Dialogue: Project Sirius is needless keeping up with Joneses

KEITH LOCKE says the planned $445 million upgrade of the Air Force’s Orions is at odds with the country’s new defence thinking.

Most New Zealanders feel good about our six Orions. They are out there searching the oceans when boats get lost and keeping an eye on foreign fishing vessels. They also help our Pacific Island neighbours with maritime surveillance.

There may be some puzzlement as to why the planned electronic upgrade of the Orions, called Project Sirius, is to cost $445 million. This is the figure disclosed in Government briefing papers recently released by Just Defence.

This lobby group claims the upgrade is preparing the Orions for hunting submarines and allied war fighting rather than its better-known tasks.

Do we need Project Sirius? We know that the Orions have a good radar search capacity, upgraded about 10 years ago.

We need a proper cost-benefit analysis before we spend $445 million. But so far the Defence Force has kept everything close to its chest. It has refused to disclose the cost or specifications of Sirius, even to parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee.

We know only that Project Sirius will upgrade the Orion’s radar, acoustics, magnetic anomaly detector, electronic support measures, infra-red system, navigation devices, radios and computers. This, according to the Defence Force, is to allow the Orions to operate in a “coalition environment” at a level “expected by other force elements.”

Our traditional coalition partner is Australia, so the easiest way to find out what Sirius is all about is to look at its Orion upgrade. It has ordered a new Elta EL/M2022A(V)3 radar, which, says a Jane’s radar handbook, offers long-range periscope detection and target-classification capabilities. The detection range is 56km against a 1 sq m target.

Project Sirius is all about keeping up with the Joneses in submarine detection and coalition warfare. The acoustic buoys and magnetic anomaly detectors it provides are clearly to detect submarines. The electronic support measures track incoming “enemy” radar.

Only part of the Orion’s flying time is spent on fisheries protection, search and rescue, and economic-zone surveillance in New Zealand and the South Pacific. It was 551 hours for the six Orions in 1998-99.

More effort is being put into warfare preparedness. The Orions attended 12 overseas anti-submarine exercises last year, five in Britain, five in Australia, one in Korea and one off South-east Asia.

Former Defence Minister Max Bradford said in Parliament on May 3 that Project Sirius was “one of the most important components of our relationship with Australia, and that the tasks of the Orions go well beyond fisheries protection and the discovery of lost yachts and the like.”

Mr Bradford is right. Officials in Canberra may get just as upset over the cancellation of Project Sirius as they did over the cancellation of the F-16s.

They will see it as a further diminution of our ability to operate alongside them in a major war. They don’t accept our new direction of defence spending, focusing on peacekeeping, and an air and sea-lift capacity.

The Americans will also be upset. During the Cold War, the US used Orions to track and monitor Russian submarines across the globe. They flew missions from US bases in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.

Orions were sold to Australia and New Zealand on the understanding that they would survey much of the southern ocean. New Zealand’s designated zone stretched from the Solomons in the west to French Polynesia in the east, and from near the Equator to Antarctica.

Despite the Anzus rift, New Zealand still exercises in anti-submarine warfare with the main US allies, Britain, Australia and Canada. And it still checks its designated part of the ocean for the Western alliance, with encouragement from the US. The preferred bidder for Project Sirius is the American firm Raytheon.

The Greens believe that Sirius has a big financial downside for New Zealand. It won’t be only $445 million for the refit, but continuing upgrade costs as we try to keep at the top end of anti-submarine surveillance and electronic warfare. Simply upgrading the Orions for fisheries patrol and search and rescue would cost much less.

A lower-level upgrade would also be better politically. It would dovetail with New Zealand’s new role as an independent peacekeeper, rather than a bit player in the Western alliance.

Keith Locke is a Green MP.