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Guest Opinion: There's No Free Lunch

There's No Free Lunch
By Denis McLean *

VIRTUAL silence reigns, in this election campaign, on our defence and security policies. This is bizarre, since what we do in defence carries heavy freight for our national future.

Defence is more than protection of our security interests in an unruly world: burden-sharing in defence is fundamental to successful relations with our friends and partners.

The real point for this election is that we have quietly dropped our long-standing bipartisan commitment to making an effective contribution to collective security. The implications, for a small and isolated country, are huge. Have we been allowed an open evaluation of the issues? Of course not.

What we risk was laid bare last week when Robert Zoellick, the United States Senior Trade Representative, spoke out forthrightly in favour of a free trade deal with Australia. He made it absolutely clear that a trade partnership grows out of the security relationship. New Zealand _ no longer taken seriously as a regional security partner _ didn't rate a mention. Our politicians' seeming indifference to the potential economic consequences is staggering.

Defence forces should do three things: they should uphold national interests in our own area; they should be able to work with and add to the force strength of our allies and partners and thus help maintain collective security in vital areas further afield; they should enable us to contribute to peace operations and the restoration of broken societies elsewhere.

Over the past 10 years we have cut our defence expenditure in half. We no longer have balanced forces with even modest all-round capabilities, and cannot pretend otherwise. It would take about five days of social welfare expenditure to restore the capital equipment programme to rebuild functional armed forces. Priorities, priorities.

What passes for defence debate has focused on the big-ticket items. Some strange, potentially disastrous, decisions have been taken as a result. This approach gets defence planning the wrong way round.

Let's get rid of indignation about the military or undue optimism about reliance on international institutions. Only after we have agreed on how best to uphold our real interests, in the real world, can we decide what sort of forces we need. Only then can we lay out a programme to train and equip them. This is not a matter of deferring to the wish lists of one or other of the three services, but of having a coherent policy and sound financial framework.

Australia and Britain did this and also undertook intensive public consultations. So should we. They then issued white papers _ as we once did _ setting the government's course. Why not us?

We are told our policy is based on a cross-party consensus reflected in a Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committee report about three years ago. Since public submissions were received then, no further consultation is required.

Nonsense! There was no consensus, since the three members representing the then government _ in a committee of eight _ submitted a long dissenting report. Moreover, the committee's report was equivocal on the future of an air combat force and a three-frigate navy. They were, however, unanimous on one thing _ the need for more consultation on defence, with public participation. Yet we have now discarded a national asset _ the Skyhawk and Macchi squadrons _ and prescribed a new sort of navy, without that consultation.

We invested millions in an air force with maritime strike and ground attack capabilities. Now we have none. Far from being clapped out, the aircraft are being looked at seriously by other countries and most of the pilots we trained at such expense have left to serve in the Australian or British air forces. Very kind of us, I'm sure.

We sit, alone, in a lot of ocean. We have an economy dependent on trade, 98 per cent of which goes by sea. How odd that the focus of our defence policies now is to maintain land forces _ for peace operations.

I am all for the New Zealand Army and for peace operations. Our army has played a splendid role in our national story and has made New Zealand known and respected abroad. They need better armoured personnel carriers _ but why such extravagance, when the Australians have taken cheaper and more effective options?

A group of concerned citizens, with some experience in the field, has recently published Choice or Chance, a booklet examining the key questions about defence. It is required reading. No doubt the authors will again be slighted as defence dinosaurs. No matter, the message is more important than the personalities.

* – Denis McLean is a former secretary of defence and former ambassador to the US. This Article also appeared in the Dominion Post newspaper.

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