Peace Foundation Committee’s Reply to the Prime Minister re Rocket Lab

By International Affairs and Disarmament committee, New Zealand Peace Foundation, received 16 June 2021

To the Prime Minister of New Zealand
Parliament House, Wellington

CC.         Minister of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Business, Innovation and Employment
Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control
Minister of Defence
Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control

Re: the government response to our letter to the Prime Minister of March 1, 2021, regarding threats to New Zealand’s security, sovereignty and national interests resulting from space-launch activities

Dear Prime Minister, 

Thank you for your message acknowledging receipt of our letter of March 1, 2021. We also acknowledge responses to our letter received from the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control Hon. Phil Twyford (8 April) and the Minister for Economic and Regional Development, Hon. Stuart Nash (14 April). We are replying to these letters and to other government statements on this issue collectively.

We remain deeply concerned that the New Zealand Government (NZG) allowed Rocket Lab to launch the Gunsmoke-J payload, to enable the US Army Space and Missile Defence Command to improve battlefield weapons targeting. We again call on the NZG to suspend, with immediate effect, the granting of licences for all Rocket Lab payloads for any military clients, pending a full review of the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities (OSHAA) Act 2017 with parliamentary oversight. New Zealand does not need to permit legally and morally questionable military payloads in order for the space industry to be successful.

We look forward to our being consulted on the forthcoming review of the operation and effectiveness of the OSHAA Act, and seek an assurance that such public involvement in this review will occur.

Our concerns, further elaborated below, are these: 

  1. Rocket Lab is drawing New Zealand into the web of US space-based warfighting plans and capabilities which increase international tension and mistrust, and undermines our independent New Zealand foreign policy.
  2. Rocket Lab is making Mahia Peninsula a potential target for US adversaries, and Mahia mana whenua believe Rocket Lab misled them about the intended military nature of some of its activities.
  3. We strongly oppose the idea that it is in New Zealand’s national interest to allow the launch of satellites that aim to improve weapons targeting capabilities, or that this is a “peaceful” use of space.
  4. The level of secrecy around some of Rocket Lab’s activities is contrary to norms of democratic accountability and undermines citizens’ faith in the government
  5. Due to technical and political realities, once a satellite is launched, it is impossible for the NZG to ensure that the US military uses it only for defence, security or intelligence operations that are in New Zealand’s national interest. For example, a subsequent software update could invalidate the NZG claim that it can verify that satellites launched by Rocket Lab comply with the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Act 1987.

Rocket Lab is drawing New Zealand into US military plans and capabilities

We are deeply concerned at, and opposed to, the extent to which Rocket Lab’s activities – in particular, the launch of US military communications, surveillance and targeting satellites, whether they are developmental or operational – is drawing New Zealand deeper into the web of US space-based warfighting plans and capabilities. 

This undermines New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and raises the question of how deeply we, as New Zealanders, want to be embedded into US military activities. A significant number of New Zealanders, especially locals from Mahia Peninsula, are worried about this issue. As RNZ reports, “Billboards have gone up around [Mahia] saying: “No military payloads. Haere Atu (go away) Rocket Lab””.  

In our initial letter, we raised concerns about the 2016 NZ-US Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA). The TSA allows the US Government (USG) to veto any space launch from NZ territory or any import of space-launch technology to NZ, simply by declaring that such activity would not be in US interests. This is a partial but significant abrogation of NZ sovereignty, which has been surrendered to help a private, foreign-owned company that has received funding from the Regional Growth Fund. 

Since September 2013, Rocket Lab has been 100% US-owned. The TSA was signed in 2016 in large part to allow Rocket Lab to import sensitive US rocket technology into New Zealand. In other words, by signing the TSA, the NZG granted effective sovereignty over all NZ space-launch activity for the commercial benefit of a 100% US-owned Company. That company is now making money by helping the US military develop space-based warfighting capabilities, including weapons targeting. This is contrary to the independent NZ foreign policy that the government pursues. 

We are not aware of any NZG response to the concerns we raised in this matter. We again urge the government to consider renegotiating the TSA so as to remove the portion that gives the USG effective sovereignty over New Zealand space-launch activities.

Rocket Lab is making Mahia a potential target for US adversaries

Rocket Lab’s current activities make Mahia a potential target for espionage or attack by US adversaries like China and Russia, for at least two reasons. First, space-launch technologies are in many critical aspects identical to missile technologies. Rocket Lab is using cutting-edge US rocket technology to launch US military satellites into space from Mahia – which is precisely why the TSA was negotiated. To America’s adversaries, there is very little distinction between that, and the US military having a missile launch site on Mahia Peninsula. Second, Rocket Lab is launching satellites that could help the US and other militaries that buy US weapons to improve the targeting of those weapons. And as defence expert Paul Buchanan notes, launching satellites like Gunsmoke-J puts New Zealand closer to the sharp end of the US “kill chain”. 

Excessive secrecy about Rocket Lab’s activities undermines democratic accountability 

On 24 April 2021, The Gisborne Herald reported that it had obtained the pre-launch application for Rocket Lab’s Gunsmoke-J payload, and that five out of seven paragraphs giving specific information about the payload were completely redacted. The photograph published by the Herald (below) suggests this represented roughly 95% of all information about the payload and in fact, only two sentences were not entirely redacted. Of those, one reads: “The US Army has stated that this satellite will not be utilised for operations…” and the rest of the sentence is redacted. This level of secrecy is unacceptable and undermines democratic norms of transparency and accountability. As New Zealand citizens, we are being asked to accept that the Gunsmkoke-J payload, which is intended to improve battlefield targeting, is in the New Zealand national interest. Yet we are allowed to know virtually nothing about it. 

