Colin James’s piece on F16s for Herald news

Australian authorities are likely to respond to a decision to cancel the F16 fighter contract with “exact correctness”, Centre for Strategic Studies director David Dickens has found.

This will mask deeper reactions which could affect relations between the two countries on other fronts, especially if it is not accompanied by a commitment to replace the Skyhawks eventually – though if instead New Zealand committed to some new equivalent expenditure, such as attack helicopters, Australia would be “sympathetic”.

Former foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee chair Derek Quigley is inquiring into the costs and benefits of cancelling the F16 purchase.

Dr Dickens will publish his findings in briefing papers by his centre next week. They result from extensive interviews before and since the election with more than 30 “influential Australian, United States and south-east Asian sources”, the first such in-depth sounding of opinion in those countries.

They raise (though Dr Dickens carefully does not) by implication the question of whether Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff has accurately read the low-key response of his Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer. Mr Goff told Mr Downer last month cancellation would be “reprioritisation”.

Dr Dickens says the F16s would be “an important force multiplier for the Australian defence force” and “signal New Zealand’s commitment to the defence of Australia and willingness to remain engaged in regional security”.

But if the contract is cancelled without equivalent additional spending on some item not already in the former government’s 10- and 20-year plans, it “will be viewed as a cut in spending”.

Australia’s reaction would be sophisticated and bipartisan, without retaliation. “Official comment is unlikely to deviate far from the stock phrase that New Zealand is responsible for its own affairs,” Dr Dickens says.

“Australia will treat New Zealand with exact correctness,” he says but behind the scenes Australian politicians would be less willing to stand up for New Zealand on controversial welfare, immigration and trade issues and military cooperation might weaken.

The United States reaction would also be likely to be “formal and muted” in public. But it “would be angered by the cancellation of the F16s, regardless of any commitment to new priorities”. Cancellation would “create a credibility gap between policy goals and actual commitment” against which New Zealand’s “proud record of contemporary peacekeeping will count for little”.

In Malaysia and Singapore, which are partners with New Zealand in the five-power defence arrangement (FPDA), cancellation “will signal reluctance to support either the FPDA or the integrated air defence system based in Malaysia”.

Colin James’s piece for News Review on F16s

Leaving East Timor after his “emotional” visit last month Foreign Minister Phil Goff emphatically declared that F16s fighter planes would have been irrelevant in that venture and for strike capability armed helicopters would have been more useful.

This was one more nail in the coffin the new government has been assiduously building for the 28 F16s Max Bradford contracted last year to buy. Derek Quigley, whose select committee report questioning the value of the F16s Labour embraced with enthusiasm last year, is hard at work in the undertakers.

But now the skeleton is being rattled. David Dickens, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies (which Labour in its election manifesto said it might use to “foster greater non-governmental defence and strategic analysis”) will next week publish three briefing papers that raise important issues about the F16 cancellation.

The main issues are:

Australian jet strike capability was needed close to East Timor to deter threatened Indonesian attacks, including by jet fighters.
New Zealand cannot be sure others will always supply air cover on demand.
The F16s would fill large gaps in Australia’s air defence.
Attack helicopters can destroy tanks, vehicles and point targets but that is all they can do.
Reactions of Australia, the United States, Singapore and Malaysia would be “muted” but that would conceal anger if the cancellation was not accompanied by a commitment to a new capability outside the existing 10-year capital plan or 20-year capital estimate.
Labour and the Alliance want an army-based force principally geared to international peacekeeping. They see fighter aircraft as peripheral to this and spending on fighter aircraft as denying funds to modernise the army.

The coalition partners also say that funds are insufficient to meet the previous government’s spending commitments. This claim has been hotly denied by a bevy of former National ministers, Bill English (Treasury), Simon Upton (foreign affairs) and Wayne Mapp (defence).

Dr Dickens weighs in on National MPs’ side: “The defence capital plan provides for both the F16s and $400 million of new army equipment.” The Ministry of Defence’s briefing papers to Defence Minister Mark Burton show that some of that equipment is in or close to the tendering process.

Dr Dickens also joins those who argue that the F16s being bought are “world class” and “would be accepted into any United Nations, coalition or bilateral military arrangement”.

The F16 is “a force multiplier”, he says, both for New Zealand forces (because “sea and ground forces unversed in working with air power are of limited utility”) and for Australia (because it expands joint air strike capacity, lessening the burden of defending its north. Australia has only three squadrons of F18s and one of F111s.

But is the F16 a necessary multiplier or just a toy for the boys, as government ministers imply? They point to the Skyhawks never having been used in combat and the F16s being most unlikely to be so used, irrelevant to peacekeeping and expensive to boot. “Strike aircraft played no role from the New Zealand point of view in this (the East Timor) theatre,” Mr Goff said on 17 January.

