Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Defence White Paper - Business as almost usual

The Government's much vaunted Defence White Paper is yet another mediocre shuffling of deckchairs which seems principally concerned with protecting the institutions under review rather than providing better value to taxpayers. Compared to my defence review it is yet another unimaginitive exercise in arse protection by the same old duffers that cost taxpayers 1% of all New Zealand's turnover (GDP) for no good reason.

In fact value to taxpayers doesn't get any attention from the review at all. No attempt has been made to determine an appropriate level of expenditure against the costs and risks of being unprepared (as my review did). Its principal concern is the shift of the defence force from a notional cadre organisation preparing for national mobilisation to a more professional structure which seeks to enhance the force's ability to retain its expertise, and contract out that expertise which can be contracted out.This was assumed in my own private defence review, first published four years ago. It does not require a panel of assorted bigwigs to see the inevitable need of this sort of arrangement.

What is simply not addressed by this White Paper is what the Defence Force is actually meant to do given that we have no obvious challenges to our sovereignty other than foreign fishing boats that thumb their noses at our inadequate EEZ protection. The White paper stresses again and again that defence of our sovereignty is the prime purpose of the Force. If so it is extremely badly structured to do that. We have too few and too limited EEZ protection vessels, too few and too restricted EEZ protection aircraft, and two enormously expensive frigates equipped to fight non-existent Russian submarines. Its called putting too many eggs in one basket and we do it all the time.

What the Defence Force is actually structured to do, and indeed is STILL the underpinning message of the review, is make small but useful contributions to the efforts of the Australians. That is why we have the same frigates, the same helicopters and the same rifles as the Australians. The Defence Force is, to all intents and purposes, STILL run from Canberra, not Wellington.

I would not be very surprised if in the not too distant future we sell a stock of our LAV-IIIs and replace them with the Australian Bushmaster vehicle, despite the fact that it makes no more sense in New Zealand than the LAV III does.

The Minister of Defence, Dr Wayne Mapp, has pointed out recently that the new NH90 helicopters will be extremely expensive, costing an unbelievable (compared to what others pay for them) NZ$80 million a unit! That means just having a helicopter costs NZDF $8m in capital costs before we even get to operational costs. If they are ever to be used they will have to spread around the country. Otherwise, like the LAVs, they will just have to sit in their nice cosy hangars in Ohakea or wait for something to carry them to deployment in other nations. The NH90 is a good helicopter (although there are better) for New Zealand but only if it is used for New Zealand, not kept in store awaiting "Tomorrow when war began" or equally unlikely events.

The fundamental problem is one of doctrine. NZDF doctrine is firmly rooted in the 20th century. It envisages a clear enemy. It presupposes political certainty. It ignores economic, biological and cyber warfare and developments like Twitter. It ignores environmental catastrophes and natural disasters. It just wants to get to the hairy-chested bang-bang bit. The doctrine I proposed in my Defence Review is a 21st Century one. It assumes a multidimensional environment where politics comes before guns. It assumes most deployments will be civil in nature, not military. It is as much about preventing violence as it is responding to it.

A future defence force should be as much an economic as a protective force. It must be capable of responding to all hazards not just military ones. It must be aware of the multidimensional world we live in, where achievement of military objectives could completely destroy political ones. It must be largely a logistics and infrastructural organisation with civilian and uniformed components. But it also needs a sharp end able to prosecute short sharp violent encounters with maximum effectiveness.

The defence force is a useful asset but only when assisting other agencies (including diplomatic ones) to enhance and protect New Zealand's people and economy. The problem with the White Paper is it persists with the myth that defence cannot be thought about in terms of economic return on investment. Only by adopting this outlook will defence ever try to find as many ways as possible to safeguard New Zealand than just sit around shining their shoes and dreaming about past battles while waiting for a new Japanese Imperial Navy to reappear on the horizon.

The fact is tomorrow's war will begin not with explosions but with a cough and a runny nose.