Reorganizing (the) Defence?

Published: Fri 15 May 2009 03:32 PM
Reorganizing (the) Defence?
by Paul G. Buchanan
Two events occurred recently that, when taken together, have the potential to be a milestone in New Zealand’s defence policy. These are, respectively, the announcement of a Defense Review Board that will issue a White Paper on New Zealand’s defense outlook more than 12 years after the Last White Paper was issued (in 2010); and the just-released Australian Defense White Paper that, among the calls for submarines, frigates and strike fighter aircraft, also recommends the closer integration of New Zealand military units into Australian defense planning. Since there is much to this combination, the impact of which will have long-term repercussions, perhaps it is time to pause and dwell on them. What follows below is a preliminary sketch of the issue.
For all intents and purposes, New Zealand’s national security strategy and defence posture suffers from a lack of comprehensive policy orientation, effective strategic planning, broad-based political support, adequate financial resources, equipment purchasing coherence and a self-sustainable force deployment capability. The NZDF admirably soldiers on with what it is has, but the fault for the suboptimal state of affairs mainly resides with the previous Labour-governed Ministry of Defense, certain flag ranked officers with too much political nous and too little strategic aforethought, and a National Party that issued an unachievable White Paper in 1997, then was content to occasionally bark from the sidelines when Labour’s approach to defense (or more aptly, towards disarmament) was implemented after 1999.
The single worst culprit in the decline in New Zealand’s defense posture and readiness was Mark Burton when he was the Minister of Defense and Disarmament, which pretty much sums up his charter. With no experience in the security field and with compliant flag officers surrounding him, it was under his watch that national defense expenditures were reduced to one percent of GDP and the tactical air wing eliminated without regard to anything other than the financial savings involved (yet the government is still trying to sell off the venerable Skyhawk fleet because of the relatively upgraded avionics in them, which requires US government approval of end user purchases--as of yet not given). It was under Burton’s watch that 105 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) were purchased at a cost of NZ$ 667 million, although there are only enough mechanics to service 40 of them and the only time they have been used outside of training was in the recent police killing-turned-barricade event in Napier (the LAVs have been deemed unsuitable for deployment in East Timor, the Solomon Islands or Afghanistan, in part because their wheeled configuration is unsuitable for muddy tropical terrains, in part because of their light armour in areas in which roadside bombs are a threat and in part because the NZAF lift capacity—its C130s—can only carry one stripped down LAV at a time, and then only up to a distance of 1200 miles maximum without aerial refueling, a capability that New Zealand does not have).
It was under the Labour government that the wire-guided Javelin anti-tank missile system was chosen (at over $1 million a copy) over cheaper designs, even though there is no foreseeable scenario in which Kiwi troops operating in isolation will confront the type of modern (Russian) heavy battle tanks the Javelin was designed to counter. It was under Labour that the Multi-Purpose Vessel (MPV) HMNZS Canterbury was purchased and commissioned, only to suffer a series of structural failures so serious so as to limit its activity to coastal sea trials (several of which it has failed). In the two years since it was entered into service, the ship has spent more time in port than at sea. There are other examples of recent NZDF purchasing misadventure, but the point should be clear—something went seriously awry in the weapons acquisition process during the first half of this decade.
To be fair, Phil Goff replaced Mr. Burton as MoD in 2005 and attempted to re-orient and rationalize defense priorities given the budgetary priorities of the 5th Labour government. Among other things that resulted in a much-needed upgrade of the NZAF helicopter fleet, expansion of its in-shore patrol capability and greater pay for officers and enlisted personnel in pursuit of greater recruitment and retention rates. Equally true is that National was in government when most of the questionable defence purchases were recommended, to include the LAVs and MPVs. On top of that the New Zealand public, given the dimming memories of the aging and dying Vietnam and World War Two veteran populations, has largely lapsed into a type of narcissistic pacifism whereby international security obligations and issues of national defense consistently rank low on the list of public opinion priorities. Insularity, it appears, breeds indifference on the subject.
