Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: NZ’s military future

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

By Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Largely flying under the radar of mainstream public debate, the Government has launched a major Defence Review and initial public consultations finished this week. Some polarised opinions on this revolve around how much New Zealand should spend on its military, and what international strategic alliances should be entered into. 

The Government’s current Defence Review poses three big questions: Who will defend us? How shall we fight? and How much are we willing to pay? That’s what Chris Trotter says in his newspaper column today – see: New Zealand’s defences rely on the kindness of our friends. Trotter argues that our domestic security continues to rest on the benevolence of New Zealand’s allies.

Trotter bemoans that rather than having a proper debate about defence issues, the Government is really only putting resources and energy into the flag design referendum. He says: “Deciding how our nation should be defended, and by whom, is surely as worthy of intense public debate as the colour of the flag they fight under?”

Also criticising the lack of debate, Karl du Fresne says that the recent Gallipoli military centenary should have been a time for major reflection on the state of the armed forces – see: The chance that was missed on Anzac Day. Like Trotter, du Fresne points to the military’s reliance on its international allies: “no one should kid themselves that they’re capable of defending us against attack. For that we would have to rely on our friends, principally Australia and the United States”.

He puts the decline in debate down to the “generational change in politics”, and the fact that the “RSA has lost its clout as its numbers have thinned, so there’s no one to harass the government on defence issues.  In any case, spending on defence has never been a vote winner”.

Similarly, Peter Greener of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies has recently argued that New Zealand has some once-in-a-generation decisions to be made about the direction of the defence forces, but this is occurring in the “foolish” absence of public debate – see: The defence debate New Zealand needs is underway. He suggests some upcoming major defence equipment purchases mean that there “never has there been a greater need for public awareness and debate than now”. 

Radicalism in the defence debate

For the best sense of the defence debate, and some of the polarised positions on the future of the New Zealand military, see Karl du Fresne’s comprehensive article in last week’s Listener: Fighting talk, which has now been unlocked for general viewing on their website. It’s a must-read review of a symposium that du Fresne attended, where some “mavericks” put forward some very different visions for the future of New Zealand’s defence arrangements. 

On one side of the debate, du Fresne reports on Chris Salt’s views that New Zealand currently has a “sitting ducks” defence policy that almost welcomes invasion by hostile forces. He declares the policy “devoid of honour and integrity”, and instead argues: “New Zealand needs to build a military force capable of deterring or repelling a much larger aggressor state – and without the need for substantial assistance from allies”.

The polar opposite point of view is put by Damien Rogers, a former Defence employee and now a lecturer in politics at Massey University. According to du Fresne, Rogers calls for a radical rethink of New Zealand’s defence needs, including the possibility of downsizing the Defence Force, reducing expenditure and critically re-evaluating New Zealand’s security partners. His argument seems to be that the current arrangements – including peacekeeping missions – are merely reinforcing imperialism while wasting resources that could much more effectively save lives and improve the world. 

Other academics are quoted as calling for significant realignments in New Zealand’s role in Asia and the Pacific. Du Fresne also declares that “Defence hasn’t been a hot-button political issue since the Anzus debate of the 1980s and 90s”.

Yet none of this defence radicalism or diversity appears to be reflected in our political parties, all of whom seem (to varying degrees) inclined towards consensus and the status quo. Compare this to the mid-1980s when there were bold and different positions from the parties on defence and foreign affairs, especially on New Zealand’s relations with the US and about nuclear weapons. Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party won about 11 per cent of the vote on a programme that included declaring New Zealand a non-aligned state and slashing defence expenditure. More recently, in 2013, Jones argued once again that NZ should abolish its armed forces

Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago recently received a Marsden Fund grant to study how pacifism and non-violence might better underpin how countries like New Zealand operate and orientate to the world – see: Give peace a chance. This article says that Jackson “would like to see New Zealand get rid of its military forces and become an openly peaceful country, modelled on Costa Rica”. Emulating that nation, which abolished its military in 1948, New Zealand could become “The Costa Rica of the South Pacific”.

It’s all about the money

Should we get ready for a big increase in defence spending? Probably. Much of the current debate revolves around how much to spend. Karl du Fresne says that “by world standards our defence spending is low: just 1 per cent of GDP, compared with Australia (1.6 per cent), Britain (2.2) and the United States (3.8)” – see: The chance that was missed on Anzac Day

As a sign of where things are going, it’s worth remembering that a year ago the National Government announced “plans to invest more than $500 million in the Defence Force over the next four years” – see Isaac Davison’s Govt announces $100m boost for Defence. The Opposition’s response was: Defence Force funding not enough – Labour

The Defence Review is likely to recommend substantial new purchases of aircraft and ships when the Defence White Paper is released later this year. It is already established that the Air Force’s aging Hercules need to be replaced, and in April the leading procurement option was revealed: “the cost of two Boeing C-17 Globemasters would be at least $600m, with an operating cost of $20,000 per hour” – see Aimee Gulliver’s Defence Force could spend $600m on two new planes

The purchase of such expensive crafts is being led by New Zealand’s growing defence orientation to Antarctica, which requires planes that can fly all the way there and back without landing if necessary. This is explained by Richard Harman in his article NZ Antarctic flights on ice, which details an incident in which Foreign Minister Murray McCully was aboard a potentially disastrous flight.

