Shaping Up To Fight

Will the new White Paper on Defence raise the chances of us getting involved in other peoples’ wars?

First of a two part series by Gordon Campbell

Cover image by John Shakespeare

Defence policy tends to be the mumblespeak of grey men in and out of uniform – which is unfortunate, given that our defence policy says a lot about New Zealand’s plans for survival, who our friends and enemies are regarded to be and the level of independence the government of the day thinks is desirable for us to seek in our dealings with the outside world. That’s crucial stuff. Much too vital to be left to the grey generals, and the tiny pool of ‘defence experts’ in our universities.

In addition, defence is one of the few areas of government activity where everyone on the political spectrum sees the need for a centralised, long term national strategy. Defence gear costs so much, takes so long to deliver and needs so many upgrades that it can’t be left to market forces to deliver. This is one form of central planning that should never go out of style – and when it did in the 1930s, there was hell to pay.

On March 31 this year, defence policy will make one of its rare appearances in the prime time news. That’s when the new Defence White Paper is due to be released, setting out the Key government’s views on New Zealand’s military priorities from now until 2035, and the strategic environment that it believes New Zealand is likely to face during that time. The terms of reference are stated here.

The White Paper will have to make line calls on some tricky military and diplomatic questions. Does New Zealand for instance, think China or the US will be the dominant military power in the Pacific over the next two decades? How we planning to engage in future with each of these great powers – and along the way, would a close relationship with Australia be a help or a hindrance to forging our own links with the Chinese?

That’s the crunch point. Do we plan to treat China’s rise in military capability as being inherently expansionist and hegemonic, or as mainly defensive in nature ? Last year, the Rudd government’s White Paper succeeded in totally enraging the Chinese by focusing on China’s naval build-up in the Pacific, and on the threat to stability that this was seen to represent. ( You can bet that our White Paper will use far more conciliatory language in its references to China. )

Whatever the niceties of the diplomatic language we use, China will judge us by our actions. If our defence forces do intend to get closer and more intimate with Australia – and they do seem to be set on that course – how does New Zealand intend to manage the impact that closer dancing with the Aussies will have on our relationship with China, which is already one of our key trading partners ? This juggling act will be especially difficult if – as is already being touted – we announce in our White Paper the creation of a joint military Rapid Response Force with the Australians. This could so easily look like a posse put together by the budding neo-colonial sheriff of the Pacific region. Would this really be in our best trade and diplomatic interests?

Last year, the government created a three person panel to research and write its White Paper, which was due to be delivered January 28 to Cabinet, for its consideration. The panel consisted of former MFAT chief Simon Murdoch, Customs Comptroller Martyn Dunne and Business Roundtable chair Rob McLeod, of Ernst and Young. The blueprint they have created has been put together in the shadow of a Budget where every government agency is being told to live within its current means, or less. There is no reason why the Defence budget shouldn’t be subjected to the same bracing discipline as every other department.

It is easy to demonstrate the problems that any genuine drive for economy would cause in Defence. Though he’s not saying anything about the White Paper right now, Defence Minister Wayne Mapp had plenty to say about it in an interview with Jane’s Defence Weekly (JDW) last year, in an article that conveys the economic bind in which Defence currently finds itself.

Take a simple example, from the JDW article. Under the NZDF’s own figures, $NZ884 million is available from November 2008 until 2012 for projects planned, but not yet approved. “These include such major projects as the ANZAC frigates’ self defence upgrade, and the renewal of the Army’s general service vehicle fleet…” Okay, given there is still $884 million left in the kitty, how far would this go towards paying for the projects already identified by the Defence establishment? Not far enough. The earmarked projects stand to cost substantially more, JDW points out, than the Ministry of Defence (MoD) estimates contained in its current Long Term Development Plan (LTDP).

