Time for Change

This is a very positive time to be serving in the New Zealand Defence Force. The peacekeeping mission to East Timor is arguably Defence’s most important and popular role in the last 50 years. It is far more relevant to New Zealand than past alliance roles (Vietnam, US-USSR confrontation, Iraq…), is in our own region and is supported by almost every New Zealander.

But, sadly, this deployment is happening in spite of poor defence planning and leadership. The New Zealand peacekeepers arrived in East Timor ill equipped and late aboard a chartered ship. Defence’s own troop carrier, Charles Upham, was such a bad choice that it currently carries oranges around Europe. Six years after our peacekeepers had to use British transport in Bosnia, there is still inadequate armoured transport.

At home the military chiefs and their political supporters give priority to buying prestige equipment such as F16s and frigates – while they neglect planning, training and equipment for real military operations like that in East Timor. Why?

I think that, at senior levels, our military is living in the past. The guiding principle, underlying most decisions, remains the wish to retain favour with the US and Australia. Thus the F16s, and frigates, and toadying duties (of absolutely no objective worth to New Zealand) such as our frigates helping the US inspect shipping on the other side of the world in the Persian Gulf. Peacekeeping operations come a poor second. This mentality dates from our military’s loyal contributions in a series of US wars in Asia and in the Cold War. Today most New Zealanders want a more independent approach, and believe roles like East Timor are most important, but the military resists change.

There is a selfish reason, too. The military chiefs urge that New Zealand spend up large on jet planes that never get used and frigates that are grossly expensive for low-level tasks they do but underequipped for serious military conflict (Janes Defence Weekly called them “the world’s most informed targets”). I suspect that the top brass judge, correctly, that without these big ‘toys’ people would start asking whether we need a separate Air Force and Navy, and associated structures of senior officer privilege, at all. Their problem is that we don’t.

It is like the police all driving around in Rolls Royces. The military have got away with providing self serving advice to the government and feathering their own nests while cold winds have blown through the rest of the public sector. The Ohakea base commander’s house demonstrated an arrogance in use of public money that is widespread.

The rational approach is to rethink from scratch what military forces New Zealand has a use for, set priorities and force the military to decide what new and existing capabilities are vital and which should be given up. High tech military equipment, like the five navy helicopters New Zealand is paying more than a quarter of a billion dollars for, is so expensive that there is no option but to face up to making rational choices. The country cannot afford, and certainly does not need, a mindless replacement approach to equipment purchases.

In a speech in November 1999 the Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Adamson, was defensive. “It would be irresponsible”, he argued, “for people to use the recent operations in East Timor as an argument for not having warships or combat aircraft.” He declared: “We must never forget that no ground or sea activities can take place without superiority in the air.” This is such a defective argument it is worrying. New Zealand has been involved in numerous conflicts and peacekeeping operations over the 30 years we’ve had Skyhawks but the Skyhawks have been used in none of them. The activities still took place of course, either because they did not demand air cover – like Bougainville – or we were co-operating with countries with more effective air assets – like in Bosnia.

A Navy PR person recently told me that if New Zealand bought more frigates in 2002 he would have succeeded in his job. This is outrageous. Defence has spent large sums of public money on self promotion in the past decade: on PR campaigns, promotion in schools, exciting advertisements purportedly for recruitment, and funding spokespeople in military-linked institutions who chorus the party line. Military personnel with fresh ideas are discouraged from challenging the status quo and NZ defence publications, including this one, permit only token debate and presentation of alternatives.

A genuine reassessment of our military needs would mean lots would change. Instead of the traditional approach of training and equipping for US-led operations – and only ad hoc patching together of peacekeeping forces – we would train and equip the Army specifically for this role. The Air Force and Navy would move into support roles, dropping combat capabilities that are insignificant on a world or even regional scale and supporting roles that New Zealanders really want from their military. We would be realistic about how our interests and outlook are often different to Australia’s. We certainly would not follow Australia as its military re-orients for wars in Korea or the Taiwan Straits.

I believe this is a positive time to be part of the defence force – for open-minded members. After decades of dwindling public support, morale and relevance, the military may well have, once again, an honourable and important role to play. Change should not be resisted, but welcomed.