Harman – who has been writing some must-read defence stories on his Politik website – also stresses the shift in the Government’s thinking towards Antarctica: “the ability of the Air Force and the Navy to service the Antarctica will be a major theme in the forthcoming white paper” – see: Our “unsuitable” defence equipment problems

For more on how the Defence Force is now orientating to maritime fields (but with some problems), see Kate Newton’s 2014 Radio New Zealand feature, The future-facing Defence Force

Procurement problems

In Harman’s last article (above), he also details the debacles over recently purchased helicopters that don’t work properly, army trucks that are too heavy for New Zealand roads, and naval patrol vessels that can’t travel very far offshore. The Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee is quoted as saying the helicopters were “a dreadful purchase”. 

The NH90 helicopters, which arrived in 2012 but were purchased by the previous government, have recently been revealed as something of a white elephant. According to Stacey Kirk’s report, during the recent Pacific aid mission after Cyclone Pam, “the defence force was unable to take any of its new NH90s to Vanuatu because they were too difficult to transport and would not cope with Pacific winds” – see: Gerry Brownlee: NH90 helicopters purchase ‘interesting’. NZ First’s Ron Mark is quoted as saying the purchase was “madness” and “verged on a scandal”.

A Herald editorial has slammed the defence forces for the purchase, saying that the $771 million expenditure was “the biggest single defence purchase since the navy’s two Anzac frigates in the 1980s” – see: ‘Challenging’ NH90 helicopters sorry look for Govt

Meanwhile, the previous helicopters are being sold off – see Aimee Gulliver’s NZDF selling 10 remaining Iroquois “as is”

And then there was the purchase of the LAVS, explained by du Fresne: “The government spent $650 million buying 105 light armoured vehicles in 2001 – a crazy decision – and only 11 have been deployed in combat (in Afghanistan, where they proved unsuitable)”.

The current military purchasing decision is for guns, with modern rifles replacing the old Steyr guns that have been used for two decades – see TV3’s New guns approved for Defence Force. The purchase is part of a wider weapon replacement programme. 

In the end, fiscal issues will play a strong role in determining future defence policy. This explains the last Labour Government’s defence decisions, according to Richard Harman, who has been looking at recently released Treasury documents – see: The Real reason the Army won our defence battle – and why it may soon have to retreat

This article suggests it was Treasury advice that underpinned the infamous decision to scrap the Air Force Skyhawk fighters. The department warned the incoming Government about the unsustainable costs of the current defence settings, and recommended a shift to resourcing the army instead, “because it was cheaper and less technologically complex”. 

A “land forces first” policy has dominated since then. But Harman “understands that Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are likely to feature much more prominently in the current Defence Review than the two lines they got in the 2009 review.  That would logically lead on to a greater emphasis in expenditure on the Air Force and the Navy.  And that would mark the end of the land based focus”.

New Zealand’s international strategic focus

The latest Global Peace Index gives New Zealand a ranking of fourth in the world for its peaceful environment. This suggests that all is well in terms of strategic and international relations. What’s more, New Zealand is effectively back in ANZUS, and next month will participate with Australia and the United States in a major training exercise – see Tom Hunt’s NZ off to play war games with the big boys

Yet the Government’s Defence Review continues to provoke questions about New Zealand’s role in the changing world order. On the new Incline website (recently set up at Victoria University to discuss New Zealand’s place in the world), there are three articles with very different opinions on how New Zealand should align itself and interact with the world – see Matthew Hill’s Will the 2015 Defence White Paper Go Far Enough?, Hugh White’s New Zealand’s Strategic Objectives in a Contested Asia and Beth Greener’s Getting New Zealand Beyond the Great Power Game

For an even more wide-ranging discussion of similar issues, see Colin James’ Global citizens in a world of disorder.

But Gerald Hensley – the former head of the Prime Minister’s Department and secretary of defence – says that in the current changing world order, New Zealand’s security needs are best met by diplomacy – see his paywalled NBR column, Diplomacy is back. He argues that New Zealand should be building up, not running down, its diplomatic capacity.

The Health of military management

How healthy and robust is the current defence force management? A recent TV3 3D investigation should be cause for concern – see Paula Penfold’s 20-minute documentary, The Untold story of the Battle of Baghak. The Defence Force appears to be desperately avoiding discussion of these major issues – see TV3’s Defence Force refusing to talk about Baghak – Goff

The forces’ ability to modernise is also under question, with its problems recruiting and retaining female staff – see Aimee Gulliver’s Low female Defence Force recruit numbers ‘disturbing’. Yet, also in terms of gender relations and modernisation, see Teuila Fuatai’s Defence Force hosts first same-sex wedding

Finally, is the Defence Force too fat? Aimee Gulliver reports that according to one measure, “nearly one in five soldiers are considered obese”, and so “sugary fizzy drinks and deep fried food” are now being restricted – see: Defence force staff carrying extra pounds

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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