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Paul Buchanan: On the Issue of NZ's Defence

On the Issue of New Zealand’s Defence.

By Paul G. Buchanan
29 April 2005

Beyond the unseemly spectacle of politicians using the commemorations of duty and sacrifice on ANZAC Day to score cheap partisan points on the issue of New Zealand’s defence, the question begs as to what, exactly, they are on about. The main complaint seems to be that New Zealand spends too little on defence (0.9% of GDP) when compared to Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, France or Germany. The inference is that New Zealand is not pulling its weight on matters of international security, and instead is sponging off the Australians while annoying the Americans. The trouble with these comparisons is that they are misleading.

It is absurd to compare a small country like New Zealand with behemoths like the US and UK, or even Australia (a country-continent with neo-imperial ambitions). That is like comparing pumpkins and cherries. The more apt comparison should be with other small democracies, such as Portugal, Uruguay, Norway, Denmark and Costa Rica. They share a similar strategic problem, if not situation. Smaller countries simply do not have the resource base to sustain large expenditures on external defence absent a compelling and immediate threat, and in any event remain vulnerable regardless of how much they spend. It is a small country’s lot in life to be dependent on the security umbrella of larger allies, which is perhaps why the Opposition clamours so loudly about New Zealand having to do more to shoulder the burden of military adventurism practiced by its traditional allies.

National and ACT’s calls to dramatically increase military expenditures mean little, as New Zealand will still depend on larger military patrons for its physical defence. Such a scenario—in which New Zealand is attacked—assumes the presence of a looming threat to New Zealand’s territorial integrity. That is an issue of some dispute. Claims about population pressures in Indonesia leading to an invasion of New Zealand apparently are considered plausible by some commentators. Others discount the possibility as far-fetched because of the questionable rationale that would compel such an attack, to say nothing of the response of others.

Likewise, for all the talk of Islamicist terrorism heading New Zealand’s way, the real question is why would Islamicists bother? Colonising a secular society at the far reaches of the globe (albeit to some, Middle Earth) is probably not high on the jihadi priority list. Realistically speaking, in terms of threat environment New Zealand may not be entirely benign, but it does not appear to have imminent military threats that require a doubling of defence expenditures.

As it turns out, other small democracies spend relatively similar amounts on defence. Costa Rica does not have a military in spite of being in a region that was one of the more war-prone in the 1970s and 1980s. It survived and prospered while spending next to nothing on military equipment, and even managed to muster up a militarised police contingent for the first year of the Iraq occupation. Although all are NATO members with alliance commitments, Denmark, Norway and Portugal spend just over one percent of GDP on defence, even as all of them have large peace-keeping contingents abroad and deployed troops to Iraq as members of the “Coalition of the Willing.” Twenty years after the fall of a military dictatorship, Uruguay spends less than New Zealand on defence, barely 0.5 percent of GDP, although it too has peace-keepers stationed in various places around the world. Slightly larger countries like Belgium, Greece, Holland and Spain also spend relatively little on their armed forces (less than two percent), in spite of their alliance commitments and overseas (often post-colonial) presence. So, in comparative terms, New Zealand is in the mainstream of defence spending and foreign military commitment by small democracies.

All small democracies, like New Zealand, focus their spending priorities on health, education and welfare for the domestic population. This is generally attributable to the fact that small democracies are more acutely conscious of the necessities of maintaining domestic peace and cohesion than are large ones, if for no other reason than that they cannot sustain external military campaigns without majority support in the absence of an absolute threat. Thus, although it is true that “defence does not win votes” in small democracies, there is a good reason for that.

The underlying issue beneath the Opposition complaints about New Zealand’s defence policies seems to be more about its general thrust, rather than money. In spite of the publication of several defence White Papers outlining the basis for the country’s security outlook, New Zealand apparently has no coherent strategic policy upon which to ground defence and security decision-making. Take one example. The purchase of the Light Armoured Vehicle (LAVs), over budget and in numbers not required or serviceable given the troops available, is indication of the absence of strategic foresight on the part of defence policy-makers. Normally, geopolitical threat assessment informs the making of strategic policy (although the issue of New Zealand’s intelligence collection deficiencies and abuses must be left aside for the moment). Strategic policy informs mission definition. Mission definition is the foundation for weapons acquisition and force composition. Mission definition, force composition and weapons capability are what—or what should--condition operational deployment overseas by the military.

In the case of the LAV purchase, political considerations appear to have outweighed military necessity and mission requirements. The most expensive option was chosen over several cheaper alternatives, without apparent regard for the fact that thin-skinned wheeled vehicles that rely on speed and mobility are not equipped to deal with the mountainous, jungle or swampy terrain in which most New Zealand troops are externally deployed (to say nothing of a close-range hit by a rocket propelled grenade, which is the weapon of choice in many of the places in which Kiwis serve). As things turn out, even in terrain for which they ostensibly are suited, the LAVs have underperformed. The experience of the US Army Stryker Brigade around Mosul (“Stryker” is the name the US Army gave to the LAVs) has been a grim validation of the vehicle’s nickname—Widow Maker.

One can only imagine what could have been done to expand and upgrade the NZ SAS forces—the tip of this country’s military spear—had a cheaper option been chosen and the savings spent on the elite fighting arm. Instead, New Zealand has committed to buy 105 LAVs, at a cost of nearly one hundred million dollars. That is money misspent.

The fact that the current civilian political leadership of the New Zealand defence forces had little or no experience in security affairs prior to entering office may be a source of this policy vacuum and poor decision-making, but the problem extends beyond the Labour government. However, that New Zealand has a Minister of Disarmament with equal status as the Minister of Defence speaks volumes about the contemporary approach to military issues.

Then there are the arguments about the elimination of the tactical air wing and lack of a blue water naval presence. To this can be added concerns about the aging nature of most of the military logistical fleet (evident in repeated aircraft breakdowns), and the generally antiquated status of the military inventory. All of these things, it is argued, can be solved with a serious monetary infusion and a political will to do so. But the question begs: for what purpose, exactly?

Throwing money at weapons systems and equipment upgrades is too simplistic a proposition. What is required is something far more difficult, which is the formulation of a coherent strategic outlook and defence policy that reflects New Zealand’s resource base, geopolitical location, security threat assessment and international situation from the present through the medium-range future. Money alone will not solve the operational problems of the current force, but a sharper definition of what New Zealand’s military role in the international community should be will go far in framing the discussion about weapons procurement, force composition, training and recruitment. If countries like Portugal, Denmark and Norway can do so in ways that satisfy both domestic voter needs and international obligations, then there is no reason to think that New Zealand cannot. However, so long as the argument is about money and comparisons are made with larger states, New Zealand will continue adrift with regards to its strategic outlook.

That is more worrisome a prospect than Australian indignation at Kiwi military free-loading or the spectre of an Indonesian invasion or Islamicist attack because it speaks to one critical failure: the failure to strategically plan and prepare accordingly, systematically, and with contingency always in mind. After all, a Plan B is only useful when a Plan A fails, and at this moment it is unclear if New Zealand has either. For that to happen, a vigorous debate on what New Zealand’s geostrategic perspective and role should be must occur. Spending more or less on defence is secondary to that fact.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. He is working on a book on the military politics of small democracies.

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