Gordon Campbell on the price tag for closer US military ties

smallerSo far, the closer military relationship envisaged by Jacinda Ardern and Joseph Biden at their recent White House meeting has been analysed mainly in terms of what this means for our supposedly “independent” foreign policy. Not much attention has been paid to what having more interoperable defence forces might mean for the New Zealand taxpayer.

Meaning: before we allocate even more government spending to the armed forces– and even the ACT Party has been urging New Zealand to spend an extra $7 billion on Defence– surely we have to consider the track record of waste, under performance and premature obsolescence that this has involved over the few decades.

If only the money that has been spent so carelessly on Defence hds been spent instead on public health, mental health services and drug treatment facilities. But that’s not how we roll. For example:

The helicopters

Back in 2006 when this country swiped right on a proposal to buy eight of NATO’s new NH-90 helicopters, this was touted by the Clark government as being a very,very good deal. Sure, New Zealand had to pay a huge $NZ771.7 million for the pleasure, but the then Defence Minister Phil Goff said that the NH-90s would be “the mainstay” of our Defence Forces “for the next 30 years.”

Apparently, we’d had our eye on these little beauties even while they were still on the drawing board:

New Zealand had expressed interest in the NH90 before the helicopter had gone into production, Mr Goff said.

A few years later, the Audit Office had a few sharp things to say about the dubious wisdom of us choosing to be a test case for an experimental design. Yet our early romance with the NH-90s came to mind again recently because… Over the last few months, other countries have felt burned by their NH-90 encounters, and they’re doing something about it.

A few days ago, Norway let it be known that it wants its money back:

NATO-member Norway terminated its two-decade-old contract with a France-based manufacturer for 14 maritime helicopters, citing delays, errors and time-consuming maintenance, the defense minister said Friday, calling the move “a serious decision.” The Norwegian government will return the NH90 helicopters it has received so far and expects a full refund of the nearly 5 billion kroner ($525 million) it paid, according to Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram.

“Regrettably, we have reached the conclusion that no matter how many hours our technicians work, and how many parts we order, it will never make the NH90 capable of meeting the requirements of the Norwegian Armed Forces,” Arild Gram said.

Last December Australia finally pulled the plug on its NH90s and started looking for replacements:

Australia has decided to ditch its fleet of 47 NH Industries NH90s in favour of the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk, blaming the “unreliability” and cost of the European helicopter. Locally designated as the MRH90 Taipan, the 11t-class helicopter has had a troubled history since entering Australian service in 2014. Over that period the fleet has been unable to fly on nine occasions and has been a “project of concern for the last decade”, says defence minister Peter Dutton, who brands the Taipan’s issues as “unresolvable”.

A decade ago in 2012, Australia’s then Defence Minister Stephen Smith put its NH90s purchase on the country’s official “projects of concern” list. Smith said other countries were having similar problems to what Australia had been experiencing:

The minister acknowledged that most technical problems being experienced by Australia are shared with other customers for the wider NH-90 family. “There are two reasons for…putting the NH-90s on the ‘projects of concern’ list,” Smith said. “One is a series of technical challenges, a small number of which are unique to Australia, but some of which are shared internationally. And second, delays in time.” [ie delays in delivering the helicopters, spare parts and maintenance solutions.]

After over ten years of this sort of thing, Australia has thrown in the towel on the NH90s.

The New Zealand experience

Two years before the full fleet were even due to be delivered, the shortcomings in the NH90s purchase were pointed out by Auditor-General Lyn Provost in a 2012 report.

In her commentary in the Ministry of Defence’s latest Major Projects Report, Auditor-General Lyn Provost says the Defence Force anticipates problems ensuring that the NH90s will do everything they were purchased for. Ms Provost says the helicopters are prone to damage from debris drawn into the engines and screens will need to be fitted to the engines to mitigate this. However, once this is done the aircraft will not be able to operate in snowy conditions.

