Friday 28 April 2023

Top Guns.

Imperial Firepower: An RAF Canberra bomber strikes an Egyptian airfield during the Suez Crisis of 1956. In 1958, the Royal New Zealand Air Force adopted the Canberra as its principal strike aircraft. The generation who owed their freedom to the US Navy’s vanquishing of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway understood the importance of forward defence.

THE FARM I GREW UP ON had a paddock called “Canberra”. Not on account of any great regard the farm’s owner, my father, had for Australia’s capital city, but because that was the land he was clearing when a Canberra bomber flew low overhead. Between 1958 and 1970, the English Electric Canberra B.Mk.20 bomber was the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s principal strike aircraft. As I recall my father’s telling of the tale, a single Canberra bomber flew the length of the country to show New Zealanders what their government had purchased for their defence. As a former RNZAF officer, Tony Trotter was sufficiently impressed to name the paddock he was preparing “Canberra” in its honour.

The Canberra bombers of the RNZAF saw active service in the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation of the mid-1960s – a military engagement about which New Zealanders know next-to-nothing. In conformity with the New Zealand Government’s determination to contribute as little as it could get away with to the escalating conflict, its Canberra bombers were not deployed in Vietnam. They were replaced in 1971 by the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.

I well recall the Anzac Day flyovers of the Skyhawks. The shriek of their engines, their astonishing speed, the blunt message of brute power they conveyed to all who saw and heard them. Very much a case of “your defence dollars at work”.

Helen Clark’s decision, in May 2001, to eliminate the RNZAF’s strike arm reflected her conviction that New Zealand existed in “a benign strategic environment” which simply did not merit the immense outlay of taxpayers’ funds required to purchase and maintain modern strike aircraft. The decision to reduce the RNZAF to a marine surveillance, transportation and search-and-rescue operation was also seen as an expression of the Fifth Labour Government’s determination to pursue an “independent foreign policy”.

Barely four months later, with the horrors of 9/11 still fresh in their minds, New Zealanders were asking: “What do we have to stop a highjacked airliner heading straight for the heart of our largest city?” The answer turned out to be prayers, since New Zealand no longer had the wings.

Since then, New Zealand’s strategic environment has declined to a condition well short of the word “benign”. Indeed, this country is now confronted with a geopolitical situation alarmingly similar to the one New Zealand confronted ninety years ago. This time, however, the great power flexing its military muscles is not Japan, but China. Like the Japanese imperialists who inflicted so much agony on the peoples of Asia (especially the Chinese) in the 1930s and 40s, the People’s Republic of China seems equally determined to impose its own version of “The Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” all the way to Africa – and beyond.

The strategic response of the United States in the 2020s is essentially the same as its response in the 1930s. It cannot permit a geopolitical competitor to project sufficient military and economic strength across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to threaten American hegemony in those theatres. Most particularly, the United States cannot contemplate in 2023, any more than it could in 1942, the loss of Australia and New Zealand. Stripped of these strategic anchors in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, the United States ability to project its power would be severely compromised.

Hence the creation of AUKUS, the first step on the journey to JAINZUS – Japan, Australia, India, New Zealand and the United States – which is the most obvious military and economic combination for containing Chinese ambitions. The inclusion of the United Kingdom in the present AUKUS grouping serves sentimental rather than strategic purposes. The UK was too weak to defend its own empire in the 1940s. It’s even weaker now.

That New Zealand will become a member of JAINZUS (or whatever it ends up being called) is inevitable. These islands are too important to be left to their own devices. If we don’t throw in with the Americans and their mates, then we will be forced to throw in with the Chinese. (Not that the Americans will let it get to that point, not while they have the Aussies to keep us in line!)

My father’s generation, having been rescued by the US Navy, understood the importance of forward defence. Which is why whoever is ploughing “Canberra” in 2025 will likely re-name it “F-35A Lightning II”.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 April 2023.


Mark Wahlberg said...

The  two modern helicopters flying low over the house at 6-45am  were the sounds of any  normal day in rural Pahiatua, except this was Anzac Day 2023. 

Long gone were the haunting sounds the  iconic Iroquois helicopters from Ohakea  used to make as they flew low through the mists of Tararua on Anzac days of old. This memory moment had more ANZAC impact on me than the theatrical  shows presented today.

I wonder how  long it will be before ANZAC The Musical hits the stage? 

Archduke Piccolo said...

