New Zealand’s AUKUS Capabilities

New Zealand’s defence and foreign affairs officials have presented the AUKUS military agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States as a ‘welcome … contribut[ion] to regional security’ in response to what is often described in PR-speak as China’s ‘increasing assertiveness’. Addressing the prospect of the country joining the agreement, the Defence Policy and Strategy Statement 2023 calls Pillar Two a possible ‘opportunity for New Zealand to cooperate with close security partners on emerging technologies’. After credulously citing this advice, Minister of Defence Judith Collins said in an interview last February that the government was ‘actively looking for ways in which New Zealand can participate in AUKUS’ second pillar’.

This apparent campaign for New Zealand to join Pillar Two ignores the implications of officials’ own guidance concerning the agreement’s requirement for military cooperation on emerging technologies. Their March 2023 submission on ‘Updating New Zealand’s Approach’ to AUKUS reminds ministers that the country already has ‘long-standing engagements’ with the three AUKUS countries ‘on military capability and interoperability’ (that is, New Zealand’s ability to participate as part of a larger state’s military operations). These long-standing engagements ‘includ[e] areas which feature in AUKUS—such as cyber’. In fact, they include more than just select areas. New Zealand has already acquired or developed capabilities related to Pillar One and all six of the technological areas included so far in Pillar Two.

Pillar One: Nuclear-powered submarines

Providing intelligence to Australia’s yet-to-be-seen nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) could be a key role for the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s four new Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Purchased for NZ $2.3 billion, the P-8As can support SSNs by dropping active and passive sonobuoys into water to track enemy vessels, according to Air Force News. While active sonobuoys are designed to emit pings that reflect off large objects such as submarines, passive sonobuoys can utilise hydrophones (underwater microphones) to pick up noises from warships, with information from both types being sent by radio to an aircraft or ship.

Information from Australian Poseidons’ passive sonobuoys in the South China Sea is collected in a database of acoustic signatures and used to classify individual vessels and identify their capabilities and activities, explains international and political studies professor Clinton Fernandes. The purpose of this intelligence is ‘to enable US hunter-killer submarines to trail and sink Chinese vessels at the outbreak of hostilities’. Possibly indicating New Zealand’s intention to use the interoperable Poseidons to conduct this type of surveillance, Operations Flight Commander Squadron Leader Deborah Haines told Air Force News that ‘the good thing about the P-8A is that we will be the same as everyone else, so it’s a lot easier to join those task groups globally’.

Soon operating with the P-8A could be the MQ-9B SeaGuardian remotely piloted aircraft system, which manufacturer General Atomics was pitching to New Zealand last year according to an anonymised submission for the 2023 Defence Policy Review. Able to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions thousands of kilometres away from its human crew, a SeaGuardian used by the US Navy participated in a submarine-hunting operation during the unmanned capabilities exercise Integrated Battle Problem 2023, which Australia’s Chief of Navy reportedly described as a ‘practical example of Pillar 2’. During an exercise off the coast of Southern California, the aerial drone deployed its own sonobuoys and monitored data from others dropped by US Navy Seahawk helicopters. A SeaGuardian could perform a similar role alongside New Zealand’s P-8As, for example by monitoring sonobuoys released by a Poseidon needing to return to base to refuel, thus providing a purported Pillar Two capability to the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) without requiring AUKUS membership.

Pillar Two

Undersea capabilities

According to a 2023 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), undersea capabilities comprise ‘systems and technologies that operate underwater but are not manned submarines’, such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). An example of an AUKUS member state’s procurement of UUV capabilities, states the report, is the United Kingdom’s 2022 acquisition of three REMUS 100s (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS). With a depth rating of up to 100 metres, the REMUS 100 can employ side scan sonar to perform mine countermeasure (MCM) operations, which may be intended to counter China’s potential use of sea mines during a conflict involving Taiwan. However, as China may be able to deploy some 2,000 mines per day—and naval analyst Scott C. Truver writes that the ‘detection-to-neutralization process’ of a single mine ‘can take several hours’ for MCM ships—the impact of REMUS units against China’s mining operations would be negligible.

The Royal New Zealand Navy already operates six REMUS 100s and four REMUS 300 UUVs, the latter able to conduct MCMs in depths of up to 305 metres. In 2021, New Zealand completed the ‘first international order’ of REMUS 300s, agreeing to purchase the newly emerged technology about one month after the US Navy. In 2018, New Zealand operated the REMUS 100 in a ‘command role’ with Japan, the Netherlands and the United States as around forty MCM specialists from the littoral warfare unit HMNZS Matataua prepared for an amphibious force landing in San Diego harbour during the world’s largest maritime warfare exercise, the anti-China Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). During RIMPAC 2022, the same unit used the REMUS 100 with Australian and United States personnel aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland, conducting MCM operations off California’s coast, and US forces trained their New Zealand counterparts in ‘deploying and retrieving’ the REMUS 100 from a US Navy Sea Hawk.

