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Space and Multi-Domain Operations: Considerations for the New Zealand Army

By Dr Colin D. Robinson

The nature of warfare, always changing, has in the past 30 years expanded significantly into two closely linked dimensions. Geographically, humans are utilizing space more and more, near and far Earth orbit, and making plans beyond; and through telecommunications, radio links, into what we are now calling cyberspace, platforms for the exchange of information so rich as to now constitute another theatre of warfare. Humans have taken warfare wherever they have gone. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is every indication that, one day, warfare will take place beyond Earth’s atmosphere. These two are closely linked because satellite communications carry so much of those cyberspace messages and signals all around the world all the time.

To examine where space, cyber, and associated activities might take the New Zealand Army, I will first sketch the strategic environment and the highest-end threats that are hurrying change upon our most closely allied armies, the Five Eyes. Because this highest-end threat is developing across an enormous maritime (air and sea) space, this piece starts by surveying those mostly naval and air developments, New Zealand’s foreign affairs posture in response, before examining what closely allied armies, the United States and the Australians, are doing, and how New Zealand might appropriately respond. The inherently multi-service, multi-domain nature of the developing situation emphasizes how right Lieutenant General Rhys Jones was to take measures to further drive joint integration among the “three services, one force” that make up the NZDF.

For three decades, or even more, the New Zealand defence community has had the luxury of only really having to realistically consider combat well beyond New Zealand’s physical islands, or even further, beyond the EEZ. Only the occasional forays of Soviet submarines brought the Cold War into our near neighbourhood, up until the early 1990s. For thirty years, since Operation RADIAN sent a company group to Bosnia-Herzegovina, those considering combat operations in New Zealand could focus almost exclusively on activities well beyond our shores.

New Zealand could focus on far-flung expeditionary operations because of the historical Anglo-American superiority over the world’s sea lanes. From 1815 the British and later U.S. Navies established maritime superiority and with some important exceptions, generally kept the world’s oceanic trade routes open for commercial shipping. To a significant degree, for over fifty years, the oil route from the Middle East to Japan through the South China Sea, and the continued existence of Taiwan, both rested on this naval potency. But this superiority has declined. The People’s Republic of China has never accepted the independent existence of Taiwan, and since 2009 has begun to strongly assert its “nine-dash-line” claim of sovereignty covering most of the South China Sea. This is partially to build internal political support for the current CCP leadership. This area covers much of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZs) of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. China has seized existing islands in the South China Sea, reclaimed others, and now there are reports of missile-equipped bombers being deployed to fly from the disputed territories. Official and semi-official Chinese harassment of Philippine, Malaysian, and Vietnamese continues; two Vietnamese fishing boats have been sunk in the last four months, while a Malaysian exploration ship was pressured by Chinese Coast Guard & Maritime Militia vessels in May 2020.[1]

Making this possible are quickly expanding Chinese naval and maritime air forces. A reconditioned ex-Soviet aircraft carrier, with two more entering service, is beginning the long slow process of building an effective afloat air capability. In the last 15 years, the PLAN has expanded from 25 cruisers and destroyers to 42, and 43 frigates and corvettes to 102.[2] The proportion of modern vessels in these figures has grown very significantly; eighteen of the 20 surface combatants roughly equivalent to US Aegis-type long-range, integrated air defence ships have been commissioned in the last seven years. There are 19 more Aegis-type air defence destroyers in the process of fitting out and sea trials.

The geographical configuration of the China Seas, from Korea to south of Singapore, makes it harder for Western naval forces to exert sea control. China has a large number of potential land bases for small craft, and, in places, to mount missiles. US carrier strike groups are inherently best off in the open ocean, where spaced layers of defences have the best chance of stopping missiles. The US Navy generally consists of smaller numbers of larger oceangoing warships. The “textbook” Cold War method of dominating confined waters emphasized larger numbers of fast attack craft, mines, and smaller submarines. Land-based anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, missile-firing strike aircraft, helicopters, and the much-hyped anti-ship ballistic missiles also form part of the picture. “The advantages conferred by proximity [provide] major advantages” to China.[3] This multi-headed mix of capabilities has increasing been labelled “Anti-Access/Area Denial” (A2/AD), reflecting its power to potentially bar U.S. and allied forces from large areas of maritime East Asia. China’s usage of its Coast Guard and mobilized-fishing-fleet Maritime Militia provide it with additional options for exerting influence and calibrating confrontation without the involvement of its regular armed forces. “Beijing appears confident that [Maritime Militia] harassment of ..U.S. naval ships is below the threshold of a forceful and escalatory response.”

The result of these changes is that a prospective next-Commander of U.S. Pacific Commander told Congress as far back as April 2018 that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” In January 2020, a Naval War College professor was quoted saying that “the US has lost advantage throughout the spectrum of operations, from low-level interaction against China’s maritime militia to higher-end conflict scenarios.”[4] In addition to impinging on the long tradition of naval dominance by those close in culture to New Zealand, these and other Chinese actions risk the rules-based international order. As the Second World War ended, the United States and the United Kingdom had leading roles in creating the Bretton Woods financial institutions, and a growing number of international treaties and conventions which generally reflected Western values. What is less often emphasized is that the People’s Republic of China comes from a completely different, culturally different, tradition, and was excluded from the United Nations until 1971. It does not share many of the assumptions and values which underline our cultural views. China is advancing different worldviews, and is often uninterested in keeping to the “established” rules; rather it wishes to redefine the rules in its favour.

