Dialogue: Orions will be test of future air capability

KEITH LOCKE* says good elements of the Government’s defence assessment are undermined by the ignoring of air combat issues.

There is an air of unreality about the Government’s defence policy assessment. The biggest debate this year has been around the cancellation of the F-16 purchase contract and the future of our air combat force. Yet there’s not a single reference to air combat (or naval combat) in the assessment.

In the introduction, a new approach is announced, which is “substantially guided by, and builds on, the Defence Beyond 2000 Report.”

Yet the Government appears to have forgotten that Defence Beyond 2000 put forward an option “to disband the jet training and strike capability, on purely financial grounds.”

And why not? The Skyhawks have never been used on an operation. It’s very hard to see how the Government is going to upgrade the Army’s peacekeeping capability without taking money from somewhere else in the defence budget. The $234 million voted for air combat forces is the obvious place to start.

Together, air and naval combat expenditure dominate the defence budget, totalling $671 million of the $1.63 billion spent. The Government’s framework document does allow the possibility of “retaining less range of [military] capabilities.” But in practice the Government seems to be saying we’ll be keeping the Skyhawks and frigates.

Participation in Five Power Defence Arrangement exercises in South-east Asia is restated. These are mainly air and naval combat exercises, like the Stardex exercise last August, which involved our Skyhawks, a frigate, and Orions.

The Orions are dual-use planes. They are useful for surveillance of our exclusive economic zone, and those of our Pacific neighbours. But they are optimised for combat support roles, which is how they are used in the five-power exercises.

The defence establishment has been pushing the Government to agree to a $445 million Project Sirius upgrade of Orions’ combat-related capabilities, such as detecting submarines and countering enemy radar.

The Government appears somewhat panicked on this. The framework document specifically allows for a decision on Project Sirius to be made even before the completion of its announced review of maritime surveillance.

The Orion decision will be a test of whether the Government is really moving away from an air or naval combat capability.

Underlying the debate over Project Sirius is the maintenance of New Zealand’s traditional relationship with the United States.

The Orions have already been involved in a US-led Gulf task-force, and the Americans want the Orions to be fitted out to their specifications. The framework document allows for New Zealand defence forces to be engaged in “appropriate multinational peace support operations,” like that in the Gulf, outside of United Nations auspices.

New Zealand’s defence subordination to US, Australian and British needs is not broken. The US relationship will remain intact, reinforced by a “strong strategic partnership” with America’s close ally, Australia. Strong ties with Britain will continue, including through the five-power arrangement. But there will be tension between equipping for these alliance roles, and the other focus, reflected in the framework document, towards peacekeeping and work in the South Pacific – be it economic zone protection, humanitarian disaster work, or search and rescue.

The introduction of a human rights dimension into defence policy is welcome. The framework document says that “New Zealand will not engage in military cooperation or exercises with the armed forces of states which sanction the use of their armed forces to suppress human rights.” This would have stopped us exercising with Indonesia during that country’s occupation of East Timor. And it would presumably stop any resumption of military ties with Indonesia until there is reform of its armed forces.

But such a human rights approach should also make us question exercising with Malaysia and Singapore under the five-power arrangement when the governments of both countries persecute their political opponents.

Overall, the document has a greater focus on defence needs in New Zealand and the South Pacific than previous defence statements. That is refreshing.

But the Defence Forces brass will not be too worried. The traditional ground is still covered, so for them it will be business as usual.