Quantum technologies

Quantum technologies currently under development could utilise the quantum mechanics principles of superposition and entanglement to, respectively, achieve significant increases in computer processing speeds and enable instantaneous information exchange. For the Air Force, there is already a ‘huge potential’ to develop quantum technologies to ‘become a cyber-enabled force’, Communications and Information Systems mechanic Johanna Quin told Air Force News. Superposition’s ‘implications for processing capacity are absolutely enormous’, while entanglement’s ‘value for communicators’ to exchange information ‘is self-evident’. A key motivation for New Zealand’s prospective use of quantum technologies is ‘to remain interoperable with our allies’. Exhibiting what China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the ‘typical Cold War mentality’ behind AUKUS, Quin described quantum computing developments as ‘the space race or the nuclear race all over again … There is potentially a massive first-mover advantage’.

Artificial Intelligence and autonomy

As stated in the CRS report, military use of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy includes technologies that can operate with little ‘human oversight’ in ‘varying and unpredictable’ settings, while imitating human qualities such as ‘learning from experience’. Already focused on developing AI and autonomy is the NZDF business unit Defence Science and Technology. As the main provider of military technology advice to the Ministry of Defence and the NZDF, the unit aims to ‘understand and exploit artificial intelligence’, as well as to ‘accelerate Government and NZDF adoption’ and ‘generate knowledge to support acquisition’ of autonomous systems.

To develop AI capabilities, the Air Force has operated Microsoft’s Azure Stack Edge, a ‘deployable server’ that can utilise artificial intelligence software to identify human forms in footage from aerial drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Although publicity for the server in Air Force News has focused on its benefits for search and rescue operations, the technology has obvious combat applications: a Microsoft white paper states that it can ‘process ISR images from UAS platforms’ to support ‘Decisive Action’ in conflict zones. For Azure Stack Edge, cloud service provider Azure Government Secret received provisional accreditation at the US Department of Defense’s (DOD) Impact Level 6—the highest Impact Level—allowing it to store and process information classified up to Secret.

Employing an autonomous weapons capability, the Navy’s two frigates are equipped with the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS). First operated by the US Navy, the CIWS is a ‘rapid-fire, computer controlled, radar-guided mounted gun’ designed to defend warships against incoming threats including ‘missiles, small high-speed boats, and aircraft’, states a 2021 Cabinet paper ironically outlining New Zealand’s policy of advocating for international regulations on autonomous weapons. Officials consider the CIWS to be ‘ethically and legally acceptable’, partly because it is ‘defensive in nature’. However, this distinction surely dissipates when the frigates are used offensively, as they were when they escorted US and UK Navy ships through the Strait of Hormuz in support of the invasion of Iraq.

Advanced cyber

The December 2023 AUKUS Defense Ministers Meeting Joint Statement vaguely describes advanced cyber development as ‘working to strengthen cyber capabilities, including protecting critical communication and operations’ systems’. New Zealand would have shared this objective in 2023 when personnel from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Special Air Service, and NZDF civilians from the Defence Cyber Service Centre, participated in the biannual US-led Exercise Cyber Flag, which the NZDF has been attending since at least 2016. During the event, the NZDF stated that participants were split into teams to ‘test their skills against opposing cyber forces’. A key benefit was developing New Zealand’s interoperability with the United States: the exercise provided ‘an opportunity to develop, assess and validate skills in a multinational environment’.

The same year, all members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance joined ‘the first classified-level cyber exercise of its kind’, Exercise Cyber Sentinels. New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom sent observers to the exercise, which involved ninety Australian and sixty US personnel. Participants battled in simulations of ‘real-world attacks in the cyber domain’, wrote Flight Lieutenant Marina Power. Directed against China, the exercise had the goal of creating ‘a safe and secure Indo-Pacific region’, said the commander of US Fleet Cyber Command/US Tenth Fleet.

Hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities

Hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities denote ‘maneuverable weapons’ that fly at speeds of at least Mach 5—five times the speed of sound—and systems developed to counter them, according to the CRS report. Possibly referring to New Zealand’s future investment in these capabilities under Pillar Two, Collins said that the government expects the ‘technology and space’ aspects of the agreement to ‘create potential openings for collaboration with the New Zealand’s defense industry [sic] and adjacent technology companies’.

Already benefiting from collaboration with the United States’s so-called defence industry is the New Zealand–United States aerospace company Rocket Lab. A recipient of tens of millions of dollars in research and development funding from the New Zealand government since 2017, Rocket Lab recently developed the HASTE (Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron) suborbital test vehicle, which supports the DOD’s hypersonic research missions. Furthermore, Rocket Lab recently won a US $515 million prototype agreement to provide eighteen satellites for the US Space Development Agency’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. Under this program, the United States aims to create a network of hundreds of satellites that will provide tracking systems for hypersonic vehicles.

