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?