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Critics say NZ military has wasted millions training for highly unlikely bombing operations

New Zealand's military has spent up to $1.12 million over a decade on live bombs used to train for situations which are unlikely to ever happen, opponents say.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) has been conducting live bombing exercises for more than 20 years at the Kaipara Air Weapons Range at South Head on the Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland.

A typical day of exercises involves dropping practice bombs from a P-3K2 Orion onto a target on the beach, before moving on to live munitions in the form of General Dynamics Mark 82 'Snake Eye' bombs.

Media have been invited along in recent years to watch and film, and the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has created videos of the exercises.

A General Dynamics Mark-82 'Snake Eye' general purpose bomb, with a high-drag (low altitude) tail configuration.
A General Dynamics Mark-82 'Snake Eye' general purpose bomb, with a high-drag (low altitude) tail configuration. Source: Wikimedia Commons/"Cliff" of Arlington, Virginia

The RNZAF says the Orion can be used to fight submarines, and while torpedoes would be the typical armament in those encounters, a Mark 82 could also feasibly be used - so the training is necessary. The exercises also give crews a chance to earn accreditation for working with live munitions.

Minister of Defence Ron Mark said the training is fundamental to maintaining a defence force "that is combat-capable, flexible and ready.

"The munitions that the P-3s currently use are aimed at maintaining a capability to interdict any maritime threat that may be presented against this country," Mr Mark said.

"Some might argue there is no visible threat - the problem is you can't magic up the capability on the day the threat arrives."

However, he also signalled that the number of live munitions used in exercises may fall in coming years with more advanced simulation technology.

New Zealand agreed last year to buy four new Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft to replace the ageing Orions, with delivery due in 2023 at a total cost of about $2.3 billion.

Defence Minister Ron Mark
Defence Minister Ron Mark. Source: 1 NEWS

"I think one of the good things about the P-8 [Posiedon] coming in to service is it will use smarter technology - so the need for exercising with what could probably be called 'dumb' weapons will be minimised," he said.

"I'm confident that there'll be a massive drop off in the number of times that live munitions will actually have to be dropped."

Opponents say the RNZAF has been training for a situation which is unlikely to ever take place, with a considerable cost to the taxpayer.

Figures obtained by 1 NEWS under the Official Information Act show 80 Mark 82 bombs were dropped during exercises over the past 10 years.

Those bombs had a total price of between $560,000 and $1.12 million, NZDF said, which amounts to between $7000 and $14,000 per bomb. The variation in price comes from whether they are carried inside the aircraft's hold, or under the wings.

The RNZAF has also dropped a total of 148 practice bombs during that periodwhich simulate a live bomb but release only a puff of smoke on impact. The practice bombs cost a maximum of $62 per unit.

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    The exercises involve dropping several live Mark 82 general purpose high explosive bombs. Source: New Zealand Defence Force

    Air Commodore Andy Woods said the NZDF is "required to prepare forces to a directed level of capability" and that "the Government determines what the level of capability must be."

    "Readiness training for Maritime Warfare and Security Operations requires that P-3K2 Orion and SH2G(I) Seasprite air and ground crews train with live and practice weapons," Mr Woods said.

    "Some of this training is achieved through simulation ... the balance of training is delivered in exercises."

    The last time the RNZAF dropped a live bomb during a conflict was almost 60 years ago - on August 17, 1959, during the Malayan Emergency.

    Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies lecturer Terry Johanson says it's time for the government to reconsider whether New Zealand still needs the capability to drop these bombs.

    Retired Major Terry Johanson, who now lectures on defence at Massey University.
    Retired Major Terry Johanson, who now lectures on defence at Massey University. Source: 1 NEWS

    Mr Johanson, a retired NZDF Major who was deployed to Afghanistan and East Timor, says New Zealand would never be called upon to bomb targets overseas using an Orion.

    "No longer are you flying over the target to deliver the munition - they're tossed in from kilometres out," Mr Johanson said.