There are a mass of examples of increasing Chinese pressure against the existing rules-based order, especially with the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most in the headlines for New Zealand has been Hong Kong. Recently decisions have been taken to effectively end the 50-year  independent governance of Hong Kong, which was enshrined in the British-Chinese handover agreements of the 1990s. Former Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, Gerald Hensley outlined the “stark choice” New Zealand faces between its principles and its national interests in reacting to China’s increasing repression in Hong Kong, for example. China has also often tried to shape the discussion over COVID-19 in ways that look biased and totalitarian to New Zealand eyes. China is also increasing its efforts to impose its will on United Nations agencies; and making moves on other disputed territories.

Neither New Zealand nor Australia are in an easy position as this culturally alien power rises in the face of our long ties with our historical, closely culturally-linked allies. There has been a constant series of warnings about the risk of subversion to New Zealand, which completely fits the historical operating patterns of the Chinese Communist Party; Five Eyes intelligence partners have described their worries that New Zealand has a “supine” attitude to China, and, two years ago, that China had “gotten very close to or inside the political core” of New Zealand. A Member of Parliament who was involved in training Chinese intelligence personnel, Jian Yang, only retired at the October 2019 general election. Foreign Minister Winston Peters has continuing pushing back on the Chinese line on COVID-19. China was dismayed that New Zealand was going into its Level 4 lockdown, for example; the lengths the Chinese go to forward their political line, lessening their association with the virus, appear far-fetched to Kiwi eyes.

Given all these moves by China and its increasing military strength, our closest allied defence forces are responding. There is little realisation within the wider New Zealand public of our now restored military links with the United States – effectively being completely back in ANZUS. Yet whether or not the public fully comprehend, the rising challenge to New Zealanders’ fundamental beliefs demands a growing response. Reflecting the maritime nature of the threat, many of these moves are about joint air and naval forces. This author wrote in mid-2018 that a “maritime shift” for the New Zealand Defence Force was likely to be necessary,[5] and the thrust of the 2019 Defence Capability Plan bears this out. But where does this leave the Army, and how does the Army respond to the diversifying nature of warfare?

Space and Cyber

The Army must increasingly change to minimize the vulnerabilities and maximize the capabilities that both space and cyber can provide. While New Zealand is the smallest of the Five Eyes, we do have some existing national security space history. As far back as the 1980s, the idea of satellite remote sensing surveillance of the New Zealand EEZ, to monitor fisheries activities, was being thought about within the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research. Much more recently, Rocket Lab has been formed, grown from strength to strength, and is now gaining contracts to launch mini-satellites for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

Military activities in space started out almost exclusively as supporting communications, through radio links. But things moved on. It has been said that 1991’s “Desert Storm was the first space war,” which “saw space technology affect multiple areas of airland operations — position/navigation, weather, communications, imagery and tactical early missile attack warning.” Nearly thirty years later, the U.S. Department of Defense is considering activities as far as lunar orbit. The new U.S. Space Force is a premature, almost wasteful, organisational realignment, but reflective of a growing trend.

The United States Army is more and more having to consider a large air-land-sea space of operations in East Asia, in support of and manoeuvring with the Air Force and Navy. The chosen concept is “Multi-Domain Operations,” reflecting that “competition and conflict occur in multiple domains (land, air, sea, cyber, and space)” and that forces will be actively conducting operations in multiple domains at the same time.[6] Clearly, the more future forces are tied together, the better results will be achieved, and communications and targeting systems will have to be much more integrated. To do this, the U.S. Army formed its first Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare, & Space (I2CEWS, pronounced “eye two Qs”) Detachment in January 2019. The new battalion-sized unit includes cyber and electronic warfare, space & signals, information operations, intelligence analysis, and artillery targeting personnel all in the same unit. The other half of the new U.S. Army approach is an array of long range missiles, plus a howitzer upgrade, to provide fire support, and support the other services in destroying enemy missiles and other targets. Two Multi-Domain Task Forces (MDTFs) were established by melding the new I2CEWS Detachment with HIMARS multiple rocket launcher brigades. Even by April last year, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, General Robert Brown, said that the new MDTF had successfully penetrated the simulated enemy A2/AD bubble in “at least 10 exercises and wargames,” impacting an adversary’s long range systems and having much greater success.

Thus the U.S. Army and its sister services are beginning to change to be able to break through the Chinese (and Russian) A2/AD threat bubbles. The Australians are also preparing. The commander of the Australian Deployable Joint Force Headquarters – Land (DJFHQ-L), Maj Gen Jake Ellwood, believes that the Australian Army will eventually create a unit similar to the MDTF. There is already an information warfare unit within DJFHQ-L, and the planned Australian Project Land 8113, Long Range Fires, offers the prospect of creating some kind of Australian A2/AD bubble.