Electronic warfare

The CRS report explains that electronic warfare (EW) capabilities could include ‘electronic protection, electronic attack, and electronic support’—the latter comprising ‘intelligence collection and analysis’. If so, the key activities of this capability area have changed little since the 1996 publication of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s ground-breaking book Secret Power. Providing electronic support, NZDF EW operators conducted ‘military-oriented’ electronic support measures (ESM) by ‘locating, intercepting, recording, and analysing emissions from radars, communications equipment and electronic weapons systems of other forces’. A major component of this work included analysing the ‘content of intercepted communications’—that is, ‘spying’. Providing an electronic attack capability, EW specialists performed electronic countermeasures to ‘jam or confuse other forces’ ESM and other electronic systems’.

In 1996 there were already ‘six to ten’ EW personnel on each Navy frigate and a 21-person EW Army troop in addition to the Air Force’s EW capabilities, such as maritime surveillance equipment on the Lockheed Orion aircraft (the predecessors of New Zealand’s Poseidons). The Army and Navy cooperated directly with the Government Communications Security Bureau, which was and remains integrated with the US National Security Agency in support of New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes spy network.

More recent developments of the NZDF’s EW capabilities include the P-8A aircraft, the Network Enabled Army project, and the Frigate Systems Upgrade. Each P-8A is equipped with the ALQ-240 ESM system, which can ‘detect and provide precise location data of enemy radars jammers [sic], and other electronic threats to the P-8 and Navy ships’. The NZ $106 million second tranche of the NZ $700 million Network Enabled Army project includes EW equipment to provide ‘electronic support measures, electronic attack and spectrum survey systems’. Finally, the almost NZ $640 million Frigate Systems Upgrade likely enhanced both frigates’ ‘Radio and Radar electronic support measures’ and brought the warships’ ‘Signals Intelligence capability up to date’.

Why join?

If not for an opportunity to cooperate with close security partners on emerging technologies, why are officials pushing for New Zealand to join? A simple answer is provided in their 2023 submission to ministers: that AUKUS will bring about ‘accelerated cooperation’, or in other words, that membership will strengthen New Zealand’s already close military ties with AUKUS’s three member states through intensified participation in a new Cold War. Clarifying how this cooperation would benefit the United States are the anticipated consequences for Australia: the agreement may have locked the country into an alliance with the declining superpower for decades while taxpayers subsidise its massive ‘national security’ budget.

History presents an alternate course of action. In February 1985, after New Zealand refused entry to the possibly nuclear-armed destroyer USS Buchanan, the United States effectively cancelled New Zealand’s membership of ANZUS, the trilateral military alliance that includes Australia. In response, as former Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs Malcolm Templeton explains, papers were submitted to Cabinet the following month suggesting that military ‘cooperation with neighbours and ANZUS partners should be based on a clear definition of New Zealand interests and a policy of self-reliance’ (original emphasis). The practical objective of this proposed shift towards an independent defence policy was ‘to ensure that the South Pacific did not become an area of instability and conflict’. New Zealand still faces no ‘direct military threat’, according to the Ministry of Defence. Officials should revisit this option.

PODCAST: Bombs Bursting In Our Air: AUKUS, Australia and the course set for war?

Clinton Fernandes, Jenny Grounds, Nic Maclellan, Guy Rundle, 26 Oct 2023

An audio recording of the Arena public discussion hosted by the Institute for Postcolonial Studies (IPCS).

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Samuel Hume

Samuel Hume is a New Zealand teacher living in London.

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This trend is a tragedy for New Zealand and humanity as the US and its neocon cabal drags the world into cold war redux. The ultimate aim of these initiatives to create “deterrents” is in plain sight. Look no further than the present Russia/ Ukraine conflict – the manifestation of the long held US strategic intent to engineer a conflict , short of nuclear war, that might weaken isolate and destabilize Russia. A victory on the cheap, not withstanding Ukraine’s devastation. Noted New Zealand has joined its wagon to this debacle to the tune of $100M to date. Ditto the ever intensifying hybrid war being waged by the US on China – not yet kinetically manifest as with Russia but the foundations being steadily laid and accelerating. Its a sickening testament to the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of NZ’s foreign policy and security establishment and the blindness of Ministers Collins and Peters that they are so eager to sign New Zealand up to more obscene misadventures with our “like minded partners “ . Our past sins and follies in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq etc notwithstanding. Regressive, shameful and utterly uninspiring. No Nato. No Aukus. Trevor- Auckland.

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