What's happened to the protest movement in New Zealand? Weapons conferences are met with blockades, but when the new Government announces the purchase of their $2.3 billion "submarine-killing" combat planes for the Air Force, there's barely a banner raised in anger or sadness.

The announcement last week of the extraordinary purchase of the Boeing Poseidon military aircraft might normally have been expected to be met with great opposition. After all, this purchase is a huge deal – it makes a major military realignment for New Zealand, brings us further into potential military conflict with China, and reverses the shift towards making the military more defensive than offensive. Suddenly, New Zealand is embarking on a "Poseidon Adventure", without any real debate.

The criticisms and challenges to the purchase have been muted. Contrast this to the last time New Zealand made a military purchase of this type of this magnitude – the 1989 decision to buy Anzac frigates from Australia. Back then, we saw protest rallies, and the vast majority of the public were opposed. Of course, in 2018 there have been a number critics of the decision, and their arguments deserve to be highlighted and considered.

Why this is a big deal

One of the most comprehensive reports on the "Poseidon Adventure" is Laura Walters' article, New sub-killer planes may never fire in anger but Govt wants the option. This reports that the new aircrafts purchased by the government are "known as submarine killers" because they are designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), in which they hunt other marine vessels and have the ability to torpedo them.

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The article quotes Professor Robert Ayson, from Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, explaining the political contentiousness of such high-grade military weaponry, because of "concerns that an ASW capability may lock the NZDF into overseas combat missions that might not necessarily be in the national interest".

Ayson also explains the significance of the deal: "Purchasing the aircraft made a foreign policy statement, and a statement about New Zealand's commitment to being combat-ready. The planes also signalled a willingness to continue to work with traditional partners like Australia and the US."

The coalition Government has agreed to purchase four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from the United States Government.
The coalition Government has agreed to purchase four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from the United States Government.

Therefore, this warplane purchase is a major change in defence operations – towards greater militarisation, and a major realignment in terms of New Zealand more formally shifting away from any notion of an "independent foreign policy".

According to John Armstrong, the purchase signals a big ideological shift by the coalition government, in its adoption of New Zealand First's defence policy: "You've got to hand it to Ron Mark. To put it bluntly, the veteran MP and Minister of Defence has effectively shafted Labour in order to benefit New Zealand First. He has exploited a heaven-sent opportunity to drastically alter the thrust of the governing coalition's stance on defence matters far more in his party's favour — and far more to the right" – see: Defence Minister Ron Mark has shafted Labour in order to benefit NZ First.

Armstrong suggests the new Government has essentially done a U-turn on the consensus that Helen Clark forged, to shift the military out of combat roles: "When Labour was last in power, Helen Clark effectively abolished the Defence Force's air strike capability by withdrawing the Air Force's Skyhawk fighters from service and putting them up for sale. Clark's intention was to reduce the combat capability of the armed forces such that any overseas deployment would be confined to supplying personnel or military hardware to peace-keeping operations".

Whereas Labour might have wanted the new warplanes to be concerned with civilian duties, such as patrolling fish resources, delivering humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and so forth, Ron Mark has clearly designed the purchase for military combat and related roles. Armstrong says "Mark would view the installation of missile-delivery systems on a maritime patrol plane as in part fulfilling his party's manifesto plan promising a return of the Air Force's previous 'offensive' capability."

This point is also taken up by Guyon Espiner, who shows that the new Government's combat-ready emphasis for the Air Force is strongly at variance with the last Labour government: "Not long ago this was considered unnecessary. In 2001 then-Prime Minister Helen Clark said this: 'The officials considering our national maritime patrol requirements concluded that New Zealand does not need to maintain a maritime patrol force that includes an anti-submarine capability.' I put this to the Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters on Morning Report. His response: 'She was wrong then and she is wrong now'." – see: New Defence purchase deserves close scrutiny.

Defence Minister Ron Mark announcing the government's decision to purchase 4 Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft during the post-Cabinet press conference. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Defence Minister Ron Mark announcing the government's decision to purchase 4 Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft during the post-Cabinet press conference. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Espiner calls for more debate on the purchase, especially since it represents such a large change in New Zealand's orientation to the world, and will cost so much money: "It is big money – about the same amount spent so far on all Treaty of Waitangi settlements. And also because it, and the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018 which underpins it, says a lot about where we are going with defence policy – and who we are going there with. A pivot back to old allies. Green voters, and perhaps Labour ones too, might not have expected a tilt towards the US and the Five Eyes alliance under the new government."