Because New Zealand is geographically more isolated and feels less threatened, our political approach has been different. The NZDF remains a low political priority, as opposed to the electorate’s continuing emphasis on health, education, and other issues. While the U.S. and Australian Armies plan new missiles, we do not. Instead, since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady trend of reduction of the NZDF’s firepower: in 1998 a decision was made against the purchase of a third frigate; in 2001 the Skyhawks of the Air Combat Force were retired; and the Army’s 105mm Light Guns have lingered on and on with less and less prospect of replacement. Instead, the emphasis was placed on lighter naval forces, including the sealift ship Canterbury, and 105 Light Armoured Vehicles were ordered for the Army. Neither the Labour nor the National Parties have been interested in maintaining significant firepower in the face of the associated costs.

Thoughts for the Future

Yet while the missile component of the MDO concept may yet be beyond the New Zealand Army’s reach, the cyber, space, communications, and integration component is vital. Australia and the United States are among our closest partners. So how should the New Zealand Army adapt?

Firstly, the threat level is rising, and space systems are now being considered for operations directly around our islands. The direct defence of New Zealand has never really needed to be a consideration since the 1940s, but that luxury has always been dependent on our close allies’ maritime superiority. The 2019 Defence Capability Plan envisages both a satellite surveillance system to watch the EEZ, as well as renewed consideration of a coastal patrol capability, this time through uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs). This has little direct impact for the Army, but is part of the wider task of adapting the whole Defence Force towards the same challenge.

Second, and most important for the Army day-to-day, the Five Eyes’ military information and cyber security has sometimes been appallingly lax. Reports abound of major holes in US military information and cyber security. These kind of breeches can be as simple as not locking a server rack access door. The Australians suffered the same kind of easily avoidable problem when a CD containing a confidential draft report was mislaid in an airport lounge in 2006. Hackers can and have made much more dangerous incursions into systems like this. Renewed attention to following of information security rules is mundane, but it is perhaps the most immediate priority for much of the NZDF. The Australians are already arranging non-traditional cadetships and other opportunities to bring in extra information security and cyber knowledge. New Zealand should actively do the same.

This leads to the most immediate deployment challenge: sealing the cyber infiltration gaps for our deployed forces. From personal mobile phones to use of Facebook, there are a multitude of entry points which need to be considered.

Third, the Army should prepare to fight “plugged-in” to larger Australian, U.S., and other Five Eyes’ multi-domain and similar capabilities. Yet for at least ten to fifteen years, New Zealand will have none of the long-range artillery and missiles. That should not prevent numbers of our best personnel being offered to the Australian Army for service with its A2/AD units. If and when the time comes, such experience will ease the path for New Zealand to acquire its own surface-to-surface missiles. The Army should have much more of the Intelligence, Information, Cyber, communications enablers that will be the beating heart of these integrated systems. At our scale, it may be best to consider amalgamation of relevant Army, Air Force, and Navy intelligence/information/cyber/signals units at some point in the future. Since Operation Enduring Freedom and beforehand, obtaining enough access to U.S. classified systems to enable effective operations has often been a challenge to U.S. partners.[7] Dialogue in this area will assume more importance in the future.

Fourth, New Zealand forces have inherent advantages which stem from being small and empathetic. These views have done us proud in counter-insurgency and peacekeeping operations. But our partners are now having to refocus on force-on-fight warfare over potentially vast distances. As operations since 2001 have shown, it is harder for Kiwi soldiers to train and fight as well in large-scale formation warfare. On and off, NZDF personnel have faced challenges working within large coalition command structures. There has been some lack of experience and understanding of the larger-scale processes and technical requirements. Only continual exchange appointments, exercises, and ABCA integration agreements will reduce this.

Finally, New Zealanders’ political views are shaped by their geographic isolation, and have reduced their sense of threat, even compared to our closest neighbours, the Australians. Neither of the two major political parties are ready to actively increase defence spending to respond to these developing risks. So continuing to monitor developments seems to be the final best prescription for at least the next five years. But military threats can transform quickly, as well as evolving slowly. Nevertheless it is hard to imagine New Zealand governments being ready to procure substantial new firepower, as opposed to intelligence, information, and cyber systems, quickly after 2025. The imperative is to be prepared to act without unnecessary delay if the situation changes, and if circumstances so require.



[1] Jamie Siedel, “South China Sea: Chinese Coast Guard rams Vietnamese fishing boat,” New Zealand Herald, 21 June 2020.

[2] Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” RL33153 (Washington DC.: Congressional Research Service, 30 July 2020), 29.

[3] O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” 42, citing a 2015 RAND report.

[4] Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” RL33153 (Washington DC.: Congressional Research Service, 30 July 2020), 32, 33.

[5] Colin Robinson, “A Maritime Shift?,” New Zealand International Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (June 2018).

[6] Andrew Feickert and Brendan W McGarry, “The Army’s Modernization Strategy: Congressional Oversight Considerations” (Congressional Research Service, 7 February 2020).

[7] Steven Paget, “Mind over Matter? Multinational Naval Interoperability during Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Defense & Security Analysis Vol. 36, No. 1 (January 2020): 65–87.