The shield required to fix the flying debris vulnerability, Provost indicated, would not merely render the helicopters incapable of flying in snowy conditions. It would also be likely to preclude the installation of the gun mount initially promised. By 2015 though, more serious problems with the NH90s had become evident.

It transpired that the NH-90s were also unable to cope with the kind of wind conditions common in the Pacific. Moreover, they could only be transported around the Pacific region on the sealift vessel Canterbury if and when the weather conditions were sufficiently calm for this to be done safely. Alas, calm seas and favourable winds are not the norm in the aftermath of the Pacific cyclones that regularly require New Zealand to provide humanitarian assistance. 

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has questioned the $77 1million purchase of NH90 helicopters, after they failed to be of any use during the Pacific aid mission in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam.

Despite the Navy’s multi-role vessel Canterbury being capable of carrying four NH90s and a Seasprite helicopter, the defence force was unable to take any of its new NH90s to Vanuatu because they were too difficult to transport and would not cope with Pacific winds.

By then, the NH90s purchase was being openly questioned:

Brownlee appeared to take a swipe at the purchase of the NH90s and their absence from the aid contingent. “They’re not dogs but they are big aircraft and we don’t have a lot of ways to transport them,” he said…”They are what they are, they are what we’ve got.”

Future Defence Minister Ron Mark (yet in 2015 a NZ First Opposition MP) pointed to other problems:

“While hugely capable, the helicopters we purchased risk serious corrosion damage if taken to sea. They cannot easily operate off allied ships or future vessels like Helicopter Platform Docks as there is no automated blade and tail folding system. That’s madness given we are surrounded by sea and our helicopters are likely to operate in the Pacific, not central Europe.

Usefully, the Australians had long ago summarised some of their beefs with the NH-90s. These included:

Other identified problems include engine and windscreen tolerance to foreign object damage, stability of the inertial reference system, shortfalls in rear cabin ballistic protection and floor strength, shortfalls in documentation and training systems, and poor spares availability.

All of this explains why – a decade later – some dissatisfied NH-90 customers are asking for their money back. However, we blunder on. On p[ast form, taxpayers can expect that when they’re asked to fork out for the next major Defence project – the multi-billion dollar ANZAC frigates replacement – the bill will include add-ons to address the chronic problems with our helicopters.

Footnote: The LAVS. It might be forgive-able if the $771.7 million purchase of the overly complex and under-performing choppers was an isolated Defence procurement screw-up. But it isn’t. Only a couple of months ago, New Zealand finally managed – through a Canadian middleman – to offload a further 22 light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Chilean Navy, from the initial stockpile of 105 LAVs we had spent $653 million to acquire back in the early 2000s.

Almost from day one, the Audit Office and other critics said that we’d bought far too many of them. At the time, the then Defence Minister Mark Burton insisted that the Army needed every single one of the LAVs. Time has not been kind to Burton’s point of view. Currently, only 73 LAVs are in service with our Army:

The sale [to the Chileans] comes after the Defence Assessment analysis undertaken in 2008-09, which concluded that the NZ Army had more vehicles than required to accomplish the directed output. Following the analysis, the government decided to reduce the number of vehicles and made 20 NZLAVs available for potential sale. In 2019, the number of vehicles for sale was increased to 30.

Footnote Two: the Steyrs. The Defence Force’s problems go back a long way – yet even when the equipment failings are immediately evident, it can take decades for the problem to be addressed. In the meantime, the country’s security does not appear to have been compromised, which suggests that some of the Defence Force’s expenditure was never necessary in the first place.

Soldiers need rifles though. The problem is, they were given bad rifles. Briefly, the Army bought 9,000 Austrian Steyr assault rifles back in the mid to late 1980s. Reportedly, they were ‘hated” as ‘unreliable” by the troops forced to use them. Here’s why:

A 2011 Ministry of Defence study found the rifles were not powerful enough to “identify accurately adversaries” and was “ineffective at ranges greater than 200 metres..”. “It is a highly overrated assault rifle and if given the choice, I would rather throw stones at the enemy than carry that stoppage prone piece of crap,” one ex-soldier wrote on The Firearm Blog.

