

Moreover these ships have their uses when deployed internationally. Assuming they have a nose mounted stabilised remote weapon system, along with fire-fighting and oil spill suppression systems, they can be used to carry teams among the islands of the Pacific based out of either small ports or supported by a mother ship acting as a tanker. For anti pirate operations they have the advantage of the speed of a very fast speed boat but the size and range of larger vessel. While such cats have better sea-keeping than monohulls these are not ships to take to sea in the worst conditions, however they can easily outmanouver any storm.

In the very unlikely event of hostilities in this part of the world they could be converted into fast missile attack boats using missiles like the Penguin, or even as a support ship for anti submarine warfare. In the ASW role they would have the speed to make engagement by hostile submarines very difficult, they could drop sonar buoys by the bucket load and provide a platform for helicopters. The craft would be similar to the Norwegian Skjold fast attack corvette.

The assumption of the Seacor Cheetah was however also based around the purchase of two logistic support ships from Damen.

These ships are a combination of container vessel, tanker and transport. They can carry landing craft, helicopters, and people. They also have a small hospital on board. The idea was to replace the Endeavour (which is being replaced anyway) and the frigates with these ships. Unfortunately the Navy's actual response was its half billion dollar oil tanker.

New Zealand has a major disaster every eighty years. It has minor disasters like Kaikoura every ten. The return period of disasters is far, far greater than the return period of wars. The trick is to build a defence force that does what only a defence force can do (ie not replace civilian transport helicopters - there is no need for a military specification in a civil defence disaster) but which is flexible enough to respond to all the possible hazards a defence force may be faced with.

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