The dear old 'if you ain't for us you're against us' gag - that dates from at least the Corcyran Civil War of about the middle of the 5th Century BC, and has been a pernicious extortion of people's 'loyalties' ever since. It's a crock.

We have to throw in with the US or else we'll have to throw in with China. I call B-S on that. Recall it was a certain H. Kissinger who observed: "To be an enemy of the United States is dangerous; to be a friend is fatal." The fact is, the US has no friends, and no allies: the US has vassals. Just ask the people of Germany and France (don't bother with the politicians, bought and sold the lot of 'em). Look at Ukraine: just another US colony.

If we don't 'throw in' with the US - in my view a myopic policy, if you can even call it it 'policy' - why on earth would that compel us to 'throw in' with China? I can think of one reason, and that reason takes us right back to 5th Century BC Corcyra. Because we would be punished. Terrific advertisement for the 'Exceptional' 'Force for Good' to which the US pretends, don't you reckon? I can think of no other reason whatever.

Why fear China? Is China apt to send its soldiers across the sea in boats or order that they march down Queen Street? I can imagine the Americans doing that if the US mislikes this country's policy. I believe China wants to deal. So deal. If you reckon you'll need a long spoon, take along the long spoon. The United States's track record tells me that this country ought long since to have become practised in handling elongated dining utensils... Recall MAI? Recall TPPA? Has New Zealand ever secured a free trade in primary goods with the US?

New Zealand is just a funny little country in the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean. Let it so remain.
Ion A. Dowman

Guerilla Surgeon said...

By the time of the Vietnam War, Canberra bombers were far too vulnerable to be used. Even the Americans are used heavily modified versions and then mostly at night. Given the New Zealand government's attitude towards the Armed Forces I doubt if hours were anything other than out-of-the-box original condition. Funnily enough one of the few times the US has bought foreign planes, but it was an excellent aircraft for the 1950s and maybe part of the 1960s.
And I'm reasonably sure we won't buy F 35s given their price. And if we do there sophistication will be largely removed. The US doesn't trust too many countries with its most up-to-date stuff.
But to get back on topic, it seems that my hope of playing off China against the US and trying not to get trampled like the grass under a couple of bull elephants is probably gone. And I'm not altogether sad at that, given that the Chinese have seemingly abandoned their policies of not interfering with the internal affairs of other countries.
So we're faced with a choice of American interference or Chinese interference and I think on the whole I prefer American, even though they tend to interfere on behalf of Conservative governments. Oh well, maybe they'll elect Bernie Sanders.😇

DS said...

Wee problem. New Zealand's economy sits atop the milk powder we send to China. As Don Brash (of all people!) has correctly pointed out, New Zealand's job is to try and act as a voice of sanity to calm down the nutters in Beijing and Washington. We are basically looking at a 1914 situation otherwise (China vs the USA is much more analogous to Kaiser Bill vs the British Empire than Adolf), and while Helen Clark was wrong about the environment, New Zealand staying out the way and becoming a sort of 21st century version of post-1945 Finland is much saner than going back into the madness of renewed imperial squabbling.

India, incidentally, looks rather keen on sitting this imperial insanity out. They've got quite good relations with Russia, and have been investing in their navy. They clearly envisage the emergence of a multi-polar world order, not the binary implied by AUKUS and various flavours of a warmed-over SEATO.

Odysseus said...

Helen Clark's reckless decision to destroy our air strike capability, when we had the offer of a very good deal on a squadron of F16s from the US, impacted very badly on our cooperation with Australia and our friends in South East Asia where their initial disbelief was followed by ridicule and mockery of our naivety. New Zealand is no longer regarded as a credible security partner. And now we face the biggest challenge to peace and stability in the region since World War Two. Rebuilding our defense capability will take many years and much investment. If we are ever required to deploy forces to combat we will have to rely on the protection afforded by others, something our soldiers in World war Two had bitter experience of.

Gary Peters said...

"F-35A Lightning II"

Surely you jest.

After the current lot have finished we'll be lucky if it's called "Piper Cherokee with a Molotov Cocktail".

Shane McDowall said...

Having the F-35 Lightning would be great for the RNZAF.

But to be effective the F-35s would need air-tankers and AWACS.

They would need hardened shelters defended with AA guns along with high and low level AA missiles.

Much as I would love to see the RNZAF get a strike arm, I suspect that even in good economic times the cost would be prohibitive.

sumsuch said...

