Can countries like New Zealand justify an expensive defence force that cannot,
in all probability, stop any half-determined attacker? This is the question
that prompted a 1999 major re-think of New Zealand's defence strategy and
the abandonment of air combat capability. In fact the reappraisal was timely
for many reasons, and the stated goals well intentioned. But as the government's
detailed strategy emerged there was significant public opposition. With all
the conflicting expert opinions aired, has New Zealand found an appropriate
defence plan for the new millenium?
In this, the first of three explorations into what peace might mean for a small
country like New Zealand, we start with the real raison d'être for our armed
forces. Following parts will look at "our patch" in the Pacific, and then what
positive roles we can take as a good global citizen. These are all recurrently
contentious issues, with serious ramifications. Yet public debate in New Zealand
has been almost exclusively concerned with hardware purchases, in fact mostly
confined to two extreme positions, one of buying (or rather leasing) a large
number of powerful fighter planes, the other (which was announced as a fait
accompli) being to have no fighting Air Force at all.
The Illusion Of Protection
Realistically, New Zealand cannot afford enough military might to, unaided,
stop an aggressor. Those supporting the F16 lease-to-buy deal may have given
the impression they would fend off any strike against the country, but
confidence in such measures is as mis-placed as the mentality behind the
Maginot line that was supposed to protect France in 1939. The nature of modern
terrorist actions, the speed with which hi-tech equipment becomes outdated,
and their relatively poor value for supporting ground troops - especially in
Pacific Islands, all combine with the well-known advantages the attacker
has in choosing where and when to attack. So blocking an initial surprise attack
is very unlikely, but making it not worth the attacker's effort might be
possible. A more reasonable excuse for buying them would be to convince allies
we are not "dragging the chain" and so deserve protection, should we need it.
Impressing the socks off allies, trading partners, voters - and potential
enemies - is possibly the biggest reason politicians see for defence spending,
if we are to be honest about it. The amount of money spent on the military,
worthwhile or not, certainly does matter to allies, whether we want to convince
them we are "worth" helping or simply to maintain good relations. One of the
first reactions across the Tasman to New Zealand's defence decision was the
comparison between Australia's $23 billion spending plans and our $2 billion
. The most frequently stated reason for New Zealand buying frigates was to
"fly the flag" and convince trading partners we are serious about keeping the
routes open (even if the real reason was to share the financial load of
Australia's naval plan).
Even in terms of impressing people, the fighter plane lease was bad value.
But the dangerous idea is that a big military budget, even if it is for useless
equipment, is a kind of token that can be exchanged for support if required.
Allies might not be able to protect us (take Britain's failure in WWII to
protect Australia & NZ, despite both helping Britain at a level that seriously
depleted resources at home), and our allies may drag us into dubious wars, or
make us targets unneccessarily. In short, we have to make very sure our allies
will have the same interests as we do - and larger countries inevitably have
different spheres of interest and priorities.
Even more reliant on allies is the policy of dropping a third of New Zealand's
navy and all of the fighting strength of the RNZAF. The idea is fundamentally:
concentrate on what we can do best. Which means avoiding expensive planes and
ships. There is some support for this from US analysts , but this is
something that only works if done with the full understanding and cooperation
of allies... ground forces are very vulnerable without air cover and other
support. More acid criticism of the plan came from Dr David Dickens, Director
of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
Some arguments against the plan simply miss the new way of thinking about
defence, but enough remains to invoke doubts about some key decisions, and the
way the decisions are made.
It is like somebody, when invited to a "bring-a-plate" party, deciding not to
bring mouldy old sparsely-filled sandwiches like last time, but to put the
money into good flour. There is a lot of sense in this, except it does rather
assume others will cooperate and provide the other ingredients and facilities.
In the case of providing army but no air defence and (as yet) rather limited
transportation capabilities, the "consequence" quip from John Howard ,
Australia's Prime Minister, shows we messed up on the diplomacy front.
Worse still, as navy and air defence budgets are recognised as more difficult
for the smaller countries, it is likely that others will want to take the
decision that is optimal from their stand-point: rely on others for just about
everything other than ground forces. It is going to look a strange party when
everyone turns up with only flour!
