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New Zealand's Un-Armed Forces

New Zealand's Un-Armed Forces

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

While Anzac Day is our chance to commemorate, and show our respect for, the sacrifices made by those who fought against tyranny, it is also a time to reflect on the state of our nation's defence capabilities - our readiness to protect ourselves from international threat, and our ability to fulfil our allied regional defence obligations.

Some would argue that international and national security is the core role of government. Yet our Labour Government's defence track record leaves much to be desired.

Scrapping the combat wing of the Air force has left New Zealand without the ability to defend itself. According to one eye witness, the Royal New Zealand Air force's Anzac Day fly-over of Wellington was: "pathetic and embarrassing. I am ashamed to be a Kiwi. The two planes, presumably all that remains of our air force, consisted of a silver passenger plane and a green C130 transporter. Did my grandad and uncles fight for this?"

The dismembering of our air force must rank as one of the most ill advised decisions of any government in our history, especially given the sweetheart deal for strike aircraft negotiated by the previous Government with the US.

Originally, 28 US F16 fighter jets were to be sold to Pakistan but, after Pakistan began developing nuclear weaponry, the US revoked the sale decision and mothballed the aircraft in the desert. They were offered to New Zealand for $400 million - a fraction of the estimated real price tag of around $1.5 billion. It is quite possible that money would have never needed to change hands, since an F16 fleet based in New Zealand - to supplement Australia's strike combat force - would have provided a strong strategic allied air deterrent in the South Pacific.

Word is, however, that after being elected, Prime Minister Helen Clark bypassed normal military and diplomatic channels to renege on the F16 agreement with the US Government. She cancelled the deal herself, and instead ordered 105 Land Assault Vehicles (LAVIIIs) for the army worth $750 million. This, surely, has to rank as another of the biggest blunders made by any government. LAVIIIs are so big that they take up a whole road, are too big to fit into a C130 Hercules Aircraft - our only transport aircraft - without being dismantled, and are too heavy for a fully fuelled Hercules to even take off. Once the fleet arrives in New Zealand, it appears they will be stuck here - almost a billion dollars worth of expensive toys!

Meanwhile, an $800 million investment in defence could have secured the F16s and a close working relationship with the US military - as well as having hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in the sensible upgrade of army equipment.

All of this leads to the issue of whether it is now time to rebuild our relationships with our allies and rejoin ANZUS. New Zealand effectively expelled itself from ANZUS following the Lange Government's decision to prevent nuclear-powered ships from entering New Zealand waters.

However, in light of the findings of the 1992 National Government's Somers Report - which concluded that, not only was there was no possibility that a naval propulsion unit could act like a nuclear bomb, but that Auckland Hospital leaks more radiation into the environment every day than the entire US nuclear fleet and support facilities in a year - surely it is time to rejoin the coalition.

One of the enormous benefits of doing this - not lost on defence personnel - is America's propensity to help equip and train allied forces. Watching television accounts of the Iraq war, one couldn't help but notice the huge advances in military hardware: the accuracy of air attack weaponry, and the new generation of army kit and equipment. In comparison, the gear we provide to our own military is archaic. It is unforgivable to send them off on dangerous assignments so exposed.

One of the issues that is regularly discussed on Anzac Day is the drop-off in the number of volunteers - territorial soldiers, and naval and air force reserves. A major factor appears to be the growing pressure of daily life, and the underlying financial stress faced by most families.

The reality is that, with New Zealand's economic position slipping more each year, families must now work harder to maintain their relative standard of living. For many families, this means working longer hours, six days a week, which leaves little time for voluntary commitments.

How I wish that ACT's three-step plan to turn around our failing economy was more popular: lowering taxes to create jobs and growth, cutting small business compliance costs to increase productivity and profitability, and welfare reform to ensure that those who can work do work.

Overseas experience has shown that a commitment to these three steps would transform New Zealand into the prosperous nation it once was, with a standard of living that rises instead falling.

The third part of that three-step plan - welfare reform - is critical. One initiative that received widespread support on Anzac Day was the idea that any young person leaving school without going on to further education, training or a job, should be required to undertake a minimum three-month military training programme.

For many young people, this sort of programme - with the army, navy or what's left of the air force - would be their first contact with the armed forces. For victims of intergenerational welfare, this could be the key to a future of hope and opportunity instead of the dole.

During their three-month programme, these young people may be encouraged into apprenticeship training, the medical core, or perhaps even find that a career in the service is what they were looking for. Whichever way you look at it, such a programme could provide a stimulus to transform young lives in a way that would otherwise be impossible, as well as providing the armed forces with a fertile recruiting ground.

I always feel so proud of being a New Zealander on Anzac Day, and sometimes wonder whether it should become our national day - I think, however, that that's another debate!

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