In 2015, the Army spent $59 million on a replacement for the Steyrs, which were deemed to be un-resellable.

Footnote Three: The Pinzgauers. Final example: In 2004, the Clark government bought a fleet of 321 Pinzgauer light operation vehicles ( LOVs) for $93 million. Now, its using them for target practice:

After less than a decade of service, the NZ Defence Force’s armoured Pinzgauer vehicles are headed to their final resting place – as target practice for Kiwi soldiers. Some of the vehicles have been out of action since 2013 due to problems with their axles, and will now serve as fodder for missiles on training ranges.

Talk about Catch 22. Due to the threat from roadside IEDs, the LOVs needed added armour so that troops could travel in them safely. But the weight of the added armour routinely broke the axles. In 2004 – three years after the Afghanistan invasion and one year after the invasion of Iraq – shouldn’t someone in Defence procurement have been able to foresee that instead of fighting conventional wars in Europe while motoring down autobahns, the vehicles required would probably be engaged in counter insurgency actions in difficult terrain, and against forces using improvised weaponry.

The overall point being… It would be very hard to find any other realm of government spending where such huge sums are so wastefully thrown at misjudged needs. We continue to do so: we have spent circa $3 billion ( and counting) on buying and kitting out a fleet of Poseidon P-8 aircraft whose only possible justification would be the detection of submarines operated by our main trading partner.

Not for the defence of our shores, either. The Poseidons are for force projection actions alongside our allies in the South China Sea. Only weeks ago, an Aussie P-8 got involved in a dangerous scrap over the South China Sea with a Chinese fighter. These forms of force projection are what the joint actions with the “inter-operable” gear that we’ve paid through the nose for, will increasingly involve.

At some point before we spend more billions on the ANZAC frigates replacements – which are essentially a job creation scheme for Australians, in their shipyards – we need to stop wasting these huge sums of money. These funds would be far better spent on (a) attracting foreign nurses and specialists to work in our hospitals (b) hiring more mental healthcare workers and (c) upgrading the drug treatment facilities essential to the rehabilitation of former prisoners.

Instead, Ardern and Biden were talking about a commitment to New Zealand remaining “interoperable” in “joint operations” with our traditional allies. So it goes. We’re being pressured to pay the hefty admission fees to take part in a global military arms race, largely for the benefit of foreign arms dealers. It would be nice to think that an ‘independent” foreign policy would enable us to politely decline the invitation. But no such luck.

Appalling Eagle

So Rongotai MP Paul Eagle says he is not yet “ready to announce” whether he is going to contest the Wellington mayoralty. This despite reports that he has had a campaign team already at work, and has just surveyed the electorate:

As his “neither confirm nor deny” stance continues, Paul Eagle has mailed a survey to everyone in his electorate, asking them to tell him what Wellington issues are of concern. All of which could be useful for him if and when he makes the decision to change course.

That’s an interesting approach. It smacks of a certain sense of entitlement. Evidently, when it comes to his future political plans, Eagle will inform at his pleasure (a) the electorate he currently serves (b) the taxpayers paying his salary and footing the bill for any subsequent by-election, and also (c) last and apparently least, the people of Wellington that he may be expecting to vote for him.

This sort of thing gives party machine politics a bad name. Clearly, the field is open to the left of Eagle, for a centre left candidate who feels “ready” to engage with the city’s needs as required, and not merely when it suits their timetable to do so.

Joy Division revisited

Thanks in part to the production aura that Martin Hannett wove around Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” the song has remained indelibly theirs, over the subsequent decades. Even so, the 34 year old US country singer Amythyst Kiah recently came as close as anyone has ever done, to re-imagining this classic track…

And just to show that wasn’t a fluke, there’s this by Kiah as well: