Saturday, June 30, 2018

Are the RNZAF's proposed fancy 737s for spying on Pacific island governments?

NZ First Defence Minister, Ron Mark, has said that the RNZAF should "buckle up" in anticipation for Cabinet approval for the $2 billion purchase of four US P8 Poesidon ASW aircraft. This is the largest single military purchase in New Zealand's history and the media, generally, is doing an excellent job in keeping this outrageous project rather quiet. 

Because the P8 is not some strange exotic military aircraft. It is really just an ordinary late model Boeing 737-800 passenger plane retrofitted with a heap of high tech sensor technology and a bomb bay. A brand new 737-800 costs about US$102.2 million. [] or NZ$151.05 million each. That means if Air NZ was buying four 737-800s (although they have switched to Airbuses) it would cost NZ$600 million ish. So what about the other $1,400,000,000 we are supposedly spending on these things? What is that for?

What does Boeing say? Take a look: []. Straight off the bat it says "An Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Solution". It doesn't say "The world's best anti submarine warfare aircraft". It is an "intelligence" and "Surveillance" platform. Keep that in mind.

Now let's see what the naval advertising website naval-technology says about the tools these 737s have on board. Here's what she has:

"The AN/APY-10 radar provides the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mode capability for imaging, detection, classification and identification of stationary ships and small vessels and for coastal and overland surveillance, as well as the high-resolution imaging synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) mode for imaging, detection, classification and tracking of surfaced submarines and small, fast-moving vessels that operate in coastal waters."
Synthetic aperture radars are not especially unusual. Even transport aircraft like the KC-390 has the Gabbiano TS-80 Plus system with similar capability for tracking ships and boats. Even drones have SAR. The difference is this one is especially sensitive so it can spot a periscope amongst the wave clutter. Of course submarine periscopes typically leave a wake train so they are usually spotted visually, as demonstrated on numerous occasions by the RNZAF P3K Orion crews when winning the annual submarine hunt prize: the Fincastle Trophy with the Mk1 eyeball. For extra visual search the P8 has:
"L-3 Communications Wescam to supply the MX-20HD digital electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) multispectral sensor turrets for the P-8A Poseidon. MX-20HD is gyro-stabilised and can have up to seven sensors, including infrared, CCDTV, image intensifier, laser rangefinder and laser illuminator."

This is basically a very fancy aerial telescope in a gyro-stabilised turret. Transport aircraft don't usually have these but they can be retrofitted into all sorts of aircraft including helicopters and drones. There is no mention of LIDAR (laser radar) here, which is a shame because LIDAR can be used through water after disasters to survey changes in harbour depths (depending on turbidity). That's important after tsunamis or earthquakes when you want to deliver aid.

But, so far we have a search radar and a search telescope. That's pretty much all you need for maritime search and rescue or EEZ patrol and accounts for about two workstations on the P8. In fact you could easily retrofit both to a transport aircraft just as numerous coastguards have done and it would not add much to the cost of an ordinary B737. But the cabin length in a B737-800 is 30 metres long. That leaves an awful lot of room in a fairly large aircraft for other expensive things. So what is in the rest of the work area?

This is where we start getting into the $1.4 billion worth of military stuff that doesn't get quite as much public advertising because it's 1) secret and 2) expensive.

Obviously the P8 is designed to kill submarines and a fair amount of the added cost is built around that. To kill submarines the P8, like the P3K Orion, drops sonar buoys. These sit on the surface and ping away automatically like lights, lighting up the sea. The buoys transmit the returns they get back to the aircraft flying around above. The aircraft is effectively playing a game of battleships with the submarine and as soon as it gets a return from a buoy it can drop torpedoes to home in and kill it.

As pointed out on this site before this is only useful if there are any submarines you want to kill. The problem here is that there aren't so many in the South Pacific except for French and Australian ones. The Indonesian Navy will have eight South Korean built Chang Bogo (Type 209 German designed) submarines. They are just in range of New Zealand but realistically sailing here would be too risky. The Chinese Navy has 70 boats but they have to defend China's second strike nuclear subs so they attract a lot of attention from the US, Japan, Korea and (dare one say it) Taiwan. The North Korean's have 60 boats but they are small coastal subs built for war around the home peninsular.

So spending $1,400,000,000 on protecting New Zealand from submarines makes no sense whatsoever. There just isn't a credible threat worth that kind of money. It would make more sense to spend $1,400,000,000 protecting New Zealand from small Tsunamis and climate change which are pretty much strong long term certainties than on long term highly unlikely uncertainties like submarine attack.

But let's imagine for a moment that our leaders are not:
1) mindless idiots on defence and security matters
2) controlled by Australia on defence matters
3) sucking up to the USA despite the USA slamming our aluminium and steel production with tariffs (unlike Australia).

What possible value could $1,400,000,000 provide them?
Let's go back to Boeing's pitch: "An Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Solution." And the other P8 system that doesn't get too much attention in the advertising: sigint. Signals Intelligence.

Signals intelligence means gathering data on the electromagnetic emissions in the air around you and processing that into useful information. Finding healthy ships these days is not hard. They all report their positions via AIS and you can watch their progress in real time from your bedroom using sites like []. They communicate using satellite phones as well as good old UHF.

But in the South Pacific most of the radio signals don't come from ships. They come from mobile phones. Even tiny island nations like Vanuatu have tens of thousands of mobile phones. [].

As this CNN video describes it the P8 is a spy plane. It has military grade systems on board for listening in to military encrypted radio systems. Could they listen in to mobile traffic? The US Drug Enforcement Agency seemed to do OK against the Mexican cartels and they aren't even military.

Spending an extra $1,400,000,000 to spy on a lot of empty sea, looking for non-existent submarines is obviously stupid. There is nothing there almost all of the time. Any transport plane could do the search and rescue and EEZ surveillance at a fraction of the cost.

