Should NZDF Opt For A Drone Based Future?


A drone based future?

The global military drone market is growing rapidly and as New Zealand looks to the future of its defense force we must ask ourselves if we see drone technology there. Public perception of UAVs is often negative and associated with issues like the war on terror and armed drone strikes. However, drones also have many meaningful uses, including search and rescue, maritime surveillance, humanitarian assistance and communications support.

Could it be that New Zealand, a small country with an even smaller defence force, could benefit from using drone technology in its military? The government seems to think so, with the NZDF recently releasing their plans to acquire UAVs sometime soon after 2030. The plan is in place, so the question remains, should we use them?

Should the NZDF acquire UAVs?

The answer to this question lies in New Zealand’s position on the planet. Although we are a small South Pacific nation, New Zealand has the world’s ninth largest Exclusive Economic Zone which makes up over 4,083,744 sq km of ocean. We also have strong commitments to our South Pacific neighbors and it is not uncommon for NZDF units to be patrolling or deployed to help in various roles around the Pacific region. To put it simply we have an area of ocean to patrol that is larger than Europe

Currently the NZDF’s surveillance and patrol capability over this area is mainly fulfilled by the P-3K2 Orion aircraft. As the NZDF’s P-3s are coming to the end of their lifespan the government has announced they will be replaced by four of their successor, the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance plane. While this decision was a good one, a cheaper option would have been to fast track the plans to buy drones. The four P-8As come with a whopping $1.46 billion NZD price tag, plus an additional estimated $1.6 billion in training and infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the planes. While the price tag for training RNZAF drone pilots isn’t currently available, the cost of an MQ-9 Reaper drone sits at approximately $24 million for one unit. An RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone sits at $200 million, significantly more expensive than the MQ-9 but still a far cheaper alternative to the P-8s. 

An RQ-4 Global Hawk drone is one of the most advanced surveillance and monitoring platforms on the market. The drone can stay in the air for up to 32 straight hours and has a range of 22,000km. These characteristics make the Global Hawk an ideal candidate for maritime surveillance of New Zealand’s waters. Even a Reaper drone can stay aloft for 14 hours straight. 

Running costs for drones can be more expensive. The hourly cost of running a Reaper drone sits in at $7,455 an hour and the Global Hawk comes in at a whopping $28,496 cost per hour. Our existing P3 Orions come in at $12,064 an hour to run. The planned P8 replacements are a lot cheaper, though, costing only $6,400 an hour. So while our existing surveillance planes are more expensive than Reaper drones, our planned replacements are cheaper. While the NZDF have gone for the cheapest option, have they got the bang for their buck?

While a P8 Poseidon plane may be cheaper to run than a Reaper drone, the drone can perform its surveillance role in a way the crew of a P8 would struggle to (namely, it has the ability to stay in the air for 14 hours straight). While the record flight time in a P3 is a whopping 17 hours (and by a New Zealand crew I might add), the average flight time of a P3 is between nine and ten hours. After this length of time pilots and crew need rest, so it is not uncommon to have extra crew aboard a P3 to swap shifts.

One of the most widely seen benefits of drones is that they remove the pilot and crew from the battlefield, therefore reducing the risk to people’s lives. While this is a great thing for sure, New Zealand very rarely places its defence force members in harm’s way anyway, so changing to drones would affect this very little. 

Should we be worried?

A big question we should ask ourselves as New Zealanders is whether or not we want to be using military drones in the first place. Overseas, drones have been used in the war on terror and other similar conflicts, causing countless lives to be lost and the widespread destruction of communities. There is a large degree of public hesitation if not disagreement with the idea of the NZDF acquiring drones. Should we be worried?

In my personal opinion, no. New Zealand has always been a nation that has championed the rules of international law. We are a small country that benefits from a rules-based international system. As a country we do not send our soldiers to foreign wars, except in UN mandated peacekeeping roles. Our defence force focuses almost entirely on border security, humanitarian aid and disaster relief. We simply do not have the aggressive foreign policy that would mean our drones (if we bought some) would be used in conflicts like they have by others in the past. 

New Zealand’s reasons for buying drones would be purely for assistance of roles the NZDF  already undertakes. It’s unlikely that the New Zealand government of the day would start to implement a drastically different foreign policy based solely on getting UAVs. As long as people continue to participate in democracy and hold our government accountable for its decisions, we have little to worry about as far as the NZDF using drones is concerned. 

That’s a good thing for us, because the NZDF, New Zealand Police and the Fire Service are already using them.

NZ’s Drones Fleet. 

Although we’ve already gone over that the NZDF has plans to buy large UAVs sometime after 2030, we actually already have small drones performing roles for the military. 

The NZDF currently uses small drones to patrol the Kaipara Air Weapons range and keep out the public. The drones are equipped with infrared camera technology designed to identify vehicles and people on the range. Even though this is a small-scale use of drone technology, the NZDF will be using this experience to develop protocols and procedures that will help them effectively use the large UAVs when they get them. 

New Zealand Police are also already using drone technology in everyday operations: Northland Police used a drone in frontline operations for the first time in November of last year, to track a person in a car chase where they had abandoned the car and run into rural farmland. 

As we slowly see NZ’s emergency services and defence forces become accustomed to using drones in everyday roles, it is likely more and more investment in them will occur.  

Even the NZDF’s decision to invest in the P8 Poseidon is accommodating of a drone based future: the NZDF notes that the P8 is kitted out with the ability to control multiple UAVs at once.

The NZDF is quoted as saying: “this complementary capability will consider smaller manned aircraft, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or satellites, for additional maritime surveillance tasks within New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the wider region,” according to the statement; “This will free up the P-8s to fly more missions, in the South Pacific and further afield.”

At the end of the day it seems New Zealand is well on its way to incorporating drone technology into its defence forces. The question that remains, is should it be? That’s something that can only be answered by the New Zealand public. 

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