Wrong, says Dr Dickens. While the Indonesian cabinet invited the United Nations Interfet force in to East Timor, the cabinet was not in control of the military, which threatened Interfet with high-tech forces, including jet fighters.

This threat “was capable of inflicting serious damage to Interfet’s warships, logistic support ships and unarmed transport aircraft”. But the Indonesians were deterred by a display of sea and air power which included Australian fast jet fighters, with New Zealand Skyhawks, stationed permanently at the naval base of Nowra exercising with the Australian navy, potentially also contributors.

“East Timor reinforced lessons learnt on other peacekeeping operations,” Dr Dickens says, including that ground forces “must be able to call in heavier naval gun fire and close air support at short notice”.

And, he says, attack helicopters, which Mr Goff mentioned as more relevant to army operations, are not enough. They are “unrivalled in their capacity to destroy tanks, vehicles and point targets” but “that is all they can do” and they can only operate in conditions of air superiority, which requires other aircraft.

But why not just rely on the Australians for that part, as in East Timor? For two reasons, one military and one political.

Dr Dickens’ military reason is that allies cannot be relied on automatically to provide the backup. Again, East Timor demonstrates his point, he says: the United States is currently over-stretched by other longstanding commitments; Australia does not have the air strike capacity to defend itself.

“If Australia is directly attacked the United States may provide only limited military support,” Dr Dickens says. “This is a direct consequence of the United States’ massive security commitments that cover much of the northern hemisphere. East Timor starkly illustrated the limits of the United States’ capacity to support a smaller ally not covered by its core security umbrella.”

Allied to this is New Zealand’s current commitment to the defence of Australia, which Dr Dickens as a core to the trans-Tasman closer defence relations agreement (CDR). Ground troops are no use in that role, whereas frigates, F16s and Orions “have the capacity to add 20 per cent to Australia’s capacity to defend itself”. “At the heart of the F16 issue is a decision. Does New Zealand want to help Australia?”

Defence Minister Mark Burton rejects this language of attack. He concentrates instead on cooperative and complementary operations, such as in Timor, with New Zealand specialising in some roles.

Dr Dickens’ political reason for not leaving air strike capability to the Australians is credibility in the eyes of friendly capitals.

“Politically, the F16s signal New Zealand’s commitment to the defence of Australia and its willingness to remain engaged in regional security,” Dr Dickens says. The second factor is important in south-east Asia, where New Zealand is involved in the five-power defence arrangement (FPDA) with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Britain.

In Canberra the issue would play subtly but potentially ominously beneath the surface. Much would depend on whether the F16 cancellation was accompanied by a commitment to new capability outside what is included in the 10-year defence plan approved in 1998 and the 20-year capital estimate in the 1997 white paper. If it did, Australia would be sympathetic.

Buying $650 million worth of attack helicopters (one-third of a unit) would fit those criteria, Dr Dickens said in an interview, explaining the point. Leaving open the possibility of buying strike aircraft when the Skyhawks fade out in 2007 would amount to a cut equivalent to the cost of cancellation and the difference in any deal then with the current contract. In any case, ministers’ talk of reprioritising defence spending suggests moving items on the existing list around, rather than replacing F16s with a new additional commitment.

In the absence of a new commitment, Dr Dickens’ interviews with “influential sources” in Australia (he talked to more than 30 such sources in Australia, the United States and south-east Asia) suggest different responses in public and private.

Australia’s public response would then be one of “exact correctness”, “unlikely to deviate from the stock phrase that New Zealand is responsible for its own affairs” and there “are few indications Australia would retaliate”. But behind this polite façade there would be a cost in politicians’ willingness to stand up for New Zealand’s interests on contentious social, immigration and trade issues and a questioning whether Australia could spend scarce resources exercising with New Zealand forces, which would reduce capacity for peacekeeping missions.

Sources in Australia have told Dr Dickens that Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s affable response to Mr Goff in January was in this vein.

In Washington the response would be formal and muted in public but in private anger, regardless of whether there was any new commitment. New Zealand would be seen as a “state that does not honour its contractual obligations” and there would be “a high degree of caution in dealings with New Zealand across the spectrum of the bilateral relationship”.

One point Dr Dickens does not mention is jobs. If the F16s are cancelled and Labour really means not to buy strike aircraft when the Skyhawks run down in 2007, some, possibly much, of the aircraft servicing industry might become less viable.

The people in these jobs are members of the Engineers Union. That union contributed heavily in funds and organisers to Labour’s effort last year. The F16s have a long shadow.