There is no strong evidence to suggest that New Zealand's maritime patrol force needs to maintain a capability to detect submarines, says Prime Minister HELEN CLARK.
Recent comments on the conclusions of the maritime patrol review have excited reactions - some informed, some not. One aspect highlighted concerned New Zealand's experience over the past few decades in detecting submarines.
Nobody would claim that the absence of firm evidence proves that submarines have never operated around New Zealand. For one thing, we do not maintain continuous surveillance. But the lack of positive identifications over several decades, plus knowledge of deployment patterns, the absence of a military imperative, the higher strategic priorities for those countries which own submarines and the lack of collateral evidence, all add to a compelling case that submarines are not a major concern for our security.
In analysing and developing national security strategies, all governments must make choices based on the possible threats and risks. Some potential threats are discounted because, while technically possible, they are not deemed to be realistic because of an absence of motive or intent.
New Zealand, for example, is within range of some countries' intercontinental ballistic missiles, yet we have not contemplated developing an anti-ballistic missile system. That risk falls below the threshold.
Similarly with submarines. Technically, submarines could threaten New Zealand. It happened in the Second World War. But in today's security environment, and given the United States' maritime pre-eminence, such possibilities do not rank prominently. Our military assets are better oriented to tasks by which we can make a real contribution to international security.
The issue of submarine detection was considered as one aspect of many in the maritime patrol review. Anti-submarine warfare capabilities are highly expensive, so the review asked basic questions about the threat presented to New Zealand and the need for us to possess such equipment and skills.
Nobody questions the competence or professionalism of the Air Force. Those who have operated New Zealand's six maritime patrol aircraft have undertaken a specialised task in a thoroughly proficient manner for many years. Their skills are acknowledged internationally.
But in common with other countries in the post-Cold War era, New Zealand is reassessing its needs. Our mix of military capabilities was largely established in the mid-20th century. Today's security environment differs in fundamental ways.
Moreover, with the rapidly increasing sophistication and cost of military equipment, governments have to be selective. Surveillance capabilities are especially costly and become obsolete quickly.
We spend $105 million each year conducting maritime patrols with the Orion aircraft. More than $100 million has been spent in recent times to upgrade the structural and propulsion systems of the aircraft, and the Government was faced with spending nearly $600 million more to upgrade the electronic systems to improve military surveillance of the ocean surface and waters below.
The officials conducting the review, therefore, focused on the justification for each surveillance element required for patrolling New Zealand's waters.
In accordance with last year's defence policy framework, their main focus was our exclusive economic zone and contiguous waters. But they also took account of responsibilities further afield in the Southern Ocean and in the South Pacific.
In respect of submarines, the evidence did not show any need for New Zealand to maintain an anti-submarine capability. The mid-latitude South Pacific is not a region of high priority for submarines. Even if undeclared or hostile submarines did visit this region, that would be rare and New Zealand has no confirmed sightings or records of such activity.
There has been some confused comment on this matter. It was argued that the successful detection of a submarine in the military exercise in the Tasman Sea last week somehow supported the case for New Zealand having anti-submarine capabilities. But this is a circular argument applied to a quite artificial situation.
Successful detection of an allied submarine within a small area under exercise conditions does not demonstrate a national requirement to have a capability against hostile submarines.
We have also seen the photograph of a Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine taken by an Orion in 1982, the so-called one well-documented discovery of a Soviet submarine. That submarine was not discovered as a result of the Orions' anti-submarine capabilities. It was being towed on the surface as part of a widely publicised, small group of research vessels engaged in a declared scientific research programme.
One of the most important roles of submarines is to deter naval threats. A number of countries in Asia are equipping themselves with modest new capabilities optimised for their own coastal requirements. Their design, capabilities and use have in most cases been oriented to the protection of the immediate maritime environments of the countries concerned.
Deployment to the South Pacific, in particular, would represent a diversion of assets for a considerable time. Routine operations thousands of kilometres from home bases, while not impossible, would impose severe strains on resources in most cases.
This would be true also, to a lesser degree, for those countries with considerable submarine fleets because a large proportion of such assets are usually permanently committed to covering specific high-value targets or have special-purpose weapon systems aboard (for example, ballistic missiles).
It is difficult to see any strategic justification for having foreign submarines patrol the waters of the south-west Pacific, especially in peacetime. The region is a considerable distance from centres of major power rivalry, and there are no particular regional issues that make it strategically important. It is neither a focal point for maritime traffic nor on any transit routes of significance, and its land areas offer no particular advantages for the conduct of strategic operations.
On this basis, 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.
In neither of the arguments they heard in the course of their review, nor in past experience, is there compelling evidence that such a capability is essential for national security.