Monday, November 8, 2010

Ron Smith: Ends and Means: The defence review of 2010

The recently published Defence White Paper is an extraordinary document. On the one hand, many of the threats and challenges that are likely to confront New Zealand over the coming twenty-five years (the stated review period) are well-identified. On the other, it is clear that the progressive cuts in capability that took place over the last twenty-five years will not be reversed and, indeed, further cuts are envisaged. How can this be? At least Prime Minister Clark claimed to see a ‘benign security environment’, in which formal defence reviews were not required and, in which requests for further expensive ‘toys for the boys’ were to be resisted but, in the present case, there is an apparent recognition of need, which is seemingly matched by a marked reluctance to do anything about it.

The fact that one of our very small offshore patrol vessels, HMNZS Otago, had to return to port after only twelve hours of a voyage that was supposed to take it around the islands of the South Pacific, should not have surprised us. Of course, any ship can have a breakdown but this is not the first for Otago, nor its sister ship, Wellington. In fact, both had engine failure on their delivery voyage. If defence acquisitions continue to proceed on the basis of asking what is the cheapest thing you can get to meet a particular capability need (if you can’t avoid or defer the expenditure at all), then limited satisfaction of that need and poor performance, is what is to be expected. Something similar might be said of the other recent acquisition to the fleet, HMNZS Canterbury. In this case a multi-role naval support vessel was acquired by buying a roll-on, roll-off ferry, designed for the Irish Sea, painting it grey and putting sailors on it.

None of this is to deny the possibility that the NZDF has become ‘top-heavy’ down through the years. (There is something faintly absurd about an army of two battalions commanded by a platoon of generals.) But the ‘preservation and enhancement of capabilities’, to which the Prime Minister refers in his forward to the whitepaper, will not be achieved by administrative savings. If ‘the strategic outlook is increasingly uncertain’ (page 23) and there are new threats from emerging military technologies (page 25) and we anticipate contributing to UN peace-support operations, or to ‘coalitions of the willing’ (page 16), then we need to have military forces that are properly trained and equipped. Anything else is irresponsible. The plain fact is that, at the moment, we have no forces that we could confidently send to a conflict situation, apart from the SAS (if they can be spared from their social and fund-raising duties). OK, the last point is somewhat frivolous but the recent revelation that the SAS had entertained a group of financial planners does speak volumes for the extent to which we are willing to support our military from public funds. The base point remains. If we intend dispatching our forces to conflict zones, we must equip them appropriately.

The last paragraph on page 35 (paragraph 4.4) is so stunning that it merits quoting in full:
“It is not enough just to arrive. The NZDF must be equipped sufficiently such that it does not need to depend on partners and friends for basic forms of operating support. It must have reliable and high-quality equipment so that it is both effective and safe, and not a liability to those alongside us.”
This is, of course, an entirely worthy aspiration but it is a total contrast to how NZDF has typically arrived. Our 1999 deployment to East Timor (Timor-Leste) was carried out with obsolescent and poorly-functioning equipment (vehicles, helicopters, radios) and was dependent on crucial air and naval capabilities, which were supplied by Australia. Our peace-keepers in Bosnia, a few years before, were similarly parasitic on the British unit in which they were embedded and needed to borrow armour for their tracked vehicles from Israel on their way to Bosnia. (They gave it back on their way home). And then there was Vietnam and, before that, Korea, and World War Two. We have always arrived with inadequate equipment and training and it has always been to the detriment of our interests and the interests of our service personnel. We must applaud the fact that paragraph 4.4 has recognised the problem. We must also recognise that we will not alter the situation without devoting more resources to the provision of the appropriate equipment and training.

To a degree, this point is acknowledged in the discussion on ‘Affordability’ (Chapter 8). Following an account of the hoped-for savings from the Defence Transformation Programme, the observation is made that these may not be enough. There will still be a ‘need for the Government to contribute new money’. We shall see whether this eventuates. Otherwise, there will be further examples to add to the abbreviated list in the paragraph above, as we attempt to meet future commitments, whilst having skimped on the capacity to discharge them. It is all a matter of ends and means.


Brian said...


The recent White Paper on Defence seems to be a situation by which the Government wishes to have its cake and eat it as well. Apart from the very obvious fact that the defence cake or what is left of it, is merely crumbs!

I for one, never imagined that I would se the day when a right wing party such as National (I use the phrase “Right Wing” although many would disagree with this nameplate) would step down a pathway leading eventually to a situation whereby this country would be totally defenceless.

The emasculation of our armed forces seems to be the final agenda, politicians will no doubt disagree, but recent major purchases of equipment indicate very clearly that those in the three services can expect a continuance of second rate equipment and armaments.

A case of cheap and nasty, the nasty part being handled as ever, by our service personnel who are considered expendable should any problems arise. Thus leaving our politicians out of the frame, and being able quite publicly to divert savings into projects that will enhance their popularity at election time.

One can but wonder if perhaps a logical solution to having a functional capability in our army might be having a total of three active SAS battalions, fully supported by a first class mobile armoured battalion (with a reserve training battalion as back up). Plus the ability to move them effectively by air to immediate fields of combat.

The old fashion idea of a standard army framework for such a small nation like New Zealand does not seem the best way to face the future.

The financial problem of defence expenditure might be better taken out of the political football arena with a standard 4% of GDP being allocated yearly. Any major items that will be needed would be better handled by a non political organization.

It would give more confidence to those serving in the armed services.

The future might be crystal ball gazing; but if we supported an active modern force it would enable New Zealand to finally integrate with Australia, and together present a combined front in the South Pacific.


Dave Mann said...

The practical application of politics often seems to involve the propagation of reassuring words while government actions are the exact opposite.

This seems to be what is happening with this pack of lies and dissemination. Typical.

Don Haggitt said...

The 2010 Defence White Paper is nothing but a crock. It is the blueprint for the final demise of any armed force capability New Zealand ever had. Whatever happened to the notion that a balanced defence force is the key to a nation's power.

God defend New Zealand, and save us from ignorant politicians.