An Alternative Approach
What can we do then? For a start, we must appreciate the situation of a small
country, especially an island, differs from larger countries. Rather than
simply take the scissors to a traditional army, navy and air force designed for
countries like Australia, we need to be clear what skills and capabilities
should not be lost - even if that means it appears uneconomic to retain a small
capacity to give flexibility in the future. As the oft-quoted Michael Howard
put it: "I am tempted to declare dogmatically that, whatever doctrine the armed
forces are working on, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare
that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their
capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives". Excessive
specialisation kills the flexibility to "get it right" when needed; we need to
keep in touch with a wide range of expertise and technologies.
Obviously this still means cultivating relationships with allies... "doing our
fair share" in contributing forces to international peace keeping and so on.
Whether we contribute to multi-national efforts or operations close to home,
we should supply a complete solution for the task - including the equipment to
get them in, out, and protect them while they are there. Just as we wouldn't
throw an All Black team together for the first time on the day of the match,
these defence teams should work and practice together; the logistics and
limitations should all be worked out well in advance. Only sometimes, in
heavier-duty operations, should we need to "bludge" to carry out a function.
A list of possible tasks should be identified, costed and priority-ranked. Then
we should go down the list until the total cost is about the same as the
defence budget of comparable countries. Items on the list might include the
ability to react to ecological disasters in the Antarctic, to locate a small
vessel, to support particular types of ground operations. These goals should be
measureable; the success of the spending should be results-based, not "shiny
expensive purchase"-based. Perhaps some of the goals will be to maintain a
level of expertise in particular areas; to provide training up to world
standards; to maintain an infrastructure that can work with other countries and
respond effectively. Even these goals must be backed with standards. After
preparing the draft list, the next step would be to liase with allies and
neighbours, in case they have issues - possibly tasks they could perform
better, or goals they see as more important.
If I Had To Guess What The Details Might Be...
What kind of air force does this imply? Probably a small number of vertical
(or short) take-off close-support fighters (such as AV-8 Harriers ) and
VTOL transports (such as V-22 Osprey ). These have greater range and
effectiveness than helicoptors, are popular with other allied forces, but most
importantly: are suited to South Pacific use where large emergency runways are
a luxury and "self deploying" aircraft are essential alongside any task force -
whether conventional military operations or helping in natural disasters.
Ideally, these would be deployed across several islands in mini bases that
would have a valuable part to play in local Civil Defence plans, but would
also be able to join in larger task forces if needed. This compares favourably
with the present direction of successive New Zealand governments selling bases
of all kinds until all our eggs sit on one basket.
Public debate has been too narrowly focussed on military hardware purchases
instead of the changing nature of threats, and based on an unrealistic view of
what is achievable. We have to ask what are the greatest risks to the country,
and make sure they get the attention they deserve. New Zealand doesn't have a
lot of money to spend on defence, so it has to use it well - meaning strict
tests to confirm we are meeting goals, and avoiding serious loss of effectiveness
because bad equipment was bought, or not upgraded, due to faulty procedures.
At the same time, we need to keep some flexibility - some air cover for example.
I personally think Harriers are perfect for the job, but the key is to agree on
detailled objectives first and to take into consideration what will work with
our neighbours. Exercises with allies are still important. But experience
obtained in real-life (and probably non-combat situations) is essential for a
small country... having a reputation for finding a lost ship quickly, or
transporting rescuers promptly not only give value to the investment, they
show partners (and potential enemies) we know our stuff.
This would mean that our units would have all the expertise and equipment to
carry out those specific tasks. They may be able to tackle other tasks in an
emergency, but it is important to have a prioritised list of objectives with a
clear understanding of how far down the list is covered with the money
allocated. It might help us avoid having a military funding system that
proceeds in fits and starts, leaving upgrades delayed because there is no
serious measure of whether they can do their job. After getting the basics
right, we can consider what diplomacy can achieve, how we can focus on the
real problems in our neighbourhood, and what a small country like New Zealand
can do to promote peace.
References and Further Reading:
(a good summary is: http://www.converge.org.nz/pma/milf16r.htm)