It's interesting that a Labour-led government is more willing to take such a right-wing approach than National, says Richard Harman, but it's simply about appeasing western allies: "The decision to purchase the planes has been regarded for some time by western diplomats as a litmus test of Labour's foreign policy. That being the case, what the test shows is that, perhaps surprisingly, the Labour-led coalition was more willing to make the purchase decision than National. Stack that alongside Peters more critical approach to China and it is possible to see this Government moving New Zealand quietly back closer to its traditional western partners" – see: The coalition makes the decision National would not.

Harman also argues that the new planes "may be too high tech and too expensive to operate for mundane New Zealand coastal patrolling." Instead, it's their interoperability with the militaries of the US, UK, Australia, especially to operate in the Middle East, that has made the purchase attractive. Harman also quotes the Defence Minister admitting that other planes will be bought that are more for patrolling around New Zealand. Mark says: "This will free up the new P-8A fleet to fly more missions, in the South Pacific and further afield."

But is it worth paying such big money to keep onside with the Australians and other allies? This is the question asked by a Dominion Post editorial on the topic – see: $2.3b Poseidon purchase is a questionable adventure for Defence Force.

Other questions are also put by the newspaper: "How often will they be called upon to seek out and destroy submarines? At such a high cost, has New Zealand bought the best available aircraft at the best price? Could it, perhaps, have bought more planes, with a greater variety of uses, for the same money?"

Strong criticisms of the warplane purchase

The Green Party has put forward some token objections to the purchase, and have then gone quiet on the issue. Commentators say they can be expected to "swallow the dead rat" for fear of destabilising their own government. Certainly don't expect the Greens to organise protest marches over the issue.

Underlining the Greens' now moderate stance on militarisation, it has actually been former Green MP, Keith Locke, who has put forward more scathing criticisms – see his blog post: Defence policy statement edges NZ closer to Trump's America.

He says the Government could have got much cheaper planes that were tailored to maritime surveillance instead of submarine combat, and the new planes won't be available for much monitoring: "New Zealand could have bought four high-tech surveillance planes, without the anti-submarine capacity, at a fraction of the cost, and they would have been much more useful to New Zealand. The more our surveillance planes are geared for war-fighting, the less they'll be available for monitoring fisheries in the South Pacific and Antarctica. Much of the time they'll be off conducting anti-submarine exercises with the other Five Eyes nations, or flying alongside American planes in Middle Eastern surveillance missions."

Similarly, blogger No Right Turn argues that the purchase is farcical, "for the simple reason that we are not threatened by submarines" – see: A colossal waste of money. He sees the purchase as being about vanity: "All it does is allow generals to feel like they're keeping up with the Aussies, while enabling them to get involved in more American wars. There are far better things we could be spending that money on, like schools, hospitals, and state houses."

The coalition Government has agreed to purchase four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from the United States Government.
The coalition Government has agreed to purchase four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from the United States Government.

But for the most comprehensive arguments against the deal, see Gordon Campbell's blog post, Five reasons not to spend billions on replacing the Orions. The five reasons are: the $2.3b purchase cost will be much higher than we are being told; there is no real threat to justify the purchase; the expenditure will crowd out other necessary spending; the planes won't be effective against real military threats; and, surveillance is already being done by Australian drones (with that information shared with New Zealand, anyhow).

For Campbell, the decision has been made in order to play "the role of sheriff in the South Pacific". He suggests that Labour governments always spend more on defence than National ones because they are less inclined or able to stand up the military and defence hawks.

Chris Trotter has the most radical response to the whole debate, suggesting we just abolish the military, as has been done elsewhere – see: The Costa Rican solution.

Pro-military objections

It's not just leftwing critics that have a problem with the Poseidon decision. According to defence expert Simon Ewing-Jarvie, there are many in the military who are unhappy – see his blog post: Poseidon – So What?.

Of particular concern is the fact that the extreme expense of the new warplanes means that fewer can be purchased, which will reduce the number of surveillance planes in operation.

Former chief of staff to Winston Peters and defence specialist, David Broome, has also challenged the merits of buying Poseidons, which he calls "the champagne standard" of military hardware – see: Defence spending rises welcome but real test is replacing.

He argues the new Hercules aircraft would be a better replacement for the Orions: "It can fight forest fires, deliver humanitarian relief and refuel other aircraft, including helicopters. It is even a strike platform…The United States Coast Guard's long-range maritime surveillance Hercules achieves 70 per cent of the Orion's current mission capability, but at a fraction of the Poseidon's cost."

Finally, for satire about the choice of new Air Force planes, see Andrew Gunn's Will our new Poseidons have paywave?.