My car salesman great uncle made a killing from people returning cars before the battle of the Coral Seas. Ended up on Paratai Drive. I rather hampered my dad's slimeing campaign by as a 4-year-old saying 'you're fat'.

As an average NZer I've been everywhere. Dad stepped over James K. Baxter dead drunk in a 40s Chch gutter. I'm sure Jimmie did the same for Dad.

Lefties are about drive -- seriousness -- where I find hard to follow. The furiosity of my great grandfather I agree with except for his humorlessness.

Y' can't learnt it now. It's natural or not. None of our leaders have humour.

oneblokesview said...

Having served in the RNZAF from 1965 to to 1975. I actually supported the Clarke decision not to extend Strike Wing.

Strike aircraft have 2 purposes. Aerial combat defence and Ground/Sea attack support.

So what aerial threat were we to defend against with strike aircraft?
Any reasonable Strike aircraft threat would have to be from aircraft carriers as strike aircraft are not known for their range. So an antiship strike would be a better solution being as we are in the middle of nowhere. The pacif is a bloody large Ocean which I have patrolled in a P# Orion. Seeing nothing for hours and hours, except water.

Visiting an F16 factory in Texas, I was advised that an F16 would hardly make it to Los Angeles with one fuel load. So rational thinking suggests it would have been toys for the boys and not a valid defence option.

Ground/Sea attack support.
Prey tell me which ground forces would be attacking a couple of non significant islands deep in the South pacific? That didnt come on a long journey in a ship.

Which brings me to antiship support. F16s and the like are not suitable for such a role in NZ given their limited Range.

Even in the 1970s there were very effective antiship missiles which could be launcehd from the then P3s and now the P8s.

So sorry for all you Strike aircraft supporters.
The Clark Government, I am sure on excellent rational strategic advice, decided against toys for the boys.

Barry. said...

Somehow I feel that much of the world is in a similar state to what it was in the 1920s or 30s. Then it was the exuberance of the 20s and then the horror of the 30s depression. The thought of large scale war was not on almost anyones mind.
Today the world seems full of mental snowflakes, uncetain genders, covid and other factors that occupy most peoples minds. The idea of war is way down the list. Yes I know there is the Ukraine mess but the world view is that 'its all due to nasty Russia and western support will win the contest'. Its a bit like Japan in China in the 30s - 'Who cares its a local disagreement and anyway we have other things to
concentrate on' was the general opinion.
I have no doubt that the Ukraine war will be the the first skirmish that will develop onto a much bigger thing. World war - lm not sure but I think the growing NATO support of Ukraine will be seen as a NATO versus Russia conflict at some stage and it will spread across Europe and beyond. It will draw China in and then things will really be interesting.........

John Hurley said...

Helen Clark’s decision, in May 2001, to eliminate the RNZAF’s strike arm reflected her conviction that New Zealand existed in “a benign strategic environment” which simply did not merit the immense outlay of taxpayers’ funds required to purchase and maintain modern strike aircraft.

Hellen Clark believed the nation state was racist. Her pitch to the UN was: "I come from one of the most diverse countries in the world...."
We aren't always going to get direct quotes from leaders about their motives but she told Ian McKellen that "NZ is actually a deeply racist country and I intend to do everything in my time as PM to change that". Immigration from Asia is part of that and must surely influence our defense posture. In such as situation morality might merely rest on the greatest good. If morality doesn't favour the nation, then it rests on 'inclusiveness'. By implication that means the next acceptable thing to open borders or "NZ is one of what is termed one of the classic migrant receiving nations (as part of a nation building project)".
Note Facebooks edict on white nationalism applies to these countries.
So much for "We have visions of a new age an age where ALL people will have beauty as well as space and convenience, in and about their home". It is now "AUCKLAND is a great city it's a FANTASTIC city. MORE PEOPLE ISN'T A PROBLEM" Julie-Anne Genter. The collective has subsumed the individual.
The elites on the upper decks play loud music (Dr Ardern of Harvard) to drown out the lower decks.

Tom Hunter said...

You may enjoy these two guest posts over at No Minister last year by one "Udea Station" who made the argument for how an air combat capability in NZ might be re-created.

An RNZAF Air Combat Capability Redux - Part 1
An RNZAF Air Combat Capability Redux - Part 2

The general consensus of the commentators was that although this was well argued it was almost certainly not going to happen under either a National or Labour-led government. Similarly with "Udea" previous post on replacing our frigates.

Archduke Piccolo said...

