The disarming of New Zealand

by Denis Welch / 29 April, 2006
2006 is the Year of the Veteran - a year, according to the government, for all of us to "commemorate and honour the sacrifice and service of New Zealand's servicemen and women". So just how much honour are we doing them?
Photo/Getty Images

The figures still have power to astonish. New Zealand fought in five major wars during the 20th century and in all wars incurred 104,700 casualties, 20,000 of which were deaths. Nearly one in 10 of the entire population served overseas during World War I and 16,697 of them died; we had the highest casualty and death rate per-capita of any country involved in that war. In World War II, our per capita casualty rate was twice that of Canada or Australia. Without fail, we gladly go to war when we think the cause just; and every Anzac Day, at least, we pay tribute to those who died for those causes. They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

But at the going down of the defence budget - and it has gone down, quite spectacularly - will we remember them? Many would argue that the most worthwhile way of remembering is to truly honour the sacrifice of those who went to war, and not just by bowing our heads in silence once a year. That generally means ensuring that (a) the world becomes such a peaceful place that we never have to go to war again, but that (b) if by some unhappy chance we do, we're well prepared for it. (As many Kiwi soldiers in World War II were not: hence our death rate.)

The current government rates well when it comes to (a). On many levels it has striven to make the world a safer, more peaceful place. Worldwide it has committed more troops than ever to keeping the peace, if not making it. We're involved in 19 different peacekeeping operations or UN missions. "Our highly trained and skilled service personnel," boasts the defence forces' annual report, "are in keen demand." You want peace kept, call a Kiwi. We do engineering, logistics, medicine, too; we'll even reconstruct your provinces for you, as Afghanis will testify. If future war can be prevented by promoting peace and goodwill, then New Zealand is on the case.

It's a different story, however, with (b). At least the RSA thinks so. Its view can be pretty well summed up as "Peacekeeping is all very well, but ..." The RSA, which for 90 years has represented those who served New Zealand in war, is perturbed by the plunge in defence spending over the past decade and a half, and plainly alarmed at the direction of defence policy, which it regards as tantamount to leaving New Zealand defenceless. That view is shared to varying degrees by many former diplomats, defence leaders and top public servants; New Zealand First defence spokesperson Ron Mark, a former soldier himself, has strong opinions about it, too.

"Since 1992, we have seen the effective dis-armament of this nation," says Mark. "And I would say - and I would accept whatever attacks come from that - that part of the reason is that we have had a succession of politicians who have failed to see any threat, have been totally anti-military anyway or have failed to have any understanding of what the defence forces' real needs are."

Denis McLean, Secretary of Defence 1979-88 and ambassador to Washington 1991-94, puts it this way: "We have an air force that doesn't have any strike capability; we have an army that's training essentially for peacekeeping; and we have a navy that looks as though it's going to be re-equipped almost totally for a non-combatant role."

Or, as one defence commentator witheringly remarks, "If you were to cast a critical eye over the New Zealand Defence Force, you'd have to conclude that the only truly offensive elements left in it are two four-inch naval guns, one mounted on each of two frigates, and an artillery battery."

Robin Klitscher, a Vietnam veteran who was deputy chief of defence staff in the early 1990s, says we also have a situation "where we cannot use our army unless we invite or gain assurances from somebody else to protect it - which is exactly the situation we were in in 1915 and in Greece and Crete in 1940. And I would have thought we would have learnt that."

No worries, you might say. No Kaiser or Hitler threatens us now. This is the 21st century and the world has changed for the better. The Prime Minister said so as the new millennium dawned. The world, she told Ruth Laugesen of the Sunday Star-Times shortly after taking office at the end of 1999, was becoming a more peaceful place to live in. "Look at our strategic circumstances," said Helen Clark. "Who could be in a more benign environment than in New Zealand?"

Most New Zealanders probably agree with the PM; certainly that outlook has guided defence policy for the past six years and people have not marched in the streets protesting about it. As most of us were born after World War II, it's only the elderly who have known anything but peace in their lives. The rest of us enjoy it precisely because our parents and grandparents fought to ensure that we would have it, even though we had not yet been born. As Phil Collins says in his song "That's Just the Way It Is", "All day long he was fighting for you, and he didn't even know your name."

That's quite a thing to do, fight for the yet-to-be-born. And to do it - to not just fight but be properly prepared to fight - means striking warlike postures in times of peace, even when no threat looms. Training with lethal weapons, learning to kill though you might never kill, being constantly in readiness for a day that could easily never come.

