Playing Aussie Rules on Defence

Why the Rapid Reaction Force would do more harm than good to the ANZAC spirit.

Part II in a series (also see Part I: Shaping Up To Fight)

by Gordon Campbell

The announcement most likely to generate headlines in the Defence White Paper due on March 31 will be the official formation of an ANZAC Rapid Reaction Force to police (aka “assist”] the Pacific region. Last year, the Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers of both countries indicated such a force would consist of Australian and New Zealand troops, jointly commanded at the operational level, and capable of being rapidly deployed to meet any future threat to the stability of the Pacific region – regardless of whether that breakdown was due to internal factors ( civil unrest, natural catastrophe etc) or from meddling by outside powers.

Given the harm this is likely to do to New Zealand’s international image of relative neutrality, the force is bound to be controversial. From Europe to the Middle East to Asia, our perceived distance from the traditional military alliance of the US, Britain and Australia has been of benefit to us, in trade, tourism, diplomacy and security. The RRF could change those perceptions overnight and put us back within the old neo-colonial club. It will also blur the lines that have hitherto made us a less likely target than Australia for jihadi terrorism. It is hard to see how the advantages can outweigh the downsides.

The desirability of creating such a force was first raised by Australia in its own Defence White Paper last year. Supposedly, a joint Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) could ‘deploy seamlessly into our region at short notice’ as part of a trans-Tasman exploration of ‘opportunities to rebuild our historical capacity to integrate Australian and New Zealand force elements.’ Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and John Key advocated the creation of such a force, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported after their meeting in Canberra last August:

Mr Rudd has not released any details about the possible ANZAC contingent, but says there will be times when it would make sense for the forces to be jointly deployed. “We believe, given the enormous bonds which already exist between our two armed forces, their common training doctrines and the compatibility of so much of their equipment, that this is actually a useful thing for us to do together,” Mr Rudd said.

Mr Key says New Zealand is re-assessing its defence arrangements, and a joint contingent makes sense given the two countries already serve in many places together. He says he does not know what capability would be required for a joint force or in what circumstances it would be deployed.

“It’s a germ of an idea but it is something that the defence forces are interested in,” Mr Keys said. The chief of defence forces on both sides of the Tasman will discuss [it] and we’ll see how it goes.”

In late September 2009, the respective Defence Ministers (John Faulkner, Wayne Mapp) also met, and advocated setting up such a force:

The ADF and NZDF will form a Pacific-focused Rapid Reaction Force to

respond to regional contingencies including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The force will regularly train and exercise together and be able to deploy at short notice.

To ensure an RRF could be deployed quickly and effectively, Faulkner and Mapp indicated that improvements would be needed in the ANZAC airlift capability. Moreover, to ensure the RRF can communicate effectively with itself (and others) when planning and executing its actions in the Pacific, the next 12 months would require an upgrade of the existing communication technologies, trans-Tasman. .

Plainly then, the RRF will cost a lot of money to set up, to train and to deploy – at a time when any fresh money for this purpose is likely to be scarce to non-existent in the May Budget. Funds will be no more plentiful in the foreseeable future. Yet the closer alignment envisaged with Australia’s armed forces can only put upward pressure on the wages paid to our own armed forces. Since our military remuneration system began to be revamped in 2008, there has been greater scope for external factors in the job market to be taken into account when setting wages within the military. It would be deeply ironic if the formation of the RRF helped to speed up the rate of attrition by New Zealand’s men and women in uniform, as they left to seek better prospects across the Tasman.

Even on its own narrow terms, the RRF will entail a substantial opportunity cost. Inevitably, the costs related to setting up and maintaining this force will crowd out some of the peacekeeping activities (carried out under the UN umbrella) that have been consistent with the more independent foreign policy stance of the Clark government. This may already be happening. Is the Provincial Reconstruction Team for instance, being brought back from their aid and development work in Afghanistan in order to free up resources and personnel for this regional policing role in the Pacific ?

In general terms, will the commitment of soldiers and equipment to the RRF restrict New Zealand’s ability to provide soldiers and equipment for peacekeeping and other multilateral missions abroad – and conversely, what impact will a closer alignment with Australia and the US have on New Zealand’s standing and influence within international forums ? In the recent past, New Zealand has been able to punch above its weight diplomatically largely because of its readiness to take on a range of multilateral commitments – and from an independent position, not as a predictable helpmate and echo chamber for positions already taken by its traditional allies. In that respect, the RRF bids to turn back the clock 30 years and return New Zealand to the traditional fold, without incurring the political risk of scrapping the nuclear free legislation, The White Paper seems likely to drive around that legislation, back into the past.

At time of writing, there were no reliable indications on whether the RRF will be company size (around 250 troops) or battalion size, which would be around 550 troops.. Either way, a limited pool of soldiers and equipment can only be stretched so far. The more often the RRF trains together to maximize its efficiency, the larger the impact will be on the current roles being played by our armed forces. In addition, the formation of an RRF would have strategic and diplomatic repercussions in the Pacific, and beyond.

It seems significant that the RRF concept has been developed behind closed doors at the Ministry of Defence, and not via open consultation on the diplomatic circuit. Presumably, Foreign Affairs will be expected to manage any diplomatic fallout. How is the South Pacific Forum likely to react to the formation of a regional SWAT team by the two main neo-colonial powers in the South Pacific? Not well, one imagines. While the RRF’s intended roles would include helping out our Pacific neighbours in times of natural disaster, they do not appear to have been asked for their input to the proposal.