I've been given to understand that the F35 aircraft is so flawed that it could, in time of war, be given the eponymous role in a Turkey Shoot. I reckon this country can do a whole lot better with its money - such as it has - than purchase US war equipment, or, for that matter, to create for the US a Division-sized formation of auxiliaries for US military adventures.


Took a ride in an RNZAF the GE dual Canberra medium fighter bomber out of Ohakea with Flt "Brick" Lucas piloting circa 1967.

He demonstrated an engine failure after take off then flying asymmetric ... on one engine a breeze for Brick. Tried the same for me. My non dead leg shook so much with the forces at work that "he had to help".

He was short strong man (Air Force Rugby Rep Prop) a flying "ACE" and a very skilled pilot.

Years later he was one of the pilots on the ill-fated Air NZ Erebus flight. At the time of the crash he was on the bunk at crew rest.

If he had been on the flight deck at the time, with the aircraft in lousy viz etc ... there is NO WAY IMHO that the tragedy would have occurred.

Go with God ... Brick Lucas Flt Lt 14 Sqn RNZAF

Wayne Mapp said...

The argument for a strike wing is weak. It was, and would still be, the least useful of the combat capabilities of the NZDF. New Zealand is simply too far way for us to be seriously threatened by air strikes. If we are, then the war is probably already lost.

If we have a spare few billion, it would be much better to bolster the P8 fleet (6 instead of 4) and to have three new frigates instead of two. With decent long range missiles, Harpoon. Probably also a couple of heavy lift aircraft. All that would require a permanent boost to the defence budget to around 2% of GDP, maybe slightly less.

To get into the F35 game would require a defence budget of 3% of GDP. And to what end? Would 14 or so F35 really guarantee New Zealand's sovereignty in a global war? Because that is the scenario where they would be relevant for the defence of New Zealand.

Odysseus said...

The principal purpose of an air strike capability for New Zealand would be to resume providing close air support for New Zealand and allied ground forces, as part of a forward defence strategy focussed on Southeast Asia and Australia's northern approaches. But it could also be used to support peacekeeping forces deployed further afield under the UN. I recall visiting the front line between Serbia and Bosnia in the Maglaj finger in 1995 where Serbian tank fire had recently injured several UK soldiers. New Zealand Forward Air Controllers were busy guiding low level sorties over Serbian lines including tank positions by French Mirages and US A10s ("Warthogs"). The Serbs kept a low profile while these aircraft were patrolling, limiting themselves to sporadic sniper fire.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think everything's been said about the strike Wing, by those who don't really know, and those who do. But I'll just add this. If we were to get F35s, it's not just the cost of the planes. There will be spares, there will be maintenance, there will be support services, we may well have to strengthen airfields, and there pretty much won't be a job for them.

I think we originally wanted strike aircraft so that we could operate with air support without relying on allies for it. So "they" said. But we'd probably have to rely on allies for air cover for the strike aircraft as well, because capable as the F 35 is, we wouldn't be getting the most sophisticated electronics with them, and low-level attacks are very vulnerable. I once listened to some guy in the forces explain his thesis at one of those little gatherings they have where everyone has to do that, and he said that low-level planes would find it difficult to survive in today's environment, and I think the difficulties have increased since then.

And I'm pretty sure that the only country in the world that could operate a large enough force over that great distance we are from pretty much everywhere to invade us, would be the US.
So maybe we should get a submarine or two. I remember listening to some guy who'd been in submarines in the U.S. Navy saying that unless the rules of engagement in exercises were heavily weighted in favour of carriers, they always, always got sunk. I think there's probably a certain amount of truth in that. Just don't ask me to serve in them – totally claustrophobic.😇

David George said...

The way drone technology is developing perhaps drone take-off and landing capability could be incorporated in our frigates. El-cheapo strike force but it's amazing what the drones are doing in Ukraine.

Wayne Mapp said...

Odysseus is technically correct. A strike wing is not really for the ultimate defence of New Zealand, but rather for air support for NZ focus deployed overseas. At least that was the original rationale. However, it also doesn't stack up. We never deploy enough ground troops to justify autonomous air support capability. That is always going to be better done by larger airforces.

So I stick to my original point. For New Zealand, an air combat strike force is the combat arm with the least utility. But also just about the highest cost.

Andrew Nichols said...

This is satire isnt it? ...or have you gone down the Western Mainly White Minority World rabbit hole? You are the same Chris Trotter that opposed the Vietnam War aren't you?