The decision to send six NZDF personnel to join the US-led anti-Houthi maritime picket line has a number of interesting facets to it. I made a few posts about the decision on a social media platform but will elaborate a bit more here.
It was obvious that a conservative pro-American government coalition would not only sign a US-drafted declaration defending freedom of navigation and denouncing Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, but would offer some symbolic material support (even if token) to the maritime picket line that the US and its main allies (all 5 Eyes partners) were putting together under the already extant joint task force CTF-153 headquartered at the US 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain. The task force is led by a US admiral and operates under US Rules of Engagement (ROE). Prime Minister Luxon is an admitted “Americaphile” due to his time spent in the US as a corporate executive. Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Winston Peters was involved in negotiating the Wellington and Washington Agreements establishing US-NZ bilateral security ties and has long voiced his support for US leadership in global affairs. The third coalition party leader, David Seymour, takes his policy prescriptions (and money) from US rightwing think-tanks and conservative lobbies.
Defense Minister Judith Collins (among many other portfolios, including intelligence and security) was the odd person out at the press conference announcing the deployment (Seymour did not attend) because she has previously attempted to use her status as an MP and minister to advance her husband’s business interests in China, and remains as one of the more Sinophilic (yes, said on purpose) members of the new government. Moreover, as Minister of Intelligence and Security and Attorney General, she is now the Keeper of the Secrets of Defense, Intelligence and the Courts, which is only of concern if you worry about a corrupt politician who also is now back scheming with the bankrupt (in every sense of the word) rightwing attack blogger whose miserable antics were outlined in that chronicle of political depravity, Dirty Politics. In any event, with the Collins anomaly excepted, it should be no surprise that the government made a move in support of its security patrons.
The government argues that its contribution is done to protect freedom of navigation, making specious arguments about the impact of the Houthi attacks leading to a rise in commodity prices on NZ consumers (NZ being a trade-dependent country etc.). It rejects the notion that its actions are in any way connected to the Hamas-Israel War even though the Houthis are invoking Article 2 of the 1949 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide to justify their attempts to stop war materials from reaching Israel. It chides those who differ with their justification by saying that it is wrong to “conflate” the Hamas-Israel War with the Houthi attacks even though the Houthis have explicitly done so.
As many scholars have noted, NZ joining the coalition of the pro-Israeli military bloc runs counter to NZ support for UN demands for a ceasefire and its supposed neutrality on the larger context behind the current conflict. Whatever the pretense, the hard truth is that with the NZDF deployment NZ has openly joined the Western coalition backing Israel in its war on Palestinians, eschewing bold support for enduring humanitarian principle in favor of short-term diplomatic realpolitik. Moreover, NZ has now been suckered into, via the US request for a contribution to the anti-Houthi effort, an expanding regional conflict that involves Iran and its proxies, on one side, and Israel and its (mostly Western) supporters on the other. With Russia and PRC (among others) supporting Iran and its proxies, the conflict has the potential to become drawn out as well as involve a larger number of actors.
Mission creep for the NZDF is therefore a distinct possibility, and the claim of NZ foreign policy independence rings hypocritically hollow since it is now clear that when the US asks NZ to take a pro-US/Israel stand on a controversial international issue, NZ bows and obeys.
So what does NZ’s flag-planting entail?
Not much at first glance. Its two frigates are in maintenance or on sea trials. It would do no good to send non-combat ships even if they were available (they would just become targets), and its in-and offshore patrol vessels are not suited to the task even if they could find crews to man them and get them to the theatre of operations. The Air Force could have sent one of its new P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which would be suited to some picket line duties such as electronic surveillance, but chose to not do so. What was left was finding a way to send ground-based assets to the theatre, and that is what the government and NZDF brass opted to do.
They have ordered the deployment of a six person “highly specialised” team to serve as “targeters” for allied forces using “precision weapons” against Houthi targets. From that description the soldiers could be a military communications/signals intelligence team or could come from the NZSAS, who specialise in long range patrol and reconnaissance and who routinely serve close to or behind enemy lines as forward target spotters (including Mosul during the fight against ISIS, if reports are correct). The NZSAS is believed to already have assets in the Middle East, perhaps stationed in Djibouti or Bahrain, likely in partnership with or as a secondment to the intelligence fusion “cells” or joint SPECOPS units that are located at US bases in those countries. Defense Minister Collins said that they would operate from “HQ and other places,” which suggests that be they military communications/signals intelligence specialists or NZSAS, they may be stationed on allied ships as well as land facilities. Because of their focus on mobility and stealth, if the team is indeed an NZSAS team, then it is doubtful that they will be spending much time behind desks or shining their medals at HQ.
