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Choice Or Chance? - NZers Thinking About Defence

New Zealanders Thinking About Defence Policy

Published in June 2002 by
M E A Dillon
1/30 The Crescent
in association with the authors
and with special acknowledgement to the assistance
provided by
The Save Our Squadrons Campaign
The Maxim Institute
The Wellington Brevet Club
And friends and ex-colleagues

ISBN 0-473-08732-4

:::::::::Couldn't We Be Neutral?
:::::::::Can't It Be Left To Our Friends?
:::::::::Can We Make A Difference?
:::::::::A Choice Has To Be Made
:::::::::Predictions Are Fallible
:::::::::Close To Home
:::::::::Should A Small Country Specialise?
:::::::::A Balanced Approach
:::::::::The Army
:::::::::The Navy
:::::::::The Air Force


In the modern world any country's defence is a mix of three tasks: to defend the homeland, to work with others to protect its wider interests, and to help maintain peace and the rule of law in the international community.

New Zealand has quietly dropped the second of these tasks without debating the effects. We have allowed our Defence Force to run down to the point where we can no longer contribute reliably to collective security.

We need to ask ourselves why. The answer will decide what sort of security we will have for the future, and what sort of relationship we will have with friends like Australia and the United States.

The first question is, Who is out of step? Every other country in the Asia-Pacific region believes that the risk of serious trouble sometime in the future cannot be ruled out. They know that trouble can now arise faster than the capability to deal with it, and that it is too late to wait until the danger becomes clear. They have accepted the necessity, year on year, to maintain forces trained and equipped to deal with such trouble.

We are marching firmly in the opposite direction. We have halved our defence spending, now projected to fall well below 1% of our national income. A worthwhile combat capability cannot be sustained on this. We have decided instead to concentrate on domestic tasks and peacekeeping.

These views cannot both be right. Either our friends are wrong, or we are.

The second question is, Can we stay out of harm's way? If the others turn out to be right about the future, can we not, as a small country in the depths of the Pacific, sit on the sidelines? Our present stance relies on this hope. In its Policy Statement two years ago the government says simply that "New Zealand is not likely to be involved in widespread armed conflict". It gives no reasons to back this optimism. We need to think about it carefully. If it turned out to be wrong we would find ourselves yet again fielding forces that were not properly trained or equipped.

The most basic question of all is, How do we see the future? All arguments on defence turn on this. If we are confident that there is no risk of trouble over the next two decades, or that it could not affect New Zealand, then we can settle for a defence force mainly equipped for iii non-combat duties and international policing. If we think the future is uncertain and that we cannot afford to gamble, then we will prefer a defence force that can work with our friends to uphold the collective security of all of us.

We have to make a conscious choice. We cannot drift along hoping that our insurance policy is valid even though we have stopped paying the premiums.

There is a last question, Can we afford it? We are told that the cost is too high, that modern defence equipment is beyond our means. Better (we have said beneath our breath) to leave it to other countries' taxpayers. But huge sums are not required for a credible defence preparedness and the friendships it helps to sustain. Provided we do it consistently, the equivalent of an extra five days of welfare spending each year would be enough.

Whatever we decide, we need a frank debate on whether we are headed in the right direction. Green papers are normally consultation documents put out by governments before deciding on policy. Our government has so far carried out no consultations and issued no White Paper. This ‘green paper’ is an informal attempt to set out some of the main issues as a contribution to a fuller discussion.

We will be attacked for being ‘political’, as if such subjects are for politicians only. But defence, the country's future security, is a political issue of the highest importance. If the government will not talk about it, then private citizens have to try to fill the gap.

Since we raised these issues a year ago we have sadly lost a member of our group - Lieutenant-General Tony Birks. His clear mind and cheerfulness in the midst of illness were a source of great strength. Many of his thoughts have helped shape these pages.

We dedicate this green paper to his memory.

Richard Bolt Gerald Hensley Ewan Jamieson

Robin Klitscher Denis McLean Somerford Teagle



After a decade of running down our defence capabilities, New Zealanders now need to pause and think about where we are heading and whether the path we are on is wise. The defence debate is not about detail, or even primarily about money. It should be about what, if any, risks we see to our future peace and prosperity and what is needed to reduce those risks to an acceptable level.

The decision concerns all of us because if we get it wrong the damage will affect all of us. Defence experts can best advise about types of equipment or the best training needed for specified tasks. Only we as ordinary New Zealanders can choose the risks we are willing to run on security.

If we are confident that there is no risk of conflict over the next two decades, or at least that any conflict will not affect New Zealand, then we can settle for a defence force which is equipped mainly for non-combat duties, such as (to quote from the Government's last election manifesto) "disaster relief, resource protection, suitable overseas aid delivery, such as engineering and health projects, and to United Nations peacekeeping or non-military peace support".

If we decide, on the other hand, that the world faces an uncertain future and that New Zealand will not be exempted from any consequences, then we will call for a different kind of defence force - one which can do all these things in peacetime, but which is also equipped and trained for combat. This means a defence force which can give credibility to our diplomacy and which can work with our friends to deter or resist trouble.

