In defence it’s not size that matters

The latest ‘debate’ about defence consists of the usual moans about the military being dangerously underfunded and ill-equipped, the nuclear-free policy blocking access to American technology and intelligence and New Zealand being at risk of not having a “real” military (just a wussy peacekeeping one).

This says more about the feeble standard of debate than any reality concerning our military forces.

It is difficult to debate defence in New Zealand because, first, you need to reconnect with reality. So, before talking about some real defence issues, let’s look at some facts about today’s situation.

Underfunding of defence traditionally happens under National governments, not Labour ones. National ran down defence in the 1990s – deferring all sorts of spending decisions – which left Labour with urgent equipment shortages in most areas.

Ironically (given the criticism), it is Labour that is buying new aircraft, helicopters, ships and Army vehicles, and upgrading military technology. The obsolete list was so long that some low priorities (like the never-used-in-combat Skyhawks) had to go.

Exactly the same happened under the 1984-1990 Labour Government, which bought new aircraft, the Anzac frigates and other equipment. In short, defence is doing well under this Government.

New Zealand is not blocked from American technology and intelligence. The critics rely on public ignorance (or show their own) when they claim this.

Very little is being done to reorient our military for peacekeeping roles. This is unfortunate, since most military operations are peacekeeping ones. But there is huge resistance within the military to moving away from its traditional alliance roles.

This sort of phony debate (underfunding, too much peacekeeping and so on) goes on year after year. The real issues facing defence are seen in the two factions within the military. One group believes in the peacekeeping role and, for instance, see work in East Timor as a huge achievement. It would like to orient training and equipment more to these roles.

The other group – represented publicly by retired senior officers who periodically attack Helen Clark – seess peacekeeping as an annoying distraction from the real task, which is to fight Korean, Vietnam and Iraq-type wars alongside their traditional allies. It was enthusiastic about joining last year’s Afghanistan war but sees the deployment to the Solomon Islands as an unnecessary strain on resources.

To this second group the overriding priority is being a loyal American ally, as Australia is.

Helen Clark’s defence policy consists of trying to do both. She believes in using peacekeeping forces to try to reduce misery and harm in war-torn countries but also wants to use the military to buy diplomatic and trade favours in Washington.

This is where the defence critics have a point: trying to do both over-stretches our small military. The real defence debate we need, put bluntly, is whether New Zealanders want to be junior deputies in George W. Bush’s military strategies or want to be helping to avoid wars, removing landmines and rebuilding nations as our peacekeepers are doing in 13 countries.

We cannot realistically do both, for a simple reason that many defence commentators seem unwilling to accept – that four million people will always have a much, much smaller military than countries of tens or hundreds of millions.

When New Zealand tries to have frigates, jet fighters, tanks and all – miniature versions of allied militaries – we end up with token forces, more for display than real effect. But, apart from the Skyhawks, our politicians mostly shy away from making the hard decisions.

Unfortunately, these things don’t get discussed because we’re distracted by the endless phony debate about underfunding and poor equipment. This non-debate means the public doesn’t realise how anachronistic “traditional alliances” are.

For instance, who has heard of Britanz? These are the regular British-Australia-New Zealand meetings about the defence of Singapore and Malaysia (under the Five Power Defence Arrangement). Most years this role takes more defence resources than peacekeeping (frigates, Orions, Army units, SAS exercises) yet it is decades since Singapore or Malaysia needed our help.

Today, Britanz is purely about helping Britain to maintain military links with two old colonies. Why, please, is this a priority for our over-stretched military?

The same goes for the US alliance. There are times, as in East Timor, when the New Zealand and American militaries should work together. But mostly it is World War II thinking to suggest we have the same outlooks and interests.

Yet Helen Clark is moving much closer to the US military than the last National Government ever did. Afghanistan was the biggest contribution to an American war since Vietnam (history will show what a mess we helped to make there).

Now we’re helping out the occupation in Iraq (while countries such as Germany and France keep right out of it). Labour sent a useless “honour guard” to hang around with the American troops in Korea and approved a new US Air Force communications station in New Zealand.

This month US Special Forces soldiers are part of a high-mountain exercise (Exercise Cold Winter) in New Zealand for the first time in 18 years.

The most dangerously militaristic US Government for years is embarking on a new Cold War called the “war on terror”, yet Labour is frantically moving closer to it. The motives are cynical and never openly acknowledged.

Meanwhile, we have a record of neglect in the South Pacific, where we’re really needed and could really make a difference. Defence reviews always talk about promoting stability and democracy there, but priority goes to “traditional relationships”.

Thus East Timor was ignored from 1975 to 1999 (right up until the US changed its policy) and Aceh is getting the same blind eye now. We are in the Solomons only because Australia acted, and even then with a pathetically small contribution.

I suspect most New Zealanders would give priority to these countries over “bombs for trade access” contributions to American wars. But it’s not a choice they are given.

We await a defence debate on the real issues, and some politicians with the courage to act on it.