As at October 2008, the estimated cost for those items was somewhere between $NZ1,488 million at best and $NZ2.,216 million at worst. They are unlikely to have got any cheaper in the interim. In other words, the real figures for the previously identified defence projects are nearly twice – or more – the money available for them. Why ? The reason is not simply because Defence cost forecasting is little more than guesswork, though that is a factor. In the jargon of the MoD’s own defence portfolio briefing : ‘This variation [in cost] is due to lack of capability definition ; lack of market information ( Defence has not sought information from industry) ; and the volatility in foreign currency exchange rates.’ In other words, Defence hadn’t even finally decided on the bells and whistles for the relevant projects in the LTDP, or started negotiating a realistic price for them with the suppliers. Everything has now been put on hold, pending the White Paper.

Unfortunately, the cost uncertainty swirling round these – presumably essential – projects is par for the course. New Zealand is not the only country where defence bureaucrats have big problems with budgeting accurately, and in managing defence projects competently. In late November, the Australian National Audit Office reported that major defence procurement projects in Australia have been running on average more than two years behind their original target delivery, and have incurred cost over-runs of 65% above the original estimates. ( see Jane’s Defence Weekly, 2 December 2009.)

Same story here. The Defence bureaucrats in New Zealand are no better at cost forecasting, or at getting our defence projects into service, competently. The $252 million project to upgrade the air force’s C-130 Hercules transport
aircraft for instance, is now
running 30 months behind schedule. The MoD’s chronic problems in basic project design and management were highlighted in the recent Coles Review that had been inspired by – among other things – the equipment and operational failings associated with the death of a crew member on HMNZS Canterbury in October 2007. When it released its findings in September 2008, the Coles Review slammed the way the HMNZS Canterbury had been acquired, equipped and rushed into service. The entire process, it said, had been ‘characterized by shortcomings in project management and governance, and collective wishful thinking.’

Do the public have any reason to think that MoD has got its act together, and will be more inclined to spend tax dollars wisely? Not really. The only good news is that not much in the way of fresh money may be needed, once the shortfall for the already flagged projects has been found. Because as mentioned, all of the procurements previously flagged in the LTDP have been put on hold, until the new White Paper is unveiled. Presumably, this will mean that at least $884 million of any monies announced for Defence after March 31 will actually be the holdover funds that had been allocated by the Clark government.

Beyond that point….as Mapp told JDW, a lot is up in the air and many decisions will depend on the level of funds available : “ Things like – what do you do about the Endeavour [tanker vessel] What do you do about the truck fleet ? What do you do you do about the ANZAC [frigates ] self defence upgrade – the scale of it, in particular? ‘ What do you do, indeed.

Our defence planning process is unfolding in the wake of a similar White Paper released by the Rudd government in Australia last year. As Mapp told the JDW, one of the prime features of our new White Paper will its analysis of our relationship with our allies – and in particular, of the potential for ‘an improved and enhanced’ Closer Defence Relationship with Australia.

In operational terms, this would be an attractive prospect for our men and women in uniform. It could well mean that Australian ships will be forward based in Auckland or in Lyttleton, from where they could help us to police our vast offshore exclusive economic zone. RAAF planes also could be based here, and they would provide hints of a modern tactical air cover capability that we haven’t seen here before, not even before the scrapping of the air combat role once played by our elderly Skyhawks. At the same time, some of our Army, Navy and Air Force personnel could be posted to Aussie bases on a regular basis, in the name of enhanced inter-operability. There could even be a Rapid Reaction Force for the Pacific comprised jointly of New Zealand and Australian forces. Expect a lot of excited media coverage about how the spirit of ANZAC lives on into the 21st century, and is more than willing to police the Pacific.

That’s the drawback. The real problems of closer co-operation with Canberra don’t exist at the operational level, but at the strategic one. Australia has big ambitions in the Pacific region, and has plans for building a force projection capability well beyond the region – plans that are not currently shared by New Zealand, even assuming it could afford the wherewithal to contribute in any significant way. The truculent language directed at China in the Aussie White Paper last year has already been mentioned. Former US defence analyst and academic Paul Buchanan summed up the difference in strategic perspectives pretty neatly last year in the Jane’s Defence Weekly report :

Australia’s recently announced Defence White Paper places emphasis on maritime security, tactical air domination and special operations in foreign theatres. In sum, Australia no longer thinks exclusively of border defence and regional security ; its military ambitions extend far beyond the south-west Pacific…. 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.”