The two alternatives are very different, in equipment, cost and purpose.

As insurance policies for New Zealand each covers a quite different level of risk. Since we will live with the consequences of our choice we need to be clear and well-informed about what is involved in each. Too much is at stake in the future if we get it wrong.

This is a 'green paper', traditionally used by governments to set out issues for discussion. Our government has not done so on defence and so we have attempted to fill the gap. We believe that New Zealand needs an effective defence force, but we have tried to set out the reasons in a way that lets readers judge for themselves.


The Asia-Pacific region in which we live and trade is stable and has not seen major trouble for a generation. The Cold War and the proxy conflicts it supported have gone. Perhaps worries about our external security are as old-fashioned as fears of a slump. Perhaps we can conclude that our isolation and remoteness from the causes of trouble are the cheapest and best form of defence.

War has clearly not been abolished. The headlines tell us this every day.

The forms of war have changed, as they have periodically throughout history, but the human causes of war - greed, ambition and fear - have not gone. If aggressive people and states cannot get their way by other means they will still resort to force. Sophisticated weapons and the ability to use them are widely disseminated. Making trouble has never been cheaper. World wars, of the kind which took such a toll in the last century, are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, if only because of the existence of nuclear weapons. In place of global struggles, terrorism, ethnic and nationalist wars and regional tensions have all flourished in recent times. Experience tells us that this will only change quickly if human nature does.

We are small and remote. "Who would want to invade us?" people ask.

With the passing of the global struggles there is little chance that anyone would want to invade us, and even less chance that they would be able to do so over such long distances.

But this is asking the wrong question. Though direct invasion is the least likely way our prosperity and wellbeing could be destroyed, it is not the only way. Because we are so remote and small we are heavily dependent on our links with the outside world. More than most other countries our comfortable way of life relies on external trade, and therefore on the peace and stability of the countries with whom we trade. There are a myriad other links - knowledge, medicine, investment, travel, technology transfers - which if interrupted would seriously damage New Zealand's quality of life. Though we are isolated - because we are isolated - we have as big a stake in the continuance of peace as anyone.

Working for peace is not a matter of good intentions or admirable statements. It requires work and the commitment of resources over a period of time. This means a defence force sufficient to give credibility to our diplomatic efforts and which can work with our friends to deter trouble or resist it if diplomacy fails. All our friends and neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region are following this policy. They can see that there are risks in the region which will have to be managed collectively, and all are maintaining or increasing their security preparedness - except New Zealand. Is everyone else out of step, or are we?

We know that we are out of step with Australia and that it is affecting the relationship across the board. Australia is our only remaining formal ally.

By its size and location on the edge of Asia it feels itself vulnerable, even to illegal immigration, in a way we at the bottom of the South Pacific do not. Defence matters to the Australian public and they are prepared to spend an increasing amount on it. And they see it at the top of the transTasman relationship where we might see freedom of travel.

The problem is that, despite our differing perceptions of risk, geography has locked us together. A glance at the map shows that neither country could be defended apart from the other, and according to the last poll on the subject 90% of New Zealanders agree. If there is a common security burden, however, Australians resent what they believe is our increasing unwillingness to pick up our fair share. They feel that if we do not spend our share on defence, their taxpayers have to pay more to make up the shortfall.

No-one denies the value of our peacekeeping efforts - in East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomons. But Australia is thinking about the top end of the risk, the chances of major trouble ten or fifteen years out. We cannot add up praise for a series of peacekeeping operations and hope this will be seen as the equivalent of maintaining a level of combat preparedness which can make a useful contribution to the common security. Australia has now concluded that if there is a major crisis over the next decade it will have to do without New Zealand's support.

Couldn't We Be Neutral?

If serious trouble breaks out, many feel, we would be wiser to stand aside and use our isolation to keep out of harm's way. This is enticing but it is a daydream. The Government's statement on defence policy issued in June 2000 simply says that "New Zealand is unlikely to be involved in any wider conflict". It does not explain why it is so confident of this. Such a view suggests that we are buying Lotto tickets for the future rather than making a realistic appraisal of the security risks.

It is a dream because in fact we could not stand aside. Our history, our outlook, our economic and other interests are all against it. We would have been shocked at any suggestion that we stand aside over East Timor, even though that could have led to combat with Indonesia. We would be shocked by any suggestion that we would not be with Australia if that country was threatened. That in itself banishes any fantasy that we can shut ourselves away as a single country with neither obligations nor interests binding us to others.

Our remoteness has never protected us in the past. It can do so even less in a world where trade, transport and communications are global.

Our immunity from invasion does not extend to any of these.

Three-quarters of our trade is done in the Asia-Pacific region and the proportion is increasing. This is drawing us steadily closer to the East Asian economies; our future prosperity will more and more depend on it.