The belief of McLean, Klitscher, the RSA and others like them is that only a very foolish and naive nation would behave as if that day will never come. (No one, after all, foresaw 9/11.) For their pains they are often dismissed as "geriatric generals" or armchair strategists still living in the past. In the course of my researching this article, someone high up in a government ministry called them the "old crusties". Winston Churchill attracted similar epithets in the 1930s when, as a backbencher shut out of power, he kept warning his appeasement-minded government to arm for war.

Crusty or not, the old soldiers are right in one respect: New Zealand spends less on defence than virtually any other comparable Commonwealth or Asia-Pacific country. As new National defence spokesperson Murray McCully has been quick to point out, the 0.84 percent of GDP that we currently spend on defence compares poorly with Britain's 2.3 percent, Australia's 1.9 and even Canada's 1.2. Fifteen years ago our figure was 1.6.

It was, in fact, the 1990-99 National government, of which McCully was part, that really slashed military spending. The Clark Labour government has undone many of National's budget cuts, notably through a $3.3m capital development plan and last year's Defence Sustainability Initiative funding package of $4.6 billion. But we're lagging so far behind now that the GDP percentage will only creep up to 0.86 by 2009. And that, says the RSA in its Defending New Zealand policy statement, "is still only half the level which the country had found affordable for most of the last 50 years".

What's more, as Klitscher found out when he helped to write Defending New Zealand in his capacity as chair of the RSA's defence committee, the New Zealand figures tend to look bigger than they are, because they're subject to GST and an intra-government tax called the capital charge.

Defence Minister Phil Goff acknow-ledges that defence spending - which by his count is at "around one percent" of GDP - is not what it once was, but argues: "Are we going to suddenly slash hospital building and investment in education to try to pretend that we're a middle power in our defence forces? Of course not - and New Zealanders, including the RSA, wouldn't want us to."

Fair enough; but Goff's response immediately calls to mind the Cassandra-like warning of former artillery officer Jim Ross, who once observed: "When a war emergency arises, possibly in 10, inevitably within 20, years, our streets will be strewn with the healthiest, best-educated corpses in history."

Spend an hour interviewing Phil Goff and, frankly, you come away with the impression that he could defend the country by himself. Put him in front of the enemy and he'd talk them into submission. The man is never lost for words.

Suggest that, with Labour's decision to scrap air combat capability and focus on transport and surveillance work, we no longer have an air force as such, and he replies: "Look, we haven't had air force strike capacity for decades. The thought that we would send out 30- or 40-year-old Skyhawks to engage in combat anywhere in the world was frankly incredible.

"Yes, the reality of New Zealand's situation is that maintaining state-of-the-art technology in air combat would be hugely expensive, running into hundreds if not thousands of millions of dollars. We made a decision that was based on the inquiry by the select committee in the late 90s, based on a huge amount of public input into that inquiry, that New Zealand, instead of trying to do everything across the board and doing nothing well, should focus its energies and its resources to specialise in areas where we could produce excellence."

To the RSA, those areas of specialisation appear to have come down to peacekeeping, patrolling and surveillance. "A great disservice is done to the nation," the RSA says, "if we size, shape and equip the armed forces of New Zealand as though civil assistance was their determining purpose; and we break faith with the citizens who serve so loyally as our soldiers, sailors and airmen in defence of this, our country, if we do so."

Goff: "Quite to the contrary, it's set out in our defence policy that we train, equip and prepare our defence forces for combat. You cannot be a peacekeeper unless you're trained for combat. And while the civil side of assistance that New Zealand can give is critically important, the key role of the New Zealand Defence Force and the first priority as set out in our defence policy is to defend New Zealand."

Here is essentially where the government and its supporters part company with critics of defence policy: the extent to which this country is actually being defended. The arguments can be tested first by examining the nature and level of defence resources and second (given that we could never defend New Zealand all by ourselves) by seeing whether our current direction fits in with that of our friends and allies.

• The Army's fleet of M113 armoured personnel carriers has been replaced by 105 LAVs, or light armoured vehicles, backed up by 321 LOVs, or light operational vehicles. All these are essentially fast, manoeuvrable forms of transport best at getting infantry from A to B, but not designed for intense combat conditions. We no longer have tanks.

• The Air Force no longer has strike jets. The chief focus has been on upgrading the P3 (Orion) surveillance planes with the latest technology, though they will still have only the most basic anti-submarine detection system. (The Prime Minister defended this omission by noting that not one sub had been spotted by the RNZAF in the previous 35 years.) Peter Cozens, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies think tank, says the Air Force does have a strike capability, in that the lightly armed Orions have "real bite" with their equipment upgrades.