Right now, Australia doesn’t seem to be expecting all that much from us. The relevant section of its White Paper talked about rebuilding ‘ our historic capacity to integrate Australia and New Zealand force elements in the Anzac tradition…without prejudice of course, to our respective policy courses…. It could be as modest as integrating our transport logistics support, or as ambitious as an Anzac task force capable of deploying seamlessly at short notice into our immediate region.” Could be a little, could be a lot.

Mapp is capable of similarly fuzzy language. To date, he has shied away from the word’ integrated’ – a type of defence relationship that would obviously jeopardize our ability to distance ourselves from Australia whenever Canberra chose to be a regional sheriff, or when it wanted to join any future coalition of the willing with the US and Britain. Yet at the same time, Mapp indicated that something more than merely being inter-operable is contemplated. What he has in mind, he explained to JDW, is less than a NATO level of force integration. ‘Its more than inter-operable, but it is less than integrated ; it is probably a fully complemented approach.” Fully complemented, beyond inter-operable yet not integrated ? We will have to wait until March 31 to see what these Jesuitical distinctions mean in reality, but it sounds like a surrender of our independence.

What history tells us – judging by the decisions taken by National-led governments and from the statements on Iraq made by National when in opposition in 2002-03, a Key government will be more inclined to follow where our traditional allies wish to lead us, than we have been during the past decade.

A White Paper has to serve several different purposes. As Professor Alan Dupont of the Lowy Institute said in his analysis of Australia’s White Paper last year such documents provide a strategic road map for the armed forces, and a list of the equipment needed for the job. Probably, this explains why a Defence establishment intent on buying new planes and submarines chose to reject the advice from two of its own military intelligence agencies that China is unlikely to pose a threat to Australian interests in the next 20 years. In fact the Australian defence hawks have found to their surprise and dismay that the US now takes a more benign military stance towards China than they do.

Therefore, the New Zealand public would have reason to feel very skeptical if our White Paper seeks to paint a negative picture of future Chinese influence in the Pacific. As the Australian newspaper reported:

Defence officials saw the trip to Washington as an opportunity to recruit US support for their view on China. They expected the US to back their view that China was the new “cold war” and that Australia should be planning force structures around the possibility of a future war with China.

The view of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the US intelligence agencies was that although China’s military build-up needed to be carefully monitored, it should not drive the future structure of defence forces.

“They didn’t get any answers from Washington that would support China as the main emerging threat or the need to shape the (defence) force for war against China,” one government source observed.

Despite this, [Rudd defence adviser Mike] Mr Pezzullo and his team have drafted a white paper that is based around the central proposition that China could pose a significant long-term threat to Australia’s security.

The reality is that New Zealand has no valid reason to get on the same bandwagon as the Canberra defence hawks. As even the right wing American Enterprise analyst Gary Schmitt explained in December, many countries in the Pacific region are currently working out their own multifaceted deals with China. We do not have to be ‘all the way’ with the United States any longer, according to this veteran of the Reagan administration :

Taking a two-tiered, multilateral approach in Asia means that the states in the region are not forced to choose between China and the United States. Countries can have a foot in both forums, creating a multilateral architecture that reflects the need both to engage China, and to hedge against its rise.

In addition to the message that it sends to the armed forces, a White Paper also delivers a domestic political message to the voting public . It rationalises how the nation is being protected and how the tax dollars levied for Defence are being spent. As Dupont says, it also sends a political message to an international audience, by informing our allies on how we currently see the world, and our role within it.

Luckily for the Key government, the Clark government had invested fairly heavily in Defence. As a result, we have virtually reversed the previous rundown in our defence capabilities that was so embarrassingly exposed in Bosnia during the 1990s, when our Army equipment would routinely break down and need to be towed back to base. With the exception of a small list of big ticket items, relatively little needs to be spent in the immediate future to keep our Defence forces in a state of reasonable readiness.

