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The Carter Columns - On The Left: F16's Not Needed

On The Left: We don't need those F-16's - or the United States either.

by Jordan Carter

The hysterical defence of the F-16 purchase by the former National Minister of
defence, who we find this week failed to budget the money required for his
plans, raises the possibility of a wider debate on our alliance commitments and
foreign policy. Do we need to be entangled with the "Western Powers"? Or is
something else more relevant to New Zealand today?

The Lockheed Martin F-16 "Fighting Falcon" is, in the words of the United
States Air Force:

"...a compact, multirole fighter aircraft. It is highly manoeuvrable and has
proven itself in air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack. It provides a
relatively low-cost, high-performance weapon system for the United States and
allied nations."

Sounds very impressive. Do you know when New Zealand last used fighters in
air-to-air combat? I don't. I'm sure it hasn't been since Vietnam. How about
air-to-surface attack? Vietnam again? The desire to purchase F-16's is an
atavistic desire to have a strike component in the Air Force that we neither
need nor really want.

Defence policy for New Zealand should, in my view, start from first principles.
What do we need a defence force for? We need it to project our power in our
own national interests. We have to do this in the knowledge that the resources
available to our defence forces will always be severely limited, due to our
small size and lack of public support for the armed forces.

What are our national interests? I'd argue that as a small trading nation in
the South Pacific, and keeping in mind our inability to do everything we might
like, we should focus on the following objectives (in no particular order):

* Ability to project forces into the South Pacific area.
* Maintenance of a defence relationship with Australia, recognising that any
significant threat affects both countries and that stopping any force requires
the tightest possible cooperation with Australia.
* Ability to take part in a support and land force combat role in multinational
peacekeeping missions around the world.

To carry out those objectives, you'd need a force structure that would mean us:

* being able to come to the assistance of South Pacific countries when natural
disasters strike.
* being able to make a contribution to the defence of Australia in sea and land
forces.
* retaining a significant (in fact enhanced) transport capacity for the land
forces, by air and sea.

On the basis of capital cost and of the lack of a role for them, I cannot see
that strike aircraft are necessary. What is clearly needed in our defences is
a focus. We have to pick a role and follow it through. I'd argue that part of
defending continental Australia is the purchase of a fourth frigate for the
Navy. Both countries are dependent on the sea for our trade and
communications. We need to develop the Air Force and Navy to the point where
they are capable of taking our forces where they need to be (in contrast to the
disaster of the Charles Upham) by perhaps investing in new Hercules instead of
F-16 combat aircraft. And the Army, still stuck in 1960's equipment, will
benefit from existing policy. It's my belief that if we are to be taken
seriously for peacekeeping purposes, we need to be able to sustain a deployment
of two or three battalions in reasonably modern equipment.

That would be impossible for the current state of the Army to maintain. The
deployment of 800 or so personnel in Timor from all three services is a great
stretch on the resources we have available. If there was an emergency at home
or in another place which required a military response, we would simply not be
able to take part. Increasing from the current small size to being able to
deploy a small brigade, for example, would show a real commitment to playing a
positive role in the international security community.

I am not one for cutting defence, unlike some on the left. We don't spend
much; I certainly wouldn't want to increase spending but I think that as an
internationalist we need to be able to make a contribution. I've charted above
why I think it's important, and what I think we could do. A focus on a force
that had clear roles as above, and could be part of a larger force if needed,
is better than struggling to maintain three distinct services when we can't
afford to run them properly.

This all sounds pretty conventional. There are some broader issues apparent in
this debate though. While I think it's important that we retain our military
capacity as above, we really don't need to be part of an entangling and
suffocating United States-led security apparatus. Close Waihopai. The
rationale for our sheltering under the nuclear umbrella was the Cold War, and
it's now well and truly over. We should be looking at what is in our true
national interests, rather than simply following on in an unthinking tradition
of subservience to the Big Brother in Washington DC.

This isn't anti-American. It is a stance based on our needs not theirs, and
perhaps anti- the American regime. Democratic socialists like myself have
never had a problem with the American people; it's simply the American
Government and it's superpower attitudes that I dislike. We can be friendly
with the United States without kow-towing to their security policy - the last
Labour Government proved that.

New Zealand has a chance, with a new Government and changing world security
conditions, to set out a new way of doing foreign policy, that is unashamedly
South Pacific in its origins and isn't afraid to challenge great powers where
needed. Let's use the opportunity presented by the Government's new review of
policy to have a wider look at the issues and ways we can move forward.


Till next week,

Jordan Carter


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