• The Navy consists now (or will do by the end of next year) of two frigates, four patrol ships, five helicopters and an MRV military transport vessel to replace the late, unlamented Charles Upham, which by universal agreement was a maritime disaster. Again, Cozens argues that the Sea Sprite helicopters, which can fire missiles and torpedoes, are an extremely capable platform. Despite their limited number, "I don't think it's helpful just to think in terms of munitions delivery platforms," he says. "Armed force is as much about coercion as it is about direct confrontation."

• Regular force strength has nearly halved in the past 20 years; as of April 1, the total number of serving personnel in the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) was 8871. The aim is to recruit up to 2000 more people in a 10-year rebuilding plan. Two years ago, the NZDF acknowledged that many parts of its forces were not properly equipped or trained for combat, but the advent of the LAVs has allowed the Army to put a motorised battalion into the field again.

The longer-term effect of the running down of resources may be in the quality of servicemen and women we get.

"We've got to come up with some innovative ways of improving the way people are engaged in the armed services," says Cozens, a former naval commander. "We desperately need to lift the academic ability of our officer cadre: this is overdue for real professional development. I think they've been so preoccupied with operations that they haven't had the opportunity to look at directing those people into a real profession of arms."

Ron Mark agrees. "Peacemaking and peacekeeping are a way of life for defence forces these days and are essential for creating global stability," says the New Zealand First MP, whose party's policy for some time has been to raise defence spending to two percent of GDP within five years.

"What I don't accept is that we should disarm and re-tailor our forces along peacekeeping lines and forget that the intrinsic purpose of the defence forces is to train and prepare officers and junior ranks for war."

As for how all this fits with our friends and allies, the nuclear-policy standoff with the United States continues to the disadvantage of the NZDF, which cannot exercise with the Americans and in certain high-tech areas is denied the latest American expertise.

"Would it be better that we could train with the United States?" says Goff. "That would be useful. But the presidential directive does not allow that to happen."

He still denies that our forces are less effective as a result, and thinks the impact of the dispute is much less pronounced today than 20 years ago: there is bilateral contact at all levels now ("I'm seeing Donald Rumsfeld next week").

McCully and McLean both believe, however, that the Labour government suffers from what they call the Vietnam protest syndrome. "They find it very difficult to contemplate anything which could conceivably involve military collaboration with the United States," says McLean. "Now that may be a bit harsh, but I think it's deep in the psyche of most of the prime movers in the government."

Rubbish, says Goff: "The thought that the government or I are anti-American is kind of bizarre. I've got four nephews in the American army!

"It is important," he adds, "not to see our relationship with the United States through a single prism."

McCully points out, though, that when new Foreign Minister Winston Peters said that improving the relationship with the US was his No 1 priority, Clark contradicted him the very next day - "and those comments were widely read in Washington".

McLean, author of a book about the relationship between New Zealand and Australia, The Prickly Pair, is also disturbed that Clark has "totally rejected what I regard as a central element in the relationship, ie, that we share the same strategic area. She says this is not true: we look to the Pacific and they look to Asia. That's nonsense. We're actually both part of what I call southern Asia, which is Australasia. We constitute Australasia, the two of us, and it's ridiculous to pretend that we can have a different outlook on life simply because we're marginally more involved in the Pacific than they are."

Cozens agrees that we're hampered regarding Australia. The LAVs "complement very well" the Australian order of battle, he says, but the frigates, Sprites and Orions are unable to operate compatibly "through a whole suite of capability, because the Americans have given the Australians some of the latest gizmos and we will not be privy to them. That's the silliness factor that we're facing in this relationship."

There have been rumblings in Australia in recent years about the NZDF's freeloading on their Aussie counterparts, expecting the latter do all the heavy lifting and high-tech stuff when it comes to military expenditure and deployment; but analyst Hugh White of Australia's Strategic Defence Studies Centre thinks we've got it about right.

"I wouldn't want Australia to adopt the defence posture New Zealand's adopted," says White. "But for New Zealand, adopting that posture makes a lot of sense. And what's more, I think it's in Australia's best interests.

"Even if you spent two percent of GDP, it would still be very hard to sustain a frontline air-combat capability. It's just so expensive. So instead of trying to do a range of things, it seemed to make strategic sense to focus on one particular capability: light land forces (the area in which Australia, in White's view, is weak).

"I can understand, though, why some New Zealanders regret it. It's a serious thing for New Zealand to decide to move away from those capabilities that would give it real weight in the event of a major breakdown in international order."

White believes his government is much more comfortable with New Zealand's defence posture these days, but McLean recalls the parting words of Australian High Commissioner Alan Hawke when he left Wellington earlier this year. Observing that administrations change and things don't always say the same, Hawke warned New Zealand not to count on Australia's automatic unswerving willingness to shoulder the greater burden of defence.

