DCP poses big questions over ‘non-traditional’ capabilities

Line of Defence Magazine - Spring 2019

Air Warfare Officer at work on the TACRAIL of a RNZAF Orion during the patrol. Image: supplied.

Eminent New Zealand academics provide their comments in relation to the 2019 Defence Capability Plan, raising ethical and operational questions around the proposed ‘non-traditional’ capability spend.

In the latest instalment from its Notes from the Field series (edited by Dr Nina Harding), Massey University’s Security Politics Development Network features diverse perspectives from a range of commentators in response to the 2019 DCP.

Among the contributors, Professor Rouben Azizian of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Dr Joe Burton of the University of Waikato, and Dr Jeremy Moses of the University of Canterbury, zero in on the DCP’s coverage of ‘non-traditional’ capabilities, including information security, cyber defence, autonomous technologies and space.

Dr Moses expresses interest in references in the DCP to ‘semi-autonomous’, ‘remotely operated’, and ‘space-centred’ technologies, “as the prospective move into these areas in the future will likely be plagued by a range of technological, economic and ethical challenges, as they already are for those states that are currently active in these areas.” 

He notes that the most probable deployment of these technologies is HADR, surveillance, and other noncombat roles, but that deployment in combat situations is a possibility “once concrete decisions on acquiring them come into focus in future.”

“Are we fully prepared for dealing with the ethical ambiguities of semi-autonomous weapons? Is there a possibility that becoming more enmeshed in networked military systems increases the vulnerability of defence personnel and citizens?  The proposed spend in these areas, he writes, will eventually lead us down the path of having to find answers to these questions.

Professor Azizian notes the elevation of the information domain to the level of the three mainstream domains – air, sea and land, and the role of information and communication technology as a critical component of new capabilities. The DCP, he comments, “identifies this non-traditional capability as a key element of the positioning of the NZDF for the future.”

Delivering information capabilities will not only require Defence to work with other Government agencies, but these capabilities are also critical to the NZDF’s interoperability and New Zealand’s defence partnerships.

“Information security has the potential to optimise and rationalise the role of the NZDF and could potentially lead to continued incremental redesign of the traditional roles and structure of the Force.”

Dr Joe Burton comments that the DCP’s sections on cyber and space “reflect an ongoing evolution in the international defence and security sphere towards ‘informationised’ conflict. This is where both adversaries and allies seek pre-eminence in the information domain, including through satellite-based Global Positioning Systems (GPS).”

He suggests that the DCP reflects an NZDF commitment to adopting a range of new technologies with the aim of “protecting, exchanging and exploiting information.”

“The ‘exploiting’ language is particularly provocative and alludes to the use of the information domain for strategic effects, including, potentially, disinformation, information denial and degradation operations. This is part of a more offensive approach on the part of the New Zealand government, mirrored in the 2018 New Zealand Strategic Defence Policy Statement.

These capabilities, he argues, are being developed with too much secrecy around them, which he sees as contributing to “uncertainty in the international environment which drives competition and mistrust between states.”

For Dr Burton, this raises a number of questions: “What sort of cyber tools are being developed? Are New Zealand personnel going to be hacking into adversary computer networks? Will these offensive operations be conducted within or outside of armed conflicts? What work is being done on rules of engagement for cyber and information capabilities? Will offensive cyber operations be conducted by allies to support our own military operations, or will we see a fully independent information and cyber operations force? Will the development of offensive cyber and information warfare capabilities potentially make us more of a target for malicious actors?”