To clarify this, it may be useful to itemize just what has been bought for the armed forces in recent years. The Navy’s Project Protector scheme has entailed the purchase of a new multi-role vessel, four inshore patrol ships and two offshore patrol vessels. Fleets of both Light Armoured Vehicles and Light Operational Vehicles have been bought for the Army. Two modified Boeing 757s have been bought for the Air Force, and new NH90 and A109 helicopters as well. Upgrades are under way to the C130 Hercules and P.3K Orion surveillance aircraft. On top of all this, the Clark government built a new $57 million building in downtown Wellington for the defence bureaucrats.

For good reason therefore, Des Ashton, the recently appointed deputy secretary of Defence Acquisitions recently conceded the proposition that the MoD would be unlikely to see as many active acquisition projects in the next seven years, as it had in the past seven years:

I think that’s true. And we are also plainly, not just New Zealand but the whole world, under fiscal pressures at the moment. So I would say that the White Paper and any Long Term Development Plan or similar plan that flows from it will tell us where we are going. But I wouldn’t anticipate that we are going to get a great rush of projects, because it is a matter of how affordable things are.”

Over the last decade, the boost in our defence capability carried out under Labour was a byproduct of the Defence Beyond 2000 evaluation carried out by former National Party/Act politician Derek Quigley. In brief, Quigley identified that spending on the armed forces had been spread far too thinly – and he advocated an Army focussed approach in future, with the two other services largely playing support roles.

The logic involved was that quality, not breadth, would yield better returns both militarily, and in bang for the buck – given the identifiable risks and obligations that New Zealand could rationally be expected to face over the next couple of decades. Once this framework was accepted, the scrapping of the air combat wing made sound tactical and economic sense. It wasn’t needed, it wouldn’t work and it was money down the drain.

Much as National had lambasted it in opposition, a great deal of the logic of Defence Beyond 2000 remains irrefutable, and its framework seems likely to endure. This time around, the Key government has made it clear to its expert review panel that reconsidering the air combat wing decision is not on the cards. Nor is any re-think of this country’s anti-nuclear legislation. Finally – and despite all the criticism heaped previously on our levels of defence spending – the Key government has made it clear that New Zealand is unlikely to spend more than the 1% of GDP routinely set aside in recent decades for Defence.

As mentioned, one litmus test of this White Paper will be the extent to which – in reality rather than mere rhetoric – it can rationalize aligning New Zealand more closely with our traditional allies in the US, UK and Australia. Particularly so, by adopting their strategic worldview. Last year, Australia signaled that it wants to pursue a maritime denial policy and announced plans to invest heavily in a larger fleet of submarines. ( Once again, a perceived threat from China can be the only reason for going down this maritime denial road.) Australia is making this investment in twelve submarines even though it can reportedly manage to reliably crew only somewhere between one (at worst) and three (at best ) of the six submarines that it currently has.

Presumably, New Zealand hasn’t got the means – or one hopes, the desire – to travel down the strategic path that Rudd is taking Australia. Even so, our alternative course during the 2000s has not remotely meant that we have been pacifists, or peaceniks. During the past decade, our troops have been deployed in Timor, the Solomons, Afghanistan etc, yet without surrendering our ability to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy. By doing so, we avoided getting into the Iraq war. By contrast, if a National government had been in power in 2003, New Zealand would almost certainly have been militarily involved in Iraq, with all of the related security risks and diplomatic fallout that this illegal operation has entailed for Britain, and for Australia.

Come March 31, the public should therefore be looking very critically at the White Paper. They will want to see whether the strategic vision that it contains will put New Zealand at greater risk of being caught up in the military adventurism of our allies. As the US has found, the main threats to our security could well be the ones that our own leaders manage to create.

Next month : a closer look at the ANZAC Rapid Reaction Force