We are happy to see these growing economic ties but it is an illusion to think that a closer relationship can be confined to trade. Closer links mean that we will become more closely involved in other ways, in investment, immigration and education for example, and also in shared security concerns. This is clear enough already in what might be called constabulary concerns - drugs, money-laundering, refugees and piracy. It means also that any future crises, over the future of Taiwan, say, or the South China Sea, would also demand a New Zealand response. Fifty years ago we chose as members of the United Nations to oppose aggression in Korea. Now the gradual tightening of our links with the region is in effect foreclosing our freedom to choose. We cannot be in the region for some purposes and out of it for others.

Can't It Be Left To Our Friends?

It could, because our friends and neighbours all share the same interest in maintaining peace that we do. It is an attractive thought. We could avoid the dangerous and costly business of combat preparedness and instead devote ourselves to the much easier and cheaper task of urging diplomatic solutions. After all, New Zealand is unlikely to be singled out.

If trouble comes it will affect many other countries in the region. In dealing with it those countries will serve our interests as well as their own.

There is a price of course. This is hardly the way to keep our self-respect or win the respect of others. We have hitherto taken a pride in pulling our weight and in giving more than generous return for the freedoms and benefits we inherited. There is no pride in leaving it to others.

If we drop out of the common security effort we must expect to pay in other ways. Nothing is free, and especially not retreat from cooperation in maintaining security Our national interests inevitably take a back seat to those of others. No-one is going to make financial sacrifices or put their young people in harm's way for a country that cannot be bothered to provide for its own security. We are losing influence on things that matter to us. If we are seen as selfish on defence we cannot ask for goodwill on other issues of importance to us. The effects can already be seen, in Australian pressure on the traditional transtasman travel arrangements and in American reluctance over negotiating a free trade agreement with us. There will be more examples to come.

Can We Make A Difference?

Some argue that as a small South Pacific country we should avoid spending on sophisticated military technologies. They are too expensive for us and any capabilities we could pay for would be insignificant compared to the vast firepower available to the United States and the rest of the region. We should concentrate on peacemaking, leaving the cost of combat to others.

No-one else in the region thinks that a prosperous little country with a proud military history (per capita the 21st richest in the world) cannot make a difference. Of course we have to work in a collective security framework with our friends. But that is true of everyone, and if everyone dropped out there would be no collective security for anyone.

Properly-equipped and trained New Zealand's defence forces did make a difference in the past - ask the Singaporeans or Malaysians. There is no reason why we cannot continue to do so.

The point is not only who is prepared to stand up when there is a crisis. In peace as in war defence is part of a country's relationship with its neighbours. If we opt out of maintaining an effective force, we opt out of helping to maintain the peace as well. It is an illusion to think that peace is the natural state of mankind, that left to ourselves we would all live happily together. "War is as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention", was said more than a century ago, before all the wars that racked the last century. Peace is at least as complicated as war; it has to be worked at no less earnestly. This cannot be done with hopeful words.

It requires also a real and visible commitment to dealing with trouble.

The cost of military technology like all technologies keeps increasing, but on the other hand manpower can be reduced. To say despairingly that we can no longer keep up is no truer of defence than it is of computer technology or any other investment. A modern frigate like Te Kaha costs the taxpayer in real terms only a little more than Canterbury did in 1971.

We were offered two squadrons of top-of-the-line F16 aircraft for an annual rental that was not much more than the cost of keeping the Skyhawks going. There is no evidence to suggest that the cost of maintaining an adequate defence force need ever exceed the 1.8% of
GDP which is what we felt able to afford on average over the past five decades.

A Choice Has To Be Made

At the heart of the argument over defence is a choice that we cannot dodge. Do we opt for a defence force with reduced air and maritime capabilities which is intended largely for duties close to home? Or do we fund one with capabilities which can work with other countries to support our interests further afield? We have to choose between these alternatives because, though a force equipped for combat can carry out the home guard tasks, the reverse is not true.

Defence is a form of insurance, against external damage. As with all forms of insurance we cannot afford to wait until a danger emerges because by then it will be too late. If we wait until we can smell smoke in the kitchen it is to late to take out fire insurance.

So defence planning is about weighing up the risks and deciding what insurance premium we are prepared to pay. The future is unknowable.

Our only guide is past experience which has taught us that crises can take shape very quickly - much faster than we can develop the defence to meet them. It takes at least ten years to attain a modern capability which can work with other forces. No crisis over the past fifty years has been foreseeable more than a few months in advance, even in East Timor let alone the events of September 11.

Predictions are Fallible

Trying to predict future conflicts is about as reliable as predictions about the dollar or the sharemarket. We have no way of knowing where the next challenge may come from, but it is quite a different matter to assert that there will be no challenge. Prudence, experience and the unanimous judgment of our friends all point to a significant risk of conflict sometime in the next two decades - which is the planning horizon for modern military capabilities. The fact that we are out of step with our friends should be a warning to us to stop and think. Are we really better than everyone else about foretelling the future? Can we be confident enough to declare that we will not be involved in any conflict over that time? The greatest risk for us is not that we will be able to sit out the trouble on the sidelines, but that we will feel compelled to help, with ill-equipped and trained forces. We have done this once already. In the 1930s we ran down our forces and hoped that the League of Nations would defend us.

