Gordon Campbell on the ripple effects from the Titan submersible disaster

f094b772c8dadd365938b64e3ac6486dAs clickbait, the saga of OceanGate’s Titan submersible belongs to the same genre of real time news countdowns as the boys trapped in the Thailand caves, the trapped miners in Peru and the 18 month old baby girl trapped down a well in Texas. Except in the Titan’s case…. The minute by minute staples of real time coverage (the search is entering its third day, the crew’s oxygen supply is running out etc etc) were bogus. The US Coast Guard Service (the managers of the search effort) had been told with a high level of certainty that secret sonar devices had indicated the sub had fatally imploded around the time when first contact had been lost.

But here’s the thing. If that fact had been conceded at the outset, the story would have focussed on the location of the US listening devices and on their wondrous ability to detect abnormal incidents at immense depth, hundreds of kilometers out into international waters. On that point, the 24/7 news coverage of the “search” served a useful role for the Pentagon in diverting public attention.

Looking ahead, the same over-riding need to return that listening system to secrecy will probably blur any attempt to retrieve the true cost of the Coast Guard search. Those costs will almost certainly not be borne by OceanGate’s insurers. Any insurance company worth its salt would have a field day in court grilling the Coast Guard as to why it had added to the escalating costs of a search effort that it knew (with almost total certainty) to have been in vain. In all likelihood, the Pentagon will quietly pay the Coast Guard for its efforts at distracting public and media attention away from the US military’s hitherto unknown tools of maritime surveillance.

Local resonance

Still, that US maritime detection system has to have serious implications for the viability of the Australian nuclear-propelled submarine fleet central to the AUKUS military pact. If, in 2023, maritime surveillance is as sophisticated as the Titan incident would suggest, isn’t it likely that by the time those Aussie nuclear submarines are delivered and in service (Which won’t be until the early 2030s and 2040s) they will be readily detectable by China, and therefore somewhat redundant? Evidently, there is an arms race – or ears race – currently underway to render the oceans fully transparent, for the military purposes of detection and destruction.

That looming reality is of course, a $A468 billion problem for the Australians to ponder. Yet New Zealand is also being wooed to join AUKUS in some as-yet unspecified secondary capacity, on the basis that AUKUS is a necessary component of the Western military stance towards China. Before we sign on, the public deserves to be informed as to whether anti-submarine warfare detection (and counter-defence measures) will soon render the expensive crown jewels of the AUKUS alliance all but obsolete.

We also need to know the likely cost to our exporters to China, if New Zealand does publicly sign up to AUKUS. There would surely be some form of retaliatory action taken by China. We also need to know what access, if any, our tech sector will have to transform and monetise any of the advanced cyber technology that the US is reportedly willing to share with New Zealand, on condition that we agree to climb on board the AUKUS train.

Will access to that super-duper secret cyber tech know-how be limited solely to the SIS/GCSB/NZDF? Probably. If so, how could that possibly compensate and console our farmers and foresters if and when Beijing decides to punish our decision to join AUKUS by obstructing our current range of exports to China. Would tourism from China also be negatively affected?

Plus… How, exactly, would our subordinate role inside an aggressive forward projection pact like AUKUS overlap with our membership of the Five Eyes security alliance? Within Five Eyes, New Zealand is seen to be something of a dovish outlier, when it comes to the imminent threat that’s allegedly posed by China to Western interests around the world, and in the Indo-Pacific region in particular.

In that respect, being wooed to join AUKUS could be seen as an attempt by our allies to neutralise our dovish tendencies. Doves tend to have a hard time co-existing with hawks.

Eyes and Ears

There’s also a good reason why everyone calls it Five Eyes and not Five Ears. Five Eyes reflects the historical emphasis on aerial and satellite surveillance from afar. It does not suggest the current scale of intrusive listening being conducted by the West’s security services via phone taps, maritime surveillance, and by the active monitoring of the private messages carried by underwater telco cables.

Five Eyes members had their annual get-together in New Zealand this week, behind the usual blanket of secrecy. Surely – one would have thought – New Zealand should not have to sign up to the AUKUS pact in order to gain privileged access to top-shelf cyber-security secrets. Shouldn’t New Zealand being a paid-up member of the Five Eyes alliance give us automatic access to that kind of stuff – and if not, why not? Why are we being encouraged to take the additional step of signing up to some as-yet unspecified supportive role within AUKUS?

Of course, we can only speculate about the motives for imposing an extra burden of subservience on New Zealand. For what it’s worth, my guess is that the US would always be wary of sharing the really advanced digital technology and systems knowledge with New Zealand. Look what happened the last time they did that.

I’m not talking about ANZUS, but about the fact that New Zealand proved to be a relatively easy point of entry penetrated by Nicky Hager in the mid 1990s. It was Hager’s book Secret Power that first revealed the existence of the US global eavesdropping system called Echelon. He was able to do so because he could take full advantage of the lax precautions then in place within our security services. For such historical reasons, New Zealand is probably not seen to be a safe pair of hands. Participating in AUKUS looks more like a way of our allies keeping us in line, rather than a means of actually sharing the truly important new cyber-tech know-how.

In the meantime, China tends to be extra nice to New Zealand on trade access. To repeat: that’s solely because we’ve been seen to be a peaceable maverick among Western powers when it comes to our defence and security attitudes to Beijing. If we are to abandon that stance in favour of joining AUKUS, we need to be very clear about the cost/benefit outcomes of doing so.

It would be such a shame, Chinese diplomats are probably already indicating to their New Zealand counterparts, if your farm and forestry exports happened to run into lots more regulatory red tape, longer port clearance delays and new phyto-sanitary standards. Lets just hope that there is an informed public debate on the likely downstream costs and benefits before any decision is made that ties New Zealand into playing an official role inside AUKUS.

Songs of survival news

Coverage of people facing death in real time may have become a staple of 24/7 news, but there’s an older tradition of songs along the same lines. Here from 1960, is a blow by blow tale of a small child in peril in the Australian outback:

And here’s a similarly inspirational Canadian minng rescue mission, also told grippingly in real time:

Less happily, here’s Abner Jay doing a song about the loss of the Thresher nuclear submarine in 1963. Jay usually made his eccentric recordings as a one-man band, but this early track has his performing with a band, and with heavenly choral overdubs to boot: