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Where Do F16s Fit Into Our Future Defence Needs?

Where Do The F16s Fit Into Our Future Defence Needs?

The Air Force will be trading in a family saloon car for a high performance racing car when it replaces its ageing Skhawks with old model F16 combat aircraft. While the F16 is a fine aircraft and one that will put us on a more equal footing with neighbouring air forces I still don't know how it fits in with our defence requirements.

The problem with this latest acquisition remains: Where do these planes fit into our future security interests and defence needs? What will their role be as we adjust our defence policies to meet the strategic realities we will face in the new century?

In grabbing the opportunity to buy these F16s at what we are told is a bargain basement price, are we perhaps putting the cart before the horse? We will be misleading our people if we try to justify them only in operational terms, or so that we will be able to better foot it with other air forces in our region of interest who might have vastly different defence objectives.

It is not enough to argue that these new aircraft will enable the Air Force to do its job better without defining what that job should be in a rapidly changing world. Nor is it enough to acquire them merely to keep our highly trained pilots and ground crews from opting for civilian life.

Defence, as I see it, is about promoting our overall security and enhancing our reputation as a successful, open trading nation. It's about actively promoting a constructive role in and with the international community. We need to re-examine our defence and security policy in the light of the new world we live in and the new realities that face us with the end of big power confrontation.

My concern is that too much official defence thinking seems to be locked into past concepts of defence as a separate area of activity. We have to move on. We need fresh thinking. We need to see defence as but one of the ways in which we promote our foreign policy and security interests. We need to encourage a greater degree of independent input into defence policy formulation from outside the restricted military circle.

When we proposed this in out interim report on "Defence Beyond 2000" - which was unanimously endorsed by all members of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee, including National Party members - the idea was curtly rejected by the Government. I remain mystified why it is reluctant to seek out advice from the widest possible range of people.

The Committee's inquiry has brought forward two urgent problems that need to be resolved if we are to face up to today defence realities. We must be setting priorities that are within our limited financial resources and moving more speedily towards joint force operations,

The problem we face was well put by the independent defence analyst Dr James Rolfe in his book The Armed Forces of New Zealand published earlier this year:

"The picture shown in this book is of three individual armed forces searching for a role. There is little requirement for the forces in the 'traditional' national defence and security role and there is little public understanding of their capacity to contribute to wider foreign policy outcomes. When the forces are considered for use in an operational role, they are now often unable to be used because their equipment is largely obsolescent and they do not have sufficient personnel to sustain an overseas deployment by more than the smallest groupings."

Anybody who has spent time looking at the broader issues of defence and security knows that our current defence policy needs updating if we are to give the fine people in our defence forces a relevant role in today's world.

The 1997 Defence White Paper was, in fact, not a policy review. It was based on a policy spelt out back in 1991. The 1997 White Paper and the Defence Assessment that was released with it were all about trying to upgrade defence capabilities and the dollars and cents required to do so.

It seems to me that a major mistake made by our defence planners has been to set too broad a range of tasks for our forces rather than concentrating on a limited range of tasks and doing them well. We therefore need to give more attention to setting achievable priorities rather than asking the NZDF to be a sort of jack of all trades. These priorities should have been determined, as the interim report suggested, before the Government committed New Zealand to new combat aircraft.

The result of this policy inertia is that the individual services within the New Zealand Defence Force have moved to fill the vacuum by pushing ahead with their own separate agendas.

Some of us have learnt a very substantial lesson about what New Zealand should be doing and not be doing in the area of security policy over the last couple of years or so. This was brought home to us recently in Kosovo. One lesson from that conflict is that countries much bigger than New Zealand - France and the United Kingdom for instance - are now aware that they are unlikely to be involved in warlike activities on their own. They would consequently be involved as part of a combined force, contributing the best capabilities they can to the collective cause.

In these situations, only top-of-the-line capabilities are good enough. That's why the older model F16s the Government is acquiring require a substantial but as yet unplanned upgrade.

The other important lesson from Kosovo is that the role of the single service is now recognised as being substantially less than previously. For New Zealand, this means that we should concentrate more than we have in the past on joint force operations. Instead the Government has we have stuck slavishly to the outdated thinking incorporated in the 1997 White Paper and Defence Assessment, which, in my view, means that we still have, in effect, three single services set up to fight three different types of wars.

Last year's UK Strategic Defence Review observes that future operations will see greater emphasis on projecting military force rapidly over long distances. The armed forces "require a powerful and deployable cutting edge based on improved operability between the services."

Our interim report strongly advocated the joint force approach, suggesting as a start a Joint Staff Headquarters and a Joint Operational Headquarters. Again, this was greeted with less than enthusiasm by the Government. It seems to have mistakenly assumed that we were advocating combining the three services into one. Nothing could have been further from our minds.

Apart from all this, for a small country like New Zealand with limited resources and a defence force staffed by dedicated service personnel but with rundown equipment, we must have realistic priorities. Neither the politicians nor the public are willing to vote more money to defence. Defence will therefore have to make do with what it is getting now. This means cutting costs where possible and putting the saved dollars to more effective use. Combining some common activities is one way of achieving this.

What we need today more than anything else is a new White Paper. We need a comprehensive assessment of New Zealand's real defence needs in the light of modern day reality and taking into account the radical changes in the world scene over the past decade. All this should be done with the maximum possible public consultation and not confined to an in-house exercise

I believe the final report Defence Beyond 2000, which should be made public later on in August, will give a solid lead to how this could be achieved.

ENDS

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