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David Miller: Can NZ Afford Non-Combat Forces?

David Miller Online

Can NZ Afford a Non Combat Air and Naval Force?

The announcement last week that the government does not intend to modernise New Zealand’s airborne anti- submarine capability is another blow to the defence forces of this country and adds to the growing uncertainty about the future role and combat effectiveness of the military. However amidst the uncertainty lie the potential dangers of the government’s proposed moves. These dangers are often overlooked when defence spending and priorities are discussed, even talked around with political rhetoric, but seldom do they ever disappear.

New Zealand’s small size means that it inevitably will not have a large defence budget. Hence when a frigate is purchased, an order placed for strike aircraft, or an overhaul of the army’s equipment is called for, then the impact on that budget becomes immense. This is the argument put forward by those who seek to reduce New Zealand’s combat capacity, claiming that since the Cold War ended over a decade ago, the threat to this country has diminished. Indeed, this was Helen Clark’s point of view when she announced that the air force Orion’s could possibly be switched from anti submarine activities to a fisheries and customs protection role.

As part of its defence review, the government has indicated that it will not replace the frigate HMNZS Canterbury when it is decommissioned in 2005. Instead of purchasing a third ANZAC frigate, the government is looking at the option of acquiring smaller, cheaper, long-range surveillance vessels instead, claiming they would be best suited to New Zealand’s needs.

Reducing the air force and navy to non- combat roles may be music to the ears of those with an anti-military stance, but it fails to take into consideration the realities and complexities of the strategic environment today and the type of threat that New Zealand may face in the future. First of all it places in jeopardy the collective security agreements New Zealand has in place with allies such as Australia and the United States. Collective security is just that, ‘collective’ and assumes that even though there will be disparities in the strength of the signatories, each state will contribute to some level in the times of conflict and peace. What could happen is that New Zealand no longer possesses the capability to maintain its share of the agreements, such as ANZUS or the Five Power Defence Arrangement, hence the others must increase their role and commitment to cover that shortfall or this country is left out in the cold.

Australia has been a constant critic of the military downgrading on this side of the Tasman Sea and its concerns are now centred on whether the NZDF will have the capability to manage its day-to-day security requirements. Should an incident or crisis breakout in the Asia- Pacific region then Canberra will be the first door New Zealand knocks on for help. Once again it could be argued that this is now an unlikely scenario, however one only has to look to the events unfolding in Fiji, Indonesia or the South China Sea to see that instability is never far away.

The United Nations is not the answer to this debate either. Although New Zealand has a proud record as a country that contributes to the United Nations’ peacekeeping missions and has constantly striven to uphold the conventions and principles of the Charter, the peacekeeping deployments have become increasingly dangerous since the end of the Cold War. For a start, the nature of conflict has changed. Intra state conflict has become more prevalent and the UN has found itself trying to keep the peace and order between different ethnic groups and insurgents, such as Bosnia and Somalia, rather then separating two countries along a clearly defined border. This column spoke of this last year when it discussed East Timor and the intractability of this type of warfare but it is a danger that far from passing has increased.

The point is that this type of operation could prove more costly in dollar terms and in lives than maintaining a navel and air capability. Already the NZDF has remained deployed in East Timor well after the original withdrawal date and as yet there has been no clear indication when it will permanently end, plus the death of Leonard Manning. If the 1990’s have displayed one thing it is that air power and naval strength have become the invaluable components to military operations. If the government reduces the combat effectiveness of our air and sea forces then we once again must rely on our allies to provide this for us, or simply run the risk of troops on the ground without adequate air and sea cover.

The threats that New Zealand faces in the 21st Century will vary in scale, location and will not always require one particular branch of the armed services. Reducing the combat effectiveness of the nay and air force severely limits the options that New Zealand has in dealing with threats when they arise and also places limits on the extent and role this country can play in United Nations operations. As well as this there is the potential of placing soldiers lives in danger. Uncertainty and instability are two recurring themes, which come to the fore when discussing the international strategic balance of the new millennium, and with them comes the increased potential for conflict and the fact that New Zealand could be affected. Unfortunately if the continuing trend in defence cutting continues then New Zealand will not be able to do anything about it.


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