Even so, a six person “targeting” team is a very thin deployment even for military intelligence or the NZSAS, which tend to deploy in platoon sized units. Unless the announced six-person team has larger backup in theatre behind it, there are no redundancies in the deployment, say, if a trooper breaks an ankle while playing paddleboard at the HQ. As things stand, the NZDF as a whole has severe retention problems that include the NZSAS, especially among non-commissioned officers, aka corporals ad sergeants (NCOs) that are the backbone of the regiment. Similar problems afflict other specialist units. In other words, the thinness of the deployment may be symptomatic of much larger problems within the NZDF.
The government says that there will been NZDF boots on the ground in Yemen. Not only do I take the government and NZDF word on this with a big grain of salt, but I will note that Yemen is contested space, the Houthis do not control all of it, and Saudi Arabia shares a border with it. Since the Saudis have conducted a murderous military campaign against the Houthis in the ongoing civil war between the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen government and Houthi movement “rebels,” it is not far-fetched to think that it or the Republic of Yemen might welcome some anti-Houthi Western specialist forces on their soil.
(As an aside, PM Luxon has a certain form when it comes to the Red Sea conflict. He was the CEO of Air New Zealand during the Key government when an Air New Zealand subsidiary engineering firm sold maritime turbines to the Saudi Navy. Around that same time MFAT approved sale of military support equipment like range finders and fire control systems to the UAE knowing that they could be used against the Houthis (since the UAE is part of the Saudi led coalition against the Houthis), in contravention of voluntary international sanctions imposed because the Saudi coalition was committing war crimes against the Houthi population in the (still ongoing) civil war in Yemen. MFAT signed off on both deals, reflecting the Key government’s approach to such things. When confronted after the turbine sale was completed, Luxon said that he was not involved and had no responsibility for the decision, saying that it was made below his pay grade. That is a bit rich for a guy who pontificates about how he used to run an airline, but more importantly is symptomatic of how National selectively approaches relations with powerful authoritarian human rights-abusing regimes).
The government also insist that the team will not be involved in combat roles. This is an obfuscation as well as a distinction without a difference. The reason is that “targeters” are part of what is known as the “kill chain.” The “kill chain” starts with intelligence-gathering, moves through target identification and selection, then weapons and delivery platform designation, and ends with a trigger pull or launch command. The NZDF just joined the anti-Houthi kill chain. How is that so?
The NZDF “targeting” team will analyse intelligence feeds from technical (TECHNT), signals (SIGINT) and human (HUMINT) sources, including satellite and drone imagery in real time. They will evaluate the legitimacy of the intelligence by confirming the targets using a variety of means, of which getting proximate eyes on potential targets using their core skills is one possibility. In some cases targeting teams get close enough to electronically “paint” designated targets prior to air strikes (think along the lines of extremely sophisticated laser pointers). Once the target identity is confirmed and deemed actionable under the ROE, the team will pass its confirmation of the target to commanders who operate weapons platforms and who designate what sort of weapons should be used given the nature of the target (say, a sea-launched cruise missile from a destroyer or submarine or an air-launched Hellfire missile from land or carrier-based aircraft).
So what are its targeting constraints? That is unknown and the government and NZDF have not said anything about them. What is known is that the NZDF team will be operating under US command within the structure of CTC-153 operating under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian, which means they will not have autonomous say in what ultimately its designated as an “actionable” target. But the problems with the deployment go beyond the flexibility of US ROEs. It has to do with the kill chain itself.
That is why speaking of “precision” munitions is an easy way to whitewash their effects. They are precise only if the intelligence and targeting guiding them is accurate in real-time and the ROE is strictly defined. A precision guided weapon aimed at the wrong target or without regard for collateral damage is just another dumb bomb with guidance sensors and a camera. Plus, warhead throw weights matter. It is hard to be surgical with a 500lb. or1000 lb. warhead if the intelligence and target designations are not precise (they can be but not always are given the command pressures to deliver results in terms of enemies and equipment destroyed), which is why the intelligence/targeting part of the kill chain must be systems redundant before a trigger is pulled.
Again, none of this has been made public. No parliamentary consultation was undertaken before the decision to deploy the team was made. The irony is that the deployment, especially if my assumption is correct in that it involves the NZSAS, could have been done discretely and without fanfare. NZSAS deployments are done in secret all of the time and the public and politicians are none the wiser. Yet here the government chose to go public and grandstand with its announcement, which even if designed to offer public affirmation that NZ is part of the “club” John Key once talked about with regard to the NZDF presence in Iraq, also exposes the targeting team to increased physical risk and NZ to increased reputational harm given that most of the international community do not share the view that Houthi’s actions are unrelated to the Hamas-Israel war or that Israel is the good actor in it. But Israel is a close intelligence partner of the 5 Eyes network, so perhaps NZ’s choice of expediency over principle has something to do with that (rather than freedom of navigation per se).
Whatever the rationale behind the government’s decision, it seems that it is sticking a toe into a fire that may grow hotter rather than cooler. Then the question becomes one of whether the government has contingency plans ready to prevent NZ from being drawn further in and burned in the service of, to quote another Nicky Hager book title, Other People’s Wars.