This is a happy day for me. For months I’ve been campaigning against the $445 million Project Sirius upgrade on the Orions. It’s been hard work. Getting the information out of the Defence establishment was like getting blood out of a stone.
For a start they wouldn’t tell me, at the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee, how much it would cost, or even the general range of the expenditure. We got the $445 million figure from an outside lobby group, Just Defence, who had inside sources.
It also took us a while to get the specifications of Sirius.
Defence didn’t want us to have the document because it made clear that Sirius was not about the Orion’s EEZ surveillance role, which it dismissed as a “low level security challenge”.
The tender was for a new radar and electronics system for what it described as “Anti-Submarine Warfare”, “Anti-Surface Unit Warfare” and “Combat Support Air Operations”.
It talked about finding periscopes, specifying that “a submarine with a radar cross-section of 0.1 square metres shall be detected at a minimum range of 20 nautical miles.” And there was other stuff about new sonar buoys, magnetic anomaly detectors and torpedos.
Why all this concentration on anti-submarine warfare, where we rarely even see a submarine in the South Pacific, and never a hostile one?
The answer is that Sirius was designed, not for our purposes, but so our Orions could help the United States.
Indeed the tender document said the Orions would be “part of a larger coalition force integrated into an international, probably US-led, coalition maritime order of battle.”
So the Americans will be upset that we’ll not be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Sirius, so our Orions can go off and fight another Gulf War with them.
But surely developments in East Timor, Bougainville, Fiji and the Solomons have demonstrated that an army peacekeeping capability is what we need to spend our scarce dollars on.
Abandoning Sirius is also good because it means we’ll be striking out on an independent course, not just operating as adjunct of the United States.
And by getting out of the anti-submarine warfare business, the Orions will be able to spend more time on their real work, fisheries monitoring and search and rescue.
It is scandalous that in 1998/99 the six Orions only spent 551 hours on South Pacific (and New Zealand) EEZ surveillance, and spent the rest of the time on their coalition war training and gallavanting around the world on anti-submarine exercises. In 1999 there were five such exercises in Australia, five in Britain, one in Korea and one off South East Asia.
The $445 million dollars asked for Sirius by the American preferred bidder, Raytheon, was a gigantic amount of money, more than twice the Department of Conservation annual vote.
That would not be the end of such spending. Once you are trying to keep up with the Americans at the cutting edge of their highly computerised warfighting technology you’ve got to keep upgrading, at 50 or a 100 millions of dollars a time.
The Americans demand it. Because if you’re going to go off war-fighting with them, you’ve got to be what they define as “interoperable”. In fact, Project Sirius was going to make the Orions part of the US Department of Defence’s DII/COE – translated – Defence Information Infrastructure / Common Operating Environment.
On an ongoing basis we’d have been linked by computer, through to US command.
I see the decision to drop Project Sirius as a major step forward to full nationhood. We’re moving away from being beholden to the Americans, moving towards doing things our way and concentrating on multilateral peacekeeping, particularly through the United Nations.
That doesn’t mean that we should be anti-American, or that we won’t work with the Americans on peacekeeping. We will work with the Americans as friends, as we do with any other peacekeeping nation, but not as an ally, in the traditional sense.
We got halfway out of the American tent when we went anti-nuclear. Dropping Project Sirius gets us another step out. Getting rid of our other two main assets for large-scale American-led coalition warfare, that is the Skyhawks and the frigates, would get us right out of the tent.
So I see this decision not to go ahead with project Sirius as an historic decision, a watershed decision, that hopefully will push us in the direction of full nationhood in the defence sector.
Also, we fully support the government’s review of non-military maritime surveillance requirements in our region – so that this work can be improved.