What really riles the RSA is that, though our current defence posture may well be what New Zealand wants, we haven't been asked. In the past six years Labour has produced three key documents - the Defence Policy Framework (June 2000), the Defence Capability Statement (May 2001) and the Long Term Defence Plan (June 2002) -- that have led to major changes, but none has been of the white-paper or royal-commission type where wide-ranging public submissions are sought. An informed public debate is all the RSA seeks, says Robin Klitscher, who points out that the last "top-to-bottom, side-to-side defence review" was in 1991.

"The RSA's concern," says Klitscher, "is to recognise that while we may feel confident that there is no significant strategic risk, we cannot rule out the possibility, the probability that something will arise very quickly, as it has done in the past, and more than once, to the extent that we have to respond, whether we wish to or not. Where we have responded in the past we have responded very well but at hugely disproportionate cost in moving from a standing start."

But Peter Cozens says it's even more critical today that we examine what we mean by defence, some 15 years after the end of the Cold War. "What are we actually defending against?" asks Cozens, who even regards the term "defence" as a misleading misnomer.

And foreign policy thinker Terence O'Brien, although acknowledging a "sort of parsimony" still evident in defence spending, believes that the general direction that successive New Zealand governments have followed on defence is "about right for the sort of country we are in the sort of world we find ourselves in.

"On a larger scale, this is pretty much what countries like the United States are doing, too - reducing the military footprint around the world in terms of the size of forces deployed, and instead relying on mobile marine-type forces that can be moved swiftly from one theatre to another. The Australians are doing the same thing."

Sighs Klitscher: "Nowhere are we saying that we need to arm ourselves to the teeth and have intercontinental missiles and whatever. All we're saying is that 0.86 percent as a proportion of GDP is far below what we can afford if we wanted to - and maybe we can afford a bit more."

==The Bruce & Jerry show==

Four years and two months after taking the helm of the troubled New Zealand Defence Force, Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson is stepping down, confident that he leaves the organisation in better shape than when he took over.

There can be little doubt of that. Back in 2002 the NZDF was rent by inter-service tribalism, public squabbling over scarce resources and the embarrassing backwash of equipment failures in Bosnia and East Timor; today it presents a much more unified image, strengthened by administrative restructuring, a re-equipment programme and several funding boosts from the Labour government. Ferguson's successor, Major-General Jerry Mateparae, has something to build on when he takes over on May 1.

He'll even have an entire deployable army battalion to put in the field if he wants - something that could not always be guaranteed in the recent past. The acquisition of a new fleet of light armoured vehicles known as LAVs makes that possible, even if going to war in a LAV is not every soldier's idea of military glory.

Ferguson robustly rebuts the view of some critics (see main story) that the LAVs are not up to the job and sticks up for the Air Force as well, in the face of cracks likening the somewhat reduced RNZAF to an extinct flightless bird.

"Morale is high, retention is high, and there are more people than we can possibly handle trying to get into the Air Force," says Ferguson. "That to me does not signify a service which is dead, if I believed what I call the old farts out there who are trying to live in the last century."

Not being able to exercise with the US has been a constraint on New Zealand's defence forces, he admits, but it hasn't put lives at stake overseas, "because when we need the training for operational reasons, the Americans have given it to us".

No, the American military do not provide us with their most up-to-date technology, but then, he claims, they don't provide anyone else with it either: "They intend to keep a complete generation ahead of everybody, even the British, their closest allies."

As for not pulling our weight with allies like Australia, Ferguson replies: "I have never once been criticised to my face by the Australians, the Canadians, the British or the Americans. In fact, the contrary is true. If you look at the record in the past three months, we've had four four-star American generals here. They don't come to countries that aren't pulling their weight."


Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life
102328 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary li…

by Clare de Lore

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood.

Read more
Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette
102397 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period dr…

by James Robins

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

Read more
Is barbecued meat bad for your health?
102255 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden

Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution.

Read more
March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more
IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computing
102458 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computin…

by Peter Griffin

The Q System One, as IBM calls it, doesn’t look like any conventional computer and it certainly doesn’t act like one.

Read more
James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth gap
102456 2019-02-15 14:54:45Z Politics

James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth…

by RNZ

The week before a major tax report is released, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has again challenged his government partners to back the tax.

Read more
Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma Chand
102448 2019-02-15 10:28:12Z Crime

Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma…

by Anneke Smith

Arishma Chand was just 24 when she was murdered.

Read more
Top wine picks from Central Otago
102233 2019-02-15 00:00:00Z Wine

Top wine picks from Central Otago

by Michael Cooper

Tucked into small corners, Central Otago vineyards offer nuggets worth digging for. Wine critic Michael Coopers offers his top picks.

Read more