Consequently, there is blame to spread beyond the parliamentary aisle. The general public and politicians alike give low priority to New Zealand’s international defense obligations, notwithstanding all the high-minded talk of multilateralism, peacekeeping and regional security. The connection between New Zealand’s relatively “benign” strategic environment and its international security posture has not been made by all but committed security analysts, and their voices remain largely unheard in contemporary political discourse. Among other things, that has allowed for the manipulation of New Zealand intelligence and defense assessments by civilian political elites with their own agendas to pursue, few of which have to do with national security.
The call for a Defence Review Board is therefore warranted and overdue. Credit must go to the National government for realising the obvious. But is National sincere in its proposal? The terms of reference for the Board are available at From what is known so far, questions must be asked as to the Board’s effectiveness given its composition and the anticipatory pronouncements of the current Minister of Defense, Wayne Mapp. On one side, the Board is made up of individuals with zero experience in military affairs. Only one, outgoing Secretary of Foreign Affairs Simon Murdoch, even remotely has experience with national security, properly defined. The other two are a former Customs comptroller (who would have tangential knowledge of smuggling and criminal enterprises) and a managing partner is an accounting firm. Hence, not only is the Board incredibly small in number and dominated by bean counters, but it has no former military commander(s) or independent, non-partisan security analysts to give it weight, depth and balance. For example, Ron Mark was not asked to serve on the board, and he would have been the best expert cover National could have gotten on the Board given his views. No civilian strategic analyst was invited onto the Board, even though there are several (largely conservative) analysts affiliated with the New Zealand Institute of Strategic Studies who would have been qualified for the job. The question thus begs: why no Board appointments with direct experience in military-security affairs?
Mr. Mapp has past experience as a territorial soldier (reservist, for US readers, weekend warrior for all others). Yet he is not exactly known for his acumen in the security field. His abject defense of Ahmed Zaoui’s illegal incarceration and support for the draconian 2007 Terrorism Suppression Act in spite of the lack of any imminent terrorist threat to New Zealand, as well as his slavish support of the LAV and Javelin purchases and pretty much anything else that the NZDF requested during the last ten years, suggests that he may well be out of his depth or sycophantic when debating the merits of strategic perspective, force projection, intelligence and military requirements with his military and intelligence professional counterparts. This is worrisome because, according to the terms of reference of the Board, the Chief of the NZDF will be closely consulted at all stages of the Review. That may sound good on paper, but it also means that the Review Board and Mr. Mapp may wind up being NZDF messengers rather than the overseers of the review process. Not to put too fine a point on things, but the Defense Review Board and its principal client appear questionably suited to the task of undertaking a comprehensive, in-depth review of New Zealand defense requirements in the next two decades.
This concern is supported by comments made by Mr. Mapp in recent weeks. When announcing the establishment of the Defense Review Board, Mr. Mapp stated that neither the elimination of the tactical air wing or the commitment to spend no more than one percent of GDP on the defence budget would be reviewed by the Board. They are “untouchable.” He also expressed keen interest in the Australian proposal to more closely integrate the NZDF into Australian strategic and operational planning even though the geo-strategic and geopolitical situations of both countries are quite different (to say nothing of their domestic political contexts as they impinge of defence). He therefore seems to have already revealed, at least partially, his hand on what he expects the White Paper to recommend.
That is not a good look. If the White Paper is to be of any use, it must review all of the folly and virtue of the last 12 years of defence policy-making and implementation, then chart a course from there in light of future anticipated contingencies. It requires that the Board will have to view NZDF proposals and requests with a critical and expert eye. That means, among other items, a review of the decision to disband the tactical air wing and the one percent of GDP standard for defense expenditures, since both of those decisions strike to the core of New Zealand’s commitment to its international security obligations as well as its territorial defense.
Closer integration with Australian defence forces is an idea well worth considering, but that consideration must be done critically, not reflexively. On the pro side, besides joint training and deployments, consideration could be given to forward basing of Australian warships in Devonport or Littleton to help the New Zealand Navy with maritime interdiction duties, as well as basing Australian Air Force Squadrons at Whenuapai, Ohakea and Woodbourne for regional tactical air cover. In return, New Zealand air, sea and ground assets could be posted to Australian bases as part of regular rotations in order to ensure seamless interforce compatibility (for example, regular air and sea refueling, joint force land operations etc.). The list of potential operational integration fields is wide. Hence closer military integration with New Zealand’s closest ally would appear to be a reasonable idea worth considering.
The problem with the closer integration with Australian military forces is not, however, at the operational level. The problem is at the strategic level. Australia is a rising middle power with aspirations of becoming an extra-regional military hegemon. Its recently announced Defence White Paper places emphasis on maritime security, tactical air domination and special operations in foreign theaters. Other than viewing its conventional Army as the last bastion of continental defense, the Australian military is configured as an expeditionary (read offensive) force capable of military power projection across the Indian Ocean and well into South East Asia. It has become the US’s closest ally other than the UK, and in the medium-term future strategic environment (i.e. the next twenty years as seen from the US perspective) is likely to become its most important military ally. In sum: Australia no longer thinks exclusively of border defense and regional security; its military ambitions extend far beyond the southwest Pacific.
New Zealand, on the other hand, has no such ambitions. It has a largely pacifist orientation, with military emphasis on regional peacekeeping and maritime security and military operations other than war. Where it does project force such as the deployments of the NZSAS to Afghanistan, it does so most often under multinational aegis, preferably under UN mandates. As the Iraq invasion illustrates, Australia does not. As a result, New Zealand’s strategic orientation is incompatible with much of what Australian strategic planners have outlined as threat and deployment scenarios for the next 20 years. The question thus begs: if Mr. Mapp has his way, will closer NZDF integration with Australian military forces make New Zealand subservient to Australian strategic interests? Will NZDF personnel and assets be deployed to Australian conflict zones regardless of New Zealand’s stand on the issue? How does New Zealand reconcile closer military integration with Australia without increases in defence-related expenditures or force expansion? How, exactly, will the Defense Review Board White Paper address these issues?
If they do not know so already, Mr. Mapp and his colleagues on the Defense Review Board need to keep in mind a simple syllogism when approaching their White Paper responsibilities: Threat environments and domestic political orientations define national security requirements. National security requirements determine strategic perspectives. Strategic perspective determines military force configuration. Force configuration determines mission definition. Mission definition determines military force requirements (equipment and personnel). Force requirements determine purchasing priorities. Purchasing priorities need to balance value per dollar and equipment reliability against force requirements over time (in the case of the 2010 White Paper the projections are until 2035). Only when purchasing objectives have been met in light of mission requirements are military units deployed. The result: Troops are well equipped, trained and protected when deployed in pursuit of national security objectives. Anything short of that is to put Kiwi lives at unnecessary risk (or, as soldiers like to say, the job may be dangerous but that does not mean it has to be terminal).
The bottom line for the Defense Review Board is to develop a coherent strategic vision that is based on what New Zealand’s security priorities are at home and abroad in light of its international commitments; to configure the NZDF in light of this strategic outlook; to fund and equip the NZDF so that it can autonomously carry out the missions it is assigned within this strategic outlook; and above all, to ensure that NZDF soldiers, airmen and sailors receive the political and logistical support necessary for them to confront their challenges in full knowledge that they have the right tools and justification for the job. Whether or not closer integration with Australia is an appropriate course of action, or whether the tactical air wing needs to be reconstituted, or whether emphasis should shift away from the Army to the other services given likely future strategic scenarios, as well as a host of related issues, needs to be debated with such objectives in mind.
Anything short of this is waste of time and taxpayer money. Yet, as things stand, the Defense Review Board appears to have neither the personnel nor the charter to be anything other than that.
Paul G. Buchanan is a former US Defense Department analyst and consultant to US security agencies. He is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, on leave from the University of Auckland, and a contributor to He is currently working on a book titled Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal in Comparative Perspective.

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