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Defence "Reductions Were Made In Error"

Defence "Reductions Were Made In Error"

The report below from the Defence sub-Committee of the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association is published today in the June issue of the RSA Review bi-monthly newspaper.

The RSA is an independent organisation and has a nationwide membership of around 130,000, about 4,000 of these having served in a theatre of war, making it the largest voluntary organisation in the country.

The report, which was compiled before the recent India-Pakistan crisis, is for your information.


This has been an eventful year. Large airliners plunging into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and the towers' catastrophic collapse, are images seared into the memory of AD 2001 forever. In consequence New Zealand had deployed a contingent of SAS soldiers before the year's end to Afghanistan in the war against terror.

In the first part of this new year, 2002, evidence confronts us daily of threatening cataclysm in the Middle East. The Government has signalled that there, too, New Zealand would wish to contribute military effort to the restoration of peace. Meanwhile, major peacekeeping efforts in East Timor and elsewhere continue unabated.

Earlier in 2001 the Government had assured New Zealanders that we lived in "an incredibly benign" strategic environment. That assurance was then used to help justify disbanding our air combat capability and re-prioritising our maritime capabilities locally into the EEZ.

The events in New York and elsewhere clearly testify, however, that the strategic environment is far from benign. Equally clearly, New Zealand's remoteness does not immunise us from the malign potential of distant events. Why else would we rally to the war against terror as far away as Afghanistan? Why else would we signal military assistance to the even more distant Middle East? And why else would we find comfort that the Secretary of State styled the Prime Minister's recent journey to Washington the visit of a very, very, very good friend?

At home in the aftermath some of the consequences have been straightforward, such as the additional intrusions travellers must now tolerate here, as elsewhere. But other effects have spilled beyond this. Our responses to events far afield have strained the governing coalition, and the tensions have since contributed to the collapse of the junior coalition partner. Governance even in New Zealand has been affected by what happened in New York.

When the announcements were made in May 2001 that we would disband the entire combat air arm before the end of the year, and would equip the Navy with a general purpose ship and patrol craft rather than warships, there had been no public discussion of the reasons which, at the time, were far from clear. They are even less clear now. Deep-seated stresses still threaten peace and world order in many places, as they have always done. But when they break, they break more abruptly, in more unexpected ways, and with greater savagery than in the past. The gamble on hopes for a benign strategic future has been delivered a sobering blow.

So too for hopes that a small and distant country, so dependent on the rest of the world for its well-being, might be able to carve out a private future by prioritising its security effort into its own local maritime region. Instead, it seems, we have finally acknowledged the pointlessness of inferring that strategic alignment with the United States is not in our best interests, or that we are more likely to succeed without it than with it.

The economy, too, is doing well. We can afford expensive buy-backs of failed commercial enterprise, new government ventures into commerce, and a range of significant increases in social and related spending. None of this is criticised here, of course. But, for perspective, the fact remains that the totals disbursed far exceed the cost of maintaining a modest yet useful combat capability in the air and at sea for unknowable contingencies ahead.

Thus, if good strategic reasons for the defence capability reductions of last year were thought to exist, then they have since been overtaken by events. If it were thought that untoward happenings elsewhere would neither affect our interests abroad nor touch us seriously at home, then we have been shown the contrary. If it were thought that continued strategic estrangement from the United States was to be preferred, then our behaviour in recent weeks is unexplainable. And if it were thought that the range of military capabilities we had maintained for decades was unaffordably ruled out, then our evident financial robustness brings that, too, into question.

And so we go back to the beginning. Why did we cut back our operational capabilities so deeply? The RNZRSA, representing the old soldiers of the community who have better reason than most to know the consequences of misjudgments in such matters, continues to believe that the reductions were made in error. We deplore that the range of military options available to Governments in times of crisis has been so grievously narrowed. Notwithstanding the excellent contribution being made by the SAS in Afghanistan and the infantry in East Timor, we believe that reliance on land forces has been taken beyond prudence. Above all we hope that a future Government will recognise the risk in the current imbalance of force structure, and will correct it, before the future's unpredictabilities make the mistake irrecoverable.


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