Ministerial oversight alone cannot ensure payloads are in NZ national interest

The replies we received from the Minister for Economic and Regional Development and the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control both point to the requirement that payloads “are consistent with New Zealand law and national interest”, and in particular, with the OSHAA Act and 2019 principles for payload permitting signed off by Cabinet. The latter affirm that activities that are not in the New Zealand national interest, and which the government will therefore not permit, include “payloads with the intended end use of harming, interfering with, or destroying other spacecraft, or space systems on Earth; [or] payloads with the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy.”

On March 9, after he had approved the Gunsmoke-J payload, Minister Nash stated in parliament that he was “unaware of the specific military capabilities” of the payload, and had based his decision to permit the launch on advice from officials in the NZ Space Agency. We believe that oversight of this area, which is critical for New Zealand sovereignty and national interest, deserves and requires much more active ministerial engagement. How can Minister Nash uphold the national interest if he does not know the specific capabilities Rocket Lab is launching into space for a foreign military? 

By allowing the launch of the Gunsmoke-J payload, the government is asserting that supporting the development of US weapons targeting capabilities based in space is in New Zealand’s national interest. We strongly oppose this idea. One of the objectives of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which New Zealand is a party, is to “promote international co-operation in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.” While space-related activities have always included military elements, we reject the idea that helping to develop space-based weapons targeting capabilities is a “peaceful use” of space and can be reconciled with New Zealand’s national interest. 

Second, once a satellite is launched, how can the NZG possibly know which “specific defence, security or intelligence operations” it will be used for? Does the Minister expect the US military will ask the permission of the NZG every time it wants to use Gunsmoke-J satellite, or later iterations of the technology it is being used to advance, to target a weapon on Earth? That would be an unreasonable assumption. But if that is not the case, how can the NZG know whether the operations of a given payload will be used to support operations that are not in New Zealand’s interests? We believe the NZG cannot know this with certainty, and therefore should stop issuing launch permits for all military payloads pending a full review of the OSHAA Act 2017, to include parliamentary oversight.

Software updates make it impossible to know all end-uses of a satellite

In response to the concerns in our letter of March 1, the NZ Space Agency responded that it has technical expertise “in house” to ensure that all launches comply with the 1987 Act, and can draw on expertise from the MoD, NZDF, and NZ intelligence agencies in making determinations of this type. This is hard to appreciate, as it appears to be technically impossible.

First, the ability to distinguish between systems used to support the targeting only of non-nuclear weapons and those which can support the targeting of non-nuclear and nuclear weapons requires expert technical knowledge of nuclear command and control systems. We are surprised that members of the NZ Space Agency, MoD, NZDF, and intelligence agencies believe they possess such expert knowledge. We request clarification about how and where they developed this expertise, consistent with not breaching the 1987 Act. 

Second, the NZG’s assurance that it can verify that satellites launched by Rocket Lab will not breach Section 5 of the 1987 Act – that is, by contributing to the targeting of nuclear weapons in future or to the development of systems designed for that purpose – is deeply problematic in technical terms. Once in orbit, a satellite is very likely to receive regular software updates, like any modern communications equipment. Any such update sent to a satellite launched by Rocket Lab could well immediately invalidate the NZG claim that it can verify the satellite will not breach the 1987 Act. In effect, such software updates could leave the NZG unaware as to the precise end-uses of any satellite.

As discussed above, the only way around this problem is if: 

a) the NZG pre-emptively screens all software updates that the US military intends to deploy to satellites launched by Rocket Lab which have possible targeting applications – such as Gunsmoke-J; and

 b) the NZG can veto any update that it believes might enable breaches of the 1987 Act. Clearly, the USG is not likely to agree to this, especially as the 2016 TSA establishes precisely the opposite legal and political hierarchy: it gives the USG effective sovereignty over NZ space-launch activity.

In this regard, we note the concerns that the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control (PACDAC) expressed in their letter of 26 June 2020 to the Prime Minister, released under the Official Information Act (OIA). PACDAC noted that “it might be appropriate for you as Prime Minister to obtain legal advice from the Attorney-General on the application of the Act to the space launches from Mahia Peninsula.” Per our rights under the OIA, we request a copy of any such legal advice from the Attorney-General. 

PACDAC also advised the Prime Minister in that letter that,

“the following two initiatives would also be helpful in ensuring compliance with the Act; 

(a) Future written statements supplied by the US Government to the NZ Government under the bilateral Technology Safeguards Agreement, pertaining to future proposed space launches, contain a specific statement that the content of the payload will not be used, at any time, to aid or abet any person to have control over any nuclear explosive device.

(b) Future payload permits, granted by the NZ Minister for Economic Development under the High-altitude & Outer Space Activities Act, either contain a specific affirmation that the launch is consistent with the NZ Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act; or is accompanied by a statement to the same effect.”

We strongly support these proposals and request copies of any and all responses from the Prime Minister or her office to PACDAC with regard to them.

In conclusion, Prime Minister, we urge your government to put a halt to the increasing integration of New Zealand into the US warfighting machine, of which space-based technologies and strategies are an increasingly important component. In doing so, we ask you to respect the rights of the mana whenua of Mahia, who believe they have been misled by Rocket Lab about much of its intended use of Mahia Peninsula. And we ask you to stand up for the independent foreign policy that the government supports, specifically by rescinding the portions of the TSA that grant the USG effective sovereignty over space-launch activity in New Zealand. 

We look forward to your responses to the specific questions and concerns we have raised here, together with those raised in our 1 March letter.

From the Peace Foundation’s International Affairs and Disarmament committee, chaired by Richard Northey.