China, given its furious reaction last year to elements of the Australian White Paper, is unlikely to treat the RRF as being for purposes of defence or emergency relief. It seems more likely to view the RRF as a projection of offensive power by Washington’s main surrogate in the region. Having carefully cultivated an independent stance towards China for trade and diplomatic reasons, New Zealand seems about to throw away those advantages by painting itself as Australia’s military helpmate – which could prove very unfortunate for us, given that we cannot bring the sweetener of vast mineral resources to the negotiating table. When it comes to advancing our relationship with China, it is hard to see the RRF as anything other than a self-imposed liability.

In sum, selling the RRF to our South East Asian and Pacific neighbours as a purely defensive innovation – or as an aid and relief initiative – will be an uphill slog. This aspect of the RRF was briefly touched on by two defence experts last year, in a paper called ‘Australia and New Zealand Twenty-First Century ANZACS.’ The authors could hardly be closer to the action. They were Dr. Peter Greener, senior fellow at the Command and Staff College, New Zealand Defence Force at Trentham, and Colonel Nick Floyd, the Australian Chief of Army’s Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney. While noting that the ANZAC legacy and sentiment run deep, Greener and Floyd pointed out that ‘rarely] has the idea for such a force been raised ‘in the absence of a clear threat to common national interests.’

Well, exactly. Gallipolli. WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Timor, Bougainville, the Solomons, Afghanistan…Beforehand, when Australian and New Zealand forces fought alongside each other – and forged those celebrated ANZAC bonds of courage, mateship and loyalty – it was in response to an existing threat. Yet currently, the likelihood of an attack on either country, as the authors say, is remote. Even so, we are creating an ANZAC joint strike force before anything that requires a reaction has emerged. For the first time, the ANZAC spirit is going to be expressed pre-emptively. Can it be quite the same ANZAC spirit, when it is being fostered pre-emptively within a regional enforcement unit?

No doubt, as Greener and Floyd indicate, politicians on both sides of the Tasman are keen to enhance closer defence relations between New Zealand and Australia. There would be obvious career advantages for the military personnel involved, and some business opportunities for defence industries in ramping up co-operation in procurement decisions. Greener and Floyd explain the logic of why the RRF will mainly be comprised of Army personnel, and is likely to be assembled on a rotational basis, rather than as a stand-alone bilateral force :

Whilst….raising an actual, bilaterally-manned ANZAC unit might make a politically potent statement, it would appear more practical to establish an enduring rotational commitment model – similar in some respects to Europe’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Though in some ways more complicated, this would allow broader exposure to Trans-Tasman interoperability, and establish more personal-level linkages.

Given the greater suitability of a rotational model, any future ANZAC force would most likely have a predominance of army elements. Whilst it is clear that air and naval force elements are pivotal, nevertheless these elements can more easily achieve necessary levels of interoperability through sustained training and exercises, rather than needing to be home-ported together. The same cannot be said for land forces, which because of their environment and their way of operating, demand a far greater degree of intimacy at all levels of command and operation. More importantly, a visibly two-nation land force poses a starker message of common resolve.

Of course, it is precisely that ‘starker message of national resolve’ that is likely to raise diplomatic hackles in the Pacific, and beyond. Last month, in the first part of this series, I outlined the risks that New Zealand would be running if it buys into the strategic worldview of the Australians. Last year. Canberra’s own Defence White Paper set out what was widely taken to be a hostile stance towards China and its military role in the region over the next 20 years. To counter this imagined threat, the Australians advocated a procurement strategy based largely on maritime denial – via, for instance, a bigger submarine force. Under the previous government, New Zealand had declined to buy into Canberra’s mindset on defence, and foreign policy. The Key government seems far more inclined to do so..

The internal politics of the NZDF could well play into the government’s hands. The term of the current chief of the New Zealand Defence Forces, Army Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae has been extended for a year, and this should enable him to get the Army–based contribution to the RRF up and running. The leading candidate to succeed Mateparae in 2011 currently seems to be his deputy, Rear-Admiral Jack Steer (pictured left). This would mark the first time the Navy has led the NZDF since Vice-Admiral Sir Somerford Teagle’s stint during the early 1990s.

Steer could prove useful, given the current Australian emphasis on maritime defence. After all, New Zealand has just spent some $500 million on acquiring and kitting out the Project Protector fleet of ships, large and small. Looking ahead, while a couple of big ticket items are required for the Air Force (the Orion surveillance upgrade, the troubled Hercules refit) the Navy has some major bids on the table. As Wayne Mapp indicated to Jane’s Defence Weekly last June – in an article to which this series is indebted – the government expects the White Paper process to resolve the balancing acts between what is on the procurement wishlist, and what is actually affordable :

Things like – what do you do about the Endeavour [tanker vessel] ? What do you do about the truck fleet? What are you to do about the ANZAC [frigates] self–defence upgrade – the scale of it in particular? Because that is a major investment, it has to be looked at through the White Paper process. It’s got to be put into context.

Obviously then, the level of self defence upgrade envisaged for the ANZAC ships will be a litmus test of the Key government’s commitment to Defence. The ships need to be able to foil attacks by anti-ship missiles as well as by fast inshore attack craft – and the sky is the limit for those with an open cheque book. There are lavish options available but the likelihood is that the least will be done, on the cheap. Ultimately, taxpayers will need to be convinced to meet