Wednesday, October 8, 2008


It's sort of amusing to watch this TV3 programme about a major disaster in Wellington. It was becoming aware of precisely this scenario - some ten years ago which led me to question whether our defence force would really be much use if disaster struck the capital. Essentially what would the NZDF contribute - especially in the early stages of shock and confusion when military logistics and planning is the only system still functioning?

I asked myself this: "If an enemy could do this sort of damage to our capital through military attack, what would we be spending on defence? And then I asked why should there be a difference between spending on defence against military attack and spending on defence against natural disaster?".

This led me to develop my thought experiment (at The thought experiment evaluates all hazards to which a defence force might be expected to respond. It then constructs a counterfactual force and evaluates the relative potential performances of the two forces against the hazards.

Essentially the thought experiment shows that the billions of dollars invested to date in defence capital equipment could have been better spent on a force which is as capable of responding to a major natural disaster as it is a military mission. The fundamental difference is that my hypothetical force would concentrate a lot less on defending us against submarines and a lot more on defending us against terrorists, earthquakes, and biohazards.

The main failing of the existing force in this respect was the following:
1. limited sealift
2. limited helicopter support
3. no amphibious logistics vehicles to bypass washouts or dropped bridges
4. limited hydrology survey (essential for post Tsunami harbour access)
5. No dedicated disaster volunteer structure

What I found was that for the money we have spent already we could have a force that had all of these and more. It would also be arguably better at the kind of military deployments we tend to get involved in as well.

All of this has led me to contend that our concepts of defence are wrong, our defence organisation is wrong and our defence priorities are largely wrong as well.

Perhaps this program will lead more people to follow my line of reasoning on their own. It would be nice if instead of just presenting us with a plausible disaster scenario we were given some idea of how we as a nation should organise ourselves to respond. But I suspect that the great majority of couch potatoes will simply watch the special effects in fascinated bewilderment before getting on to the really important things - like Shortland Street.