This complacency cost us several thousand lives as we learnt on the job.

The Australians who spent twice as much per capita as we did before the war took exactly half the casualties per head of population. There can be no excuse for making the same mistake twice.


The first step is to agree on a clearly stated national security strategy.

This is the bedrock on which sensible defence policies can be built.

Everyone agrees that New Zealand cannot defend itself. It does not need to. We need to protect ourselves not from invasion but from the destruction of our prosperity and way of life. Our inability to defend ourselves is just another sign that we are not self-sufficient. We depend on other countries for our security as we depend on them for our income.

Fortunately there are many other countries who share our outlook and our security concerns and our interests are best protected by a common effort.

This means collective security. Contributing to collective security has been our approach for nearly a hundred years, since we first had a defence force. We did so as part of the Empire, as one of the allies in the Second World War and more recently with Australia and other partners in the region. If we are to seek effective protection it remains the only possible approach.

This starts to indicate the kind of force we will need. Collective security means that we will be involved in combat only as part of a coalition with other countries sharing similar interests. So compatibility with the forces of our friends - interoperability - will be the key requirement. Size will matter less than our equipment fit and level of training. The equipment need not be identical but it must enable us to keep up, to add to the overall effectiveness of the coalition, and our standard of training must be similar. No coalition will want us unless we can meet its capability in weaponry, speed and security of communications, and all the practical issues of directing combat which is summed up in the term 'doctrine'. All this needs to be tested and demonstrated in regular exercising.

We cannot, though, look to our friends to tell us what we should contribute to the common effort. They never have, whether in ANZUS or any other alliance. Within the broad framework of compatibility it is up to us to decide what we should provide. We alone must decide what is realistic and appropriate for us, and what is realistic and appropriate in cost. All our friends want to know -and see demonstrated - is that we are serious about pulling our weight.

So the demands of collective security are only the starting-point in shaping our defence capabilities. Discussion in New Zealand often jumps impatiently to arguments about particular types of equipment. This skips two important steps: the tasks our defence force is to carry out, and the capabilities it needs to do so. Arguments over hardware are important but they come at the end of the process. Much of the heat generated over the rival claims for equipment priorities would be avoided if we were able to agree first on what our defence force is for.

Close To Home

There is little disagreement that there are important tasks to be done at home: anti-terrorism, search and rescue, policing our EEZ to prevent illegal fishing and immigration, helping in natural disasters. These are duties which have to be carried out by any independent state- no-one else will do them. Many, though not all of them, are best done by a defence force.

A force equipped for a full range of defence tasks can do these as a matter of course. But if we decide to make the close-to-home role the main purpose of our forces then clearly it cannot do anything more demanding. If, for example, we prefer patrol craft to frigates because patrol craft can just as easily deal with fish poachers then such craft can play no part in collective security. They cannot venture too far from home and they are not built for combat. The acquisition costs may be cheaper but to structure our forces around purely domestic tasks is expensive.

Such forces can manage only a narrow range of tasks that are low-risk; they cannot deal with the wider risks we share with other countries.


Peacekeeping is another immediate and obviously useful task that our forces carry out. Indeed its demands have multiplied in recent years to the point where they are straining our resources at the moment. By its nature it needs manpower more than equipment. This means more often than not ground forces but in recent years the air force and navy have both been engaged in peacekeeping - the air force in Somalia and the navy as part of the United Nations blockade of Iraq in the Gulf.

Providing these capabilities is not cheap but a number of countries including New Zealand have seen it as a duty, part of their obligations as a good international citizen, as with foreign aid. Though not normally an especially risky undertaking, peacekeeping requires professional forces.

Their training and discipline must be of a high standard to cope with the uncertainties of their own safety and the stresses of a demoralised population. So a force cannot be structured solely around peacekeeping.

It has to be a force trained for combat. The danger of using partly-trained units has been amply and sometimes tragically demonstrated in recent years, for example at Srebenica.

Should A Small Country Specialise?

Some argue that a country of our size cannot afford to do 'everything'. It would be better, or at least cheaper, to specialise in a few capabilities and leave the rest to be supplied by our friends. They say that we should stress 'depth rather than breadth'. It is much better, this argument goes, to select a few things to do properly than to go on trying and failing to sustain a wider range of capabilities.

This is based on a misapprehension. New Zealand by any stretch of the word has never tried to do everything. We have never in recent years had bombers, battleships, submarines or tanks but instead have maintained the narrowest range of capabilities consistent with a balance of forces. A light infantry force, general-purpose warships and a small air combat, maritime surveillance and transport wing do not add up to a set which is large or over-ambitious. We have maintained a credible force based on these without undue difficulty. It is only over the past few years, when the defence budget has dropped to almost half its previous level, that this modest range has become hard to sustain.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that our friends are hardly going to be gratified that we propose to do even less towards the common effort.

If we drop some of these basic capabilities we are once again placing a bet on the future. We are gambling that future challenges will obligingly fit our new specialities. A glance backward shows that we have never been particularly clever at predicting past crises and it is optimistic indeed to think that we can do better in the future. Whether East Timor or the World Trade Center (to take only the two most recent), no-one has been able to predict where the next trouble is coming from, or what form it may take, let alone the mix of capabilities that may be needed to respond.

The result of having no steady purpose is that we keep trying to adjust our bets. It has been claimed that the 'lesson' of East Timor is that we do not need combat aircraft, or of Afghanistan that we need more special forces.

But chasing the headlines is pointless and leads to strategic futility. The next crisis is unforeseeable and it makes no sense to assume that the last one sets the pattern for the future.

It is impossible to alter our force structure for every event. Defence capabilities take at least ten years to develop to the stage where they can be confidently used. This means that trouble will always arise faster than capabilities can be adjusted to meet it. Combat has moved away from volunteers and weight of numbers towards what small, developed countries like New Zealand can do better: highly-trained professionals using the weight of technology. There is no time to switch equipment in a crisis, let alone provide the lengthy training needed to use it effectively.

Major trouble is now 'come as you are'.

A Balanced Approach

The wise course is the long-term view, aiming at a balance of capability to deal with a reasonable range of risks. For a small country like New Zealand this means general-purpose forces structured around a stable strategy. That strategy should aim to give successive governments a range of options from which to choose a response in a crisis. This does not necessarily mean a joint force. For that of course you need joint capabilities covering air, land and sea. In fact we are most unlikely to act overseas on our own. Each of our units is much more likely to be integrated with the contributions of others. Our forces must fit in well and be able to work effectively with others in deterring or dealing with major trouble. If they can do that, they will also be welcome and skilled peacekeepers, and they will be able comfortably to cover our needs close to home.

Such a balance of forces will never be perfectly adapted for any particular crisis. But general purpose forces cover the main areas of combat capability and will always be able to supply useable options where New Zealand's interests are involved. They will not leave us (and be seen to leave us) with a lopsided defence force manifestly incapable of responding to some challenges.

This rules out the radical approaches beloved by the armchair theorists, relying on missiles, militias, commandos or some other simple remedy.

When you balance New Zealand's needs with what we can sensibly afford, the mix looks much like the approach we have followed for several decades. This can be (and has been) derided as unimaginative or worse.

Those who do so, however, must explain how a different or smaller mix can more effectively manage an uncertain future.

The Army

In terms of numbers the army has always been the core of New Zealand's defence effort. Our dominant images of the Kiwis in two world wars are of the infantry and gunners on the Somme and in the desert. This has changed, though, with the changing nature of warfare. Instead of a division we now maintain at best a light brigade - two regular infantry battalions supported by the usual arms (artillery, signals and armoured vehicles) and by a small territorial force. This force is hard-pressed at the moment, with the multiplying demands of peacekeeping. We cannot expand our commitments much further without having to raise a third battalion which would not be cheap and would add little to our security.

Well-trained and equipped ground forces are essential to our defence needs. No serious planner would question that. It is however a big jump of logic to assert that we should therefore specialise in ground forces, that the army is 'what we do best'. It is not even true of peacekeeping where the navy (Bougainville, Cambodia, East Timor, the Gulf) and the air force (Somalia, Rwanda and the Gulf) have played a considerable part over the past ten years, as well as observers elsewhere.

When we contemplate the possibility of more serious trouble the limits of a narrow concentration on land forces becomes clearer. To conclude in effect that all future trouble will happen on land is to make another risky bet (it would be interesting to know what odds the TAB would give on this). Suppose, for example, that there is serious trouble in the South China Sea or interference with the flow of shipping through the Malacca Straits. Given our interests in these shipping routes we might be expected to join in any multinational effort to deal with the problem, but only modern sea and air power would be of any use.

The Asia-Pacific region, where our economic interests are increasingly concentrated, is essentially maritime, with lengthy coastlines and an enormous trade carried mainly by sea. Land forces are important but the key to its stability is sea-air power, as first the British Empire and then the Japanese army found to their cost. That is why China, Japan, South Korea and many of the ASEAN countries are shifting the balance of their force structures to enlarge and upgrade their air and naval reach. We have decided to go the other way. Have we thought about it as carefully as our neighbours, or do we simply think it would be cheaper? Increasing our reliance on land forces could in fact prove unexpectedly costly. A New Zealand infantry contribution to coalition operations might be very welcome, but even this should make us think. Ground fighting is likely to suffer the heaviest casualties. Everyone was impressed that in the war for Kosovo the NATO forces did not take a single casualty in combat. In the Gulf war and Kosovo the allies would not commit ground forces until naval and air action had reduced the risk to them. Countries where life is precious increasingly prefer to meet the costs of conflict in new technology rather than in human lives. Land forces seem a cheaper investment only if you do not count the cost of using them in combat.

'Bodies rather than kit' is a chilling judgment but that is what we are contemplating unless we think again.

The Navy

Measured by the sea around us New Zealand is one of the most maritime nations in the world. Almost all our imports and exports are carried by sea over vast distances. New Zealand grew prosperous because of the safety of those sea lanes. We have come to take it for granted that naval control of the Pacific in particular will always be in friendly hands - those of the United States Navy (making it even stranger that this is the navy we have shut out of our ports). Five months in 1942 reminded us what would happen to us if it was not.

We cannot control those sea lines of communication ourselves. We have no need to. The question we have to decide is how much we should do to meet our share of the region's maritime security.

It is suggested that we should simply look after ourselves. There are important tasks around our coast which only we can carry out - policing our economic zone, preventing drug-running and illegal immigration, organising search and rescue, preventing illegal whaling and fishing in the Antarctic. The navy should concentrate on these duties, it is urged, and should therefore be equipped with patrol craft rather than expensive frigates.

This is in fact a coastguard, leaving others to look after the region. There is no such thing as a 'defensive' navy; it must have offensive capabilities and be able to range widely over considerable distances. This may sound like something from Lord Nelson's day. Yet as the days of the ICBMs and the nuclear stand-off recede, sea power (or to be precise sea-air power) is growing in importance for our maritime region. To ward off serious trouble, or deal with it, means not a coastguard but combat ships. Our partners understand this and wonder why an island state surrounded by thousands of kilometres of sea has decided to specialise in ground forces.

The disagreement over whether we should buy frigates or patrol craft is another example of the underlying issue in the defence debate: can we be confident of a peaceful future or do we need to insure against the unforeseen? The smallest combat vessel that can carry out a range of general-purpose duties is normally referred to as a frigate. They carry newly-acquired helicopters and can deal with the roughest conditions our difficult seas can provide (including going below the Antarctic Circle) for fisheries protection or disaster relief. But they are also built with the damage control and defences to go in harm's way. They have a good anti-submarine and anti-air capability. They can carry out escort duties, mount a blockade and patrol sea lanes. All these tasks and more have been carried out by our frigates in the last five years.

To have a combat capability as against individual vessels requires a minimum number. If they are to be combat capable in today's demanding conditions, frigates need maintenance, leave periods for the crew and long stretches of training. The minimum number to keep one ship on station for an extended period is three. Two ships can maintain their effectiveness only if they were not deployed for any length of time. If they were, the backlog of training and maintenance would accumulate to the point where the deployment could not be sustained.

Buying or building patrol craft is proposed as a cheaper alternative. They can do most of the peacetime tasks like fisheries patrols, search and rescue and disaster relief, but they cannot do most of even the peacekeeping let along the possible combat tasks. They are not well-equipped (that is what keeps the cost of acquisition down), cannot defend themselves against any but the most limited threat, and have no ability to take battle damage. They could not have escorted our troops across the Timor Sea, as Te Kaha did, and if there was any risk of mines, submarines or hostile aircraft they would have to go home. They demonstrate that cheapness is not the same thing as value for money.

The Air Force

As with the navy, a combat capability is the heart of an air force - most of the rest could be done if necessary by commercial charter. Both are strike forces, able to use their mobility to range widely and attack where they choose.

The disbandment of the air combat force has been justified, rather oddly, on the grounds that it has not been used since 'Confrontation'. If combat is what is meant by being used, then we did not use a battalion for a generation until East Timor, but no-one has ever advanced that as an argument for abolishing the infantry battalions.

The point about insurance policies is that we hope they will never be used. In practice, though, our air combat force was used daily in New Zealand and Australia and regularly in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Modern conflict is an integrated business and strike aircraft are an essential part of even a limited range of capabilities. Land forces cannot operate without air cover - we learnt that sixty years ago, and we learnt also that you cannot always rely on others to provide it at critical moments. They could not be deployed on coalition operations without being practised in using close air support. Neither our land nor our sea forces can become fully effective without regular practice with combat aircraft.

In Australia, where one squadron was based, we helped with training for both the Australian army and navy in air defence. Twice every year our aircraft flew to Singapore or Malaysia to take part in regular exercises under the Five Power Defence Arrangements. They were one of the most visible pledges of our concern with ASEAN's security. In our skies and ocean approaches they provided a deterrent to serious acts of lawlessness.

The evidence of the Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan points to the dramatic increase in the effectiveness of modern air power and the critical importance of an air strike capability in both land and sea operations. We have to ask ourselves, would we have disbanded our air combat force after September 11? If the answer is no we have made a bad bargain.

Finally, there is the question of the future of our maritime patrol aircraft, the Orions. Should they be fisheries patrol and search and rescue aircraft, or should they also be refitted to continue their anti-submarine role.

It has been decided to abandon this last, on the grounds that there are no submarines in the South Pacific and the Orions have never found one in thirty-five years of looking. These grounds are more than a little dubious.

More to the point, we faced an actual submarine threat to our forces as recently as three years ago when heavy protection was required for our troops to sail safely from Darwin to Dili.

There is no submarine threat only when there is no threat at all. When there is trouble brewing submarines, which can travel hidden anywhere in the world's oceans, become an immediate worry. In a crisis the South Pacific would be no more immune than any other stretch of water. Then the mere hint of a hostile submarine operating in New Zealand waters would have a huge impact on shipping movements, insurance and freight costs. Almost 99% of our trade by volume goes by sea. As an island nation we are peculiarly vulnerable to disruption or political pressure from submarines. By such threats a troublemaker could well hope to blackmail us into a compliant posture in a crisis.

The usefulness of submarines as a weapon is such that there are already upwards of 200 in the Asia-Pacific region and the number is increasing steadily. At present only Malaysia and New Zealand do not have submarines, and Malaysia plans to acquire them. These figures suggest, not that we need submarines, but that we need to be able to defend ourselves against them. They could pose a sizeable risk to our interests and indeed to the use of our forces. We could not deploy soldiers from New Zealand or resupply them if hostile submarines threatened.


This simple survey outlines the main capabilities needed for a balance of forces in New Zealand's circumstances. It is easiest to do this on a tri-service basis but we do not have three defence forces, only one. A number of the capabilities we need overlap the service boundaries: anti-submarine protection, for example, is the work of frigates as well as maritime patrol aircraft; a battalion and its air support must work closely together on the battlefield.

It would therefore be a major mistake to conclude that defence policy should be put together by adding up the proposals of the three services, even more that the allocation should be settled by in-fighting. Durable policy ought to be made in methodical steps.

They start with a strategy which should be a stable view of a country's interests, the foundation on which policy can be based for the defence of a country and its interests. In New Zealand, unless we believe that we can stand alone, the best available option is collective security. Then we move to tasks, what needs to be done to implement the strategy. For us it means a range from coastal protection, through peacekeeping to group responsibilities, like long-range maritime surveillance or special forces operations. What we need to do indicates the capabilities we need, the equipment and skills required to perform these tasks. It is at this point that capabilities match up with the people, whatever the colour of their uniform, best able to deliver them.

We are not taking this orderly approach at present. Without a clear and explicit defence policy there is neither map nor compass to guide those who are responsible for our forces. Not surprisingly there is confusion among the services, an unhealthy rise in inter-service rivalry and attempts by the ambitious to short-circuit the process.


Many people are uncomfortably aware that we should be pulling our weight and carrying our fair share of the common security burden. But they feel, or have been told, that it is just too expensive. With increasing calls on our health and welfare spending there is no longer enough to cover less urgent matters like defence. The debate, of course, hinges on our order of priorities. We are not a poor country, we can afford whatever we choose and those who complain about the cost of defence are really asserting that we do not need it. There is also, however, the question of whether the cost of an adequate defence is as overwhelming as we are encouraged to assume.

It is not. The cost of modern defence technology is not beyond our reach and need not crowd out other spending. Take the high-performance F16 aircraft which we contracted to lease for ten years in 1999. The capital cost of two squadrons of these aircraft, together with all their infrastructure and spares, would have been $36.3 million a year. This would have given us a state-of-the-art air combat capability for less than the increased spending on the arts or Kiwibank. To put it another way, it is less than one day's spending on welfare.

Other countries do not see that a choice has to be made between defence and important domestic spending. Every sovereign state has a duty to provide for health, education and external security. With an economy growing at a comfortable rate, it is hard to believe that New Zealand is the only developed country that cannot afford to insure for its own security.

Claims that we cannot, and attempts to get other countries' taxpayers to do so, are unimpressive.

As a percentage of our national income defence has not been costing more and more. Quite the contrary, it has been costing us less and less.

For over half a century we spent every year an average of around 1.8% of our GDP on defence. Starting in 1990 this percentage has fallen steadily to a bare 1% (the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region) and looks likely to go down even further. Percentages of GDP are only a rough guide to defence spending but they indicate changing national priorities. When that spending halves over ten years a very clear signal is being sent.

A fall as large as this shows unmistakably that we are shifting responsibility for our security onto others. We are saying our continued peace and prosperity can be best preserved by spending other peoples' money and risking other peoples' lives. We may duck this uncomfortable fact but others do not. It is damaging our broader relations with Australia, with the United States and, in more subtle ways, our standing in East Asia. We can seek no special consideration for our trade or other interests when we are seen as taking a free ride on security.

Nor is it entirely a matter of external interests. Spending on defence has some significant domestic benefits. It is the largest trainer in the country.

Thousands of young people gain skills in computers, electronics, engineering and other trades which they carry with them into the community when they leave. Defence-based industries have grown out of the need to support military technology and this has opened up useful export possibilities. Sophisticated acquisitions add to this. Our introduction to carbon-fibre technology got a helpful push from the rotors bought for the new Seasprite helicopters. Aerospace firms had begun preparations to service the F16s which would have had a considerable technical spin-off had we acquired them. Defence can make a major contribution to the knowledge economy.

Funding a worthwhile defence policy requires, not the 'huge effort' we are threatened with, but a steady effort sustained over ten years. The big ticket items like Anzac frigates, aircraft and armoured vehicles have, since 1990, been paid for entirely from Defence's annual appropriation. No additional money has been required from the government's budget.

Defence puts about $180 million a year from its annual appropriation into a fund to pay for future acquisitions. This now requires some topping up, but it is worth noting that no new money for investment in equipment has been needed by the Defence Force in over ten years, despite inflation and technology 'creep' in military hardware.

The government has already provided for some increase in Defence's operating costs - salaries, fuel, maintenance and stores - which had been cut by 20% over the nineties. But capital spending, too, needs more to restore a sensible balance of capabilities. The detail of the figures can be, and will be, argued over. The point is that astronomical sums are not required to restore a credible defence preparedness and the external relationships it helps to sustain - the equivalent of an extra five days of welfare spending each year would go a very long way to curing the problem. A gradual working back to a baseline figure of around 1.5% of GDP over several years would do all that is needed, provided there was stable political agreement to stick with it.


For years we have largely forgotten about our defence force. We are proud of them when there is a peacekeeping assignment and sad when they have a loss, but in between we have little interest in what they do, and even less in equipping them properly. If we have not agreed with them at least we have gone along with the bumper sticker philosophers: it would be nice if the air force had to fund itself by cake stalls. For ourselves we have assumed that we could have our cake and eat it. That we can halve its funding but miraculously the defence force will continue to be able to do the jobs and provide the insurance we need.

After years of this we have come to a break point. We can decide to let the rundown continue to the point where we become a security beneficiary, content to leave it to others to look after our future. Or we might conclude that we have moved into a new era of international uncertainty and that prudence as well as national pride calls for a better insurance policy.

What we can no longer do is drift along, hoping vaguely that our insurance policy remains valid even though we have stopped paying the premiums. Awkwardly it is no longer possible to tell ourselves that we can make a greater effort when the risks become clearer. This is driving at high speed in the dark: by the time we see the tree it will be too late. The rise of technology has changed defence as it has changed much else.

Our old habit of waiting for trouble and then getting ready does not work any more. Modern defence capabilities require keeping a small professional force year on year when there is no threat in sight if we are to be able to respond quickly when trouble comes.

For all the concerns that have been voiced about 'Cold War warriors' and 'defence dinosaurs' this discussion is not about the past. The past does not threaten us. The question we have to decide for ourselves is, does the future? If we feel that the international situation has changed radically and for the better, so that there is now a negligible risk to our security, then we should be willing to say so clearly. If we disagree and think that there are broad risks to be managed, then we should be clear about what we consider the best form of defence and its cost.

In a small and vigorously democratic country like New Zealand we tend to see all public issues through the prism of party politics. Views on defence are attacked on the assumption that they are a form of support for one party or another. The fact is that neither of the main parties can be particularly proud of its record on defence in the 1990s. National adopted a policy and then consistently underfunded it. No criticism of this was heard from Labour at the time, and it is now further reducing expenditure and moving away from collective security without spelling out or justifying a replacement strategy.

Defence planning requires such a long time-frame - ships and aircraft are in service for around thirty years - that it cannot be left to lurch back and forth with every change of government. An air combat force, for example, will require considerably more spending to restore than if it had been maintained. A lasting political consensus needs to be forged on defence, as in Australia, so that whatever sharp disagreements there may be on the details there are none on the basic direction.

The first step, as with any important public issue, is to have a proper public consultation. It is only commonsense to have a debate before we commit ourselves to a course that, if it proves inadequate, will be difficult and expensive to revoke over the next decade. Last year our proposal for public consultation was not well received, being called "so preposterous it leaves one breathless really". It is hard to see why. In discussions on defence other New Zealanders are not the enemy.

The government's argument is the oddly conservative one that this has never been done before. That is true. But then, the British and Australian Governments had never done it before either, but in both cases they felt it worthwhile to release their most recent policy statements in draft for extensive consultation with the public. Australia even had a Community Consultation Team which toured the country and issued a printed report on its findings. It does not seem preposterous to ask our government to take the New Zealand public equally into its confidence.

So far, though, the government has been content to allow its defence thinking to be revealed largely by its actions. Announcements have been made about capabilities to be curtailed or dropped but little detail has been released on the defence thinking behind them. For the first time in many years no White Paper has been published by an incoming government and the Defence Policy Statement two years ago was only a sketch. We are left wandering about with no direction.

We have therefore set out what we believe to be the most important issues as an informal 'green paper' to provide better material for discussion. They are all open for argument - that is what they are for.

They also attempt to provide a framework of logic with which to think about defence. Without debate and without logic, we cannot reach sensible consensus or at least consciously thought-out decisions about defence.


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