Defence at crossroads as Project Sirius looms

Pressure is on the Government to give the green light to a $445 million electronic upgrade for the Air Force Orions.

The six Orions are well regarded by New Zealanders. They search for people lost at sea, and look out for illegal fishing boats.

But why do they need an extra $445 million spent on them? The answer lies in the tender documents for upgrade, called Project Sirius.

Here we find that a new radar and electronics system is needed for “capability to conduct Combat Maritime Air Operations [defined as Anti-Surface Unit Warfare and Anti-Submarine Warfare] and Combat Support Air Operations”.

The document doesn’t envisage these combat capabilities being needed for “low level security challenges to New Zealand including incursions into New Zealand’s area of maritime economic interest.” In other words, the Orions don’t need Project Sirius to do their fisheries surveillance and rescue work.

The same applies in Australia, which is undertaking a similar Orion upgrade. In July the Australian Defence Department released Defence Review 2000, which described Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance as a “non-defence task” which might more appropriately be done by outside the defence force, “rather than using Defence capabilities [i.e. on the Orions] designed and acquired for warfighting”.

Such “warfighting”, including submarine hunting, shows up strongly in our Project Sirius tender document. It talks about 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.” There are also specifications for new sonar buoys, magnetic anomaly detectors, torpedos, electronic systems to counter enemy radar, and a hugely expensive computer system.

This fixation on submarines is strange when there has been no submarine threat to New Zealand for over fifty years, and we’re unlikely to face one. The tender document admits that the Orion’s work on “the low level security challenges to New Zealand would be restricted to surface [as opposed to `sub-surface’] surveillance”.

The Orion’s anti-submarine capability is dictated by New Zealand’s traditional “allies”, particularly Australia, Britain and the United States. Last year our Orions participated in five anti-submarine exercises in Australia and five in Britain (as well as one in Korea and one off South East Asia). There weren’t any with the United States, because of the ANZUS rift, but Project Sirius aims to tie us closely to America’s world-wide surveillance system.

Already the RNZAF uses the US Joint Maritime Command Information System (JMCIS), According to the tender document, Project Sirius will enable New Zealand to participate fully in the “US DoD program (sic) of migrating automated C4I systems to DII/COE compliance” – which means our command, control, communications and intelligence systems will be part of the Department of Defence’s Defence Information Infrastructure and Common Operating Picture.

The tender document explains that this linkage enables the Orions to be used, far from our shores, “as part of a larger coalition force integrated into an international, probably US-led, coalition maritime order of battle”.

Do we want to go down that road? The Government’s guiding document, Defence Beyond 2000, points out “that a Great Power’s assessment of where its national interest lies on major geopolitical questions may – on occasions – be substantially different from ours”. The report refers to differences in East Asia and the Middle East policy.

Do we want to get caught up in another Gulf conflict? Or do we want our Orions tracking “enemy” nuclear-armed submarines for the Americans – thereby undermining our anti-nuclear policy?

The fall-back position in the Project Sirius tender document is that it’s always good, technically, to have “a very high level of interoperability with our Allies”.

In practice we’ve already got enough “interoperability” to tell the Australians, for example, about fisheries violations or people lost at sea.

Shouldn’t we be trying to get RNZAF to put priority on surveillance in our region? In the 1998/99 year the six Orions spent only 551 hours on South Pacific (including New Zealand) fisheries protection, search and rescue and EEZ surveillance. More time was spent on the Orion’s warfighting preparations.

The conflicts in East Timor, Bougainville, Fiji and the Solomons show that our emphasis should be on peacekeeping, with a wide range of partners, many of them non-aligned nations. We perform this role best if we’re an independent peace-making nation, not some adjunct of US-led coalition forces.

To upgrade our peacekeeping capability we need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars new radios, vehicles and several other items.

We won’t be able to do this within the current defence budget if we waste $445 million on Project Sirius. And we’d be buying further financial problems down the track. Operating at the high-tech end of anti-submarine surveillance means regular upgrades.

Project Sirius just isn’t appropriate to a New Zealand defence policy for the 21st century.


Keith Locke, Green Party Police spokesman. 14 December 2000