    "The necessity for them to undertake this activity [dropping bombs], operationally, would be so remote."

    Mr Johanson said that in modern overseas conflicts, bombing capability would almost certainly be left to larger, better-equipped allies, as was the case during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    It's unlikely the RNZAF would be required to do this, so I'm not sure why they would be doing the training. - Terry Johanson

    The Orion, Mr Johanson said, is a large, slow "sitting duck" which could easily be attacked by ground forces.

    "When we send RNZAF assets overseas, it's in that support role - they're either there for surveillance or they're there for strategic or tactical airlift," he said.

    Closer to home, Mr Johanson said the chances of actually using a Mark-82 bomb on a submarine in New Zealand waters are incredibly slim.

    New Zealand would never have a chance in a war against any country capable of deploying submarines, he said, and a decision to attack a combat submarine would be unlikely because it could worsen the situation.

    "New Zealand's preference would probably be around diplomacy ... we would appeal to international court and organisations," Mr Johanson said.

    Mr Johanson believes it is much more likely the exercises are simply a chance for RNZAF personnel to gain qualifications.

    Armourers at Ohakea assemble Mark 82 bombs to be dropped at the Kaipara Air Weapons Range.
    Armourers at Ohakea assemble Mark 82 bombs to be dropped at the Kaipara Air Weapons Range. Source: NZDF

    "The reason that you train with live munitions is that accreditation ... but as for the platform delivering it, that makes no sense," Mr Johanson said.

    "I hope there's more complexity to it than just having a yippee."

    Writing in the Air Force News publication in August 2010, Sergeant Nick Rowe described the exercises fondly, colloquially referring to the Orion as a "sleek greyhound of death".

    "Ordinarily, no one likes to see the 'fruits of their labour' going up in smoke, but watching these things detonate below you from the aircraft, or from the observation tower at the range, puts a smile on your face," he wrote.

    A Mark 82 "Snake Eye" bomb explodes at the RNZAF weapons testing site at South Head on the Kaipara Harbour.
    A Mark 82 "Snake Eye" bomb explodes at the RNZAF weapons testing site at South Head on the Kaipara Harbour. Source: NZDF

    Veteran anti-war protester Valerie Morse of Auckland Peace Action described the use of live bombs during the exercises as a "waste of resources".

    "Many New Zealanders would be appalled to know what the bombs the NZDF are buying costs them each day in terms of health care they aren't getting, schools and hospitals that aren't being built, and social services they aren't receiving," Ms Morse said.

    "In terms of combat, the NZDF exists mostly to do special forces missions on behalf of allied wars [and] counter-insurgency work ... we don't agree with either of these, but neither of these require bombing capability.

    "So even if you do agree with those missions, it is a waste of resources to keep buying and keeping up bombing capability."

    Mark 82 general purpose bombs before being assembled by RNZAF armourers.
    Mark 82 general purpose bombs before being assembled by RNZAF armourers. Source: NZDF

    Edwina Hughes of Peace Movement Aotearoa agreed, saying her organisation is concerned programmes like this are being maintained "when there are so many urgent social needs requiring funding".

    Ms Hughes went so far as to say the overall function of the New Zealand Defence Force itself should be re-considered.

    "New Zealand's human security needs would be better served by replacing the NZDF with a civilian coast guard with inshore and offshore capability for fisheries and resource protection," she said.

    Green Party Defence spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said it's time for the RNZAF to stop the exercises.

    New Zealand shouldn't be practising bombing, - Golriz Ghahraman

    "Our defence force should focus on what it does best - environmental monitoring, disaster relief, and supporting the work of Antarctic research.

    Mr Johanson says he believes New Zealand's military elite may feel pressured to try to keep up with countries with much larger budgets.

    "You look at the Five Eyes who are our strongest defence allies - we're ten times smaller than the next smallest nation - why do we just follow the template of everyone else? To play with the big boys?" he said.

    "It just seems irrational."

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      The military says the exercises provide valuable training for armourers and flight crews. Source: New Zealand Defence Force