But what is there 100% of the time is Pacific intelligence targets. They are reliably always there, and reliably using mobile communications assuming nobody is flying around offshore listening in on them.

Because, I mean, who would do that?

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Ron Mark needs to open up NZDF

A recent front page story in the Dominion Post by Andrea Vance [] pointing out that the NZDF had used the NH90 combat transport helicopters to take foreign brass to dinner seems to have so far failed to embarrass New Zealand’s minor defence empire.

One reason for this appears to be that it seems to be reciprocating treatment its own brass have enjoyed overseas in other defence empires. The other is the way the NZDF is, with the connivance of New Zealand First Party Defence Minister Ron Mark, succeeding in its battle with the truth by its obscuring costs. The figure Vance uses for the cost of the helicopter rides is ridiculously low.

Over the past two years the NZDF’s appropriations in the Budget has become increasingly obscure. The purpose of the budget is to illuminate government spending to the public but in budget 2018 the coalition government seems to be plumbing new depths in avoiding departmental accountability.

Considering that Ron Mark has had a long record of criticizing the NZDF’s expenditure while in opposition you might think that as a new Minister he might actually try to get some daylight into NZDFs nonsense budget. Is he following a long line of Ministers into meek submission to the Defence Force’s game of hoodwinking the public?

Because if you can’t change an aspect of government by voting you really don’t live in a democracy. Increasingly the NZDF is doing its level best to not to defend democracy as it claims but erode it. How can any politician campaign to change aspects of their portfolio if they don’t get clear information about them? How can the public demand change from politicians if information about what a department is doing is obscure nonsense?

Take for example Vance’s column about helicopter rides for the brass.

The article claims that the cost of operating the NH90 helicopter is $1,182 an hour. This is utter crap. That figure is the marginal consummable cost per hour. It is not the operating cost. A marginal consummable cost is the cost of the fuel, pilot, machine oil etc . It’s like saying the cost of operating a car is the cost of the petrol and oil consumed in an hour of extra driving.

But that is not how you calculate the cost of operating aircraft. For a start aircraft have a limited lifetime based on flying hours. After so many flying hours aircraft require maintenance. So the cost of operating an aircraft has to include the maintenance costs needed to keep the machine flying safely. In the Air Force’s case there is no garage down the road to take its NH90’s to. The Air Force is not just the flier of the aircraft it has to be its own garage as well. So the cost of operating the aircraft has to include the cost of operating the maintenance of the aircraft as well. This is not unusual. It is what any commercial helicopter operator has to do.

In addition to the maintenance costs of operations is the capital cost of operating the asset. If you buy a car you typically have finance costs and insurance costs as well. The government doesn’t borrow from the bank to buy defence kit nor will any insurer (in their right mind) insure an air force helicopter. Government takes money from trade in the economy to fund the things it does (taxation). So Governments charge a cost of capital on all departments including defence. The point of this is to ensure that capital expenditure is properly accounted for, just as it would be by any business that needed to buy a machine for production in a factory.

So what is the cost of operating the NH90?

According to this source [ ] the Swedes were paying just under thirty times more than Vance reported at $31,740 per hour to operate the NH90s, while the Finns (who bought their NH90s for a fraction of the price paid by New Zealand) were paying $25,000 per hour and have brought it down to $16,700 per hour.

This source [ ] claims the NH90 operating cost is US$24,000 $34,370 ( and points out the US blackhawk is a quarter of that). That figure is from Wikipedia (sourced originally from [] based on the Swedish high cabin NH90 model.

This article [ ] on Global Security says the Norwegian NH90s cost US$23,000 or $32,930 per hour.

However a large part of the operating cost comes down to the purchase price which has to amortised (plus capital charge) over the operational hours of the aircraft. The Finns bought their NH90s for $29 million each. We spent $96 million each on each operational NH90, more than three times more. So it should not be too surprising if our operating costs are considerably greater than that of the Finns.

When figures were more forthcoming from Treasury (in 2016) the total operating cost of No.3 Squadron which operates the NH90s and the A109M training helicopters was $229 million. No.3 squadron said “The Squadron is annually allocated approximately 1500 flying hours for the A109 and approximately 1700 flying hours for the NH90 to achieve the stated tasks". Assuming the NH90 costs four times the A109 (and that is very generous because the Swedes report their NH90s cost four times the Blackhawk UH-60 which is bigger than the A109) and you divide the total squadron operating cost by the flight hours you got an operating cost to taxpayers of $107,647 per flight hour for the NH90s and $30,000 a flight hour for the A109s.

On I contrast this with a private New Zealand helicopter firm (Helicopters New Zealand Global) that operates in Afghanistan for the US military (the RNZAF never flew in Afghanistan) and delivers 46,202 flight hours. It operated almost 40 choppers globally for a cost of $194m including provision for tax. So a private firm could deliver 14 times more operational flight hours for less cost and pay tax to help fund the Air Force. In short the Air Force is 14 times less efficient than a private company at delivering flight hours.

This is why every flight hour the NH90s spent delivering bigwigs to dinner matters. It isn’t a $100 per passenger ride as Vance suggested but closer to a $10,000 per passenger ride.

But without honest and open figures who would know what waste the Defence Force is perpetrating. If Minister Mark is even vaguely able to influence the Defence Force the one thing he should demand is open information. There is nothing militarily sensitive about the operating cost of defence equipment. Nobody is counting the dollars when the bullets start flying, but if there aren’t any bullets left because the brass spent it all on dinner that is something we, the owners of this government department should be able to find out.

The US Air Force Comptroller has released this table of costs [] so if the US can release operating costs so can New Zealand. Let’s see it!