Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Little Defence Force that Couldn't

Perfectly timed to enter into the election year debate the Defence Force annual report is more interesting for the politics that surrounds it than its actual content.

Defence Force Commander Jerry Mataparae has thrown a political football into the election line up neatly down the middle providing an opportunity for both sides to take up his professional cause: and scrum over the state of the Defence Force.

On Morning Report this morning National's Dr Wayne Mapp effectively demonstrated National's normal response to defence policy: ignorant bluster, while Phil Goff appeared unnecessarily defensive. Dr Mapp's amazing declaration that we have 700 LAVs (we have 105) combined with his raving about the Skyhawks demonstrated that when it comes to Defence, National's strategy is to make a lot of hairy chested noise but not bother too much about the details. Historically National's approach to defence has been hypocritical to say the least, relying heavily on cuddling up to Australia and the United States while letting Defence languish in terms of budgets and acquisitions. At times the NZDF under National was so short of ammunition they had to cancel exercises.

By contrast Labour has invested heavily in the defence force overseeing the investment in ANZAC frigates (3rd Labour Government), NH90 helicopters, C-130 and P-3K upgrades and increasing numbers by 1,000 personnel. Labour has also invested in bases and facilities that years under National were in a sad state of disrepair.

But what Labour has not done is seriously examined the structure and purpose of a defence force of a small island nation in the Pacific in the context of the post 9/11 world. The result is clear in the 2008 Annual Report: A defence force doing too many things because it has always done them and not doing the new things it ought to be doing. No wonder the force is stretched! It is trying to be a World War Two style defence force as well as being a post 9/11 defence force. Until someone tells the NZDF to drop all the World War Two nonsense and just focus on real defence needs in a world where the boundaries between military and civilian life are increasingly blurred it will continue to be stretched.

So far Labour's response has simply been to throw money at the problem. In fact it has thrown so much money at the problem the Audit Office is seriously starting to question where it is all going. The NH90 helicopters are a case in point with the budget balloning over the years the acquisition has been in train in a way which is odd - even by military standards.

Unfortunately for most New Zealanders defence is a very obscure area of Government activity. Most have no idea about Defence at all other than the annual ANZAC parade where children 'remember' people they never knew who died in wars they don't understand. It has become a rite and a ritual which like all rituals is increasingly disconnected from reality. Those who have had anything to do with Defence tend to be very much in the "hairy chested" World War Two mode where they imagine New Zealand to be under threat from the Japanese or the Russians. And then there are the kid 'enthusiasts' who really just want to play soldiers with a whole bunch of lethal gear but who don't understand the importance of low intensity warfare techniques in the South Pacific, the importance of logistics, the growing importance of dual use humanitarian operations or even the role of politics. So what the public gets is a vague sense that the defence force does 'something' with a whole bunch of equipment which is perpetually breaking down.

This brings us to the question of the threatened "white paper" on defence which Dr Mapp thinks will help solve the problems of Defence.

Unfortunately it almost certainly won't. The reason is the politics is split. The hairy chests want a World War Two military they remember. The kids want toys. The Defence Force itself wants to be taken seriously by Australia, Singapore and other nations which are 4,800 nautical miles closer (that's a fifth of the globe) to areas of potential military friction and which spend way more of their much larger GDPs than we do. But the average New Zealander just wants a force that doesn't cost much (lower taxes) does good work in the islands and afghanistan, come to the rescue in disasters and who aren't bloody embarassing (like aircraft that break down or being unable to arrest foreign trawlers because they can outrun our boats, ignore our patrol aircraft, and are too far out for our helicopters).

The result will almost certainly end up looking like the 2000 Defence Review but probably with some damn fool RSA style recommendation in favour of a combat squadron which like the Skyhawks will cost a fortune and deliver practically nothing against the defence force's objectives (other than the ones which involve cuddling up to Australia).

In my view the Defence Force/Ministry of Defence structure does need significant change. Unfortunately the change that is needed is incompatible with the capital acquisitions Labour has already made. We are stuck with the ANZAC frigates, the LAV IIIs and the NH90s for at least another 20 years. If we are clever we may at least be able to reorganise the force into one that is more focused on the post 9/11 world and less based on World War two heritage. But it will still be 2030 before there is any real hope for aligning our capital acquisitions with the kind of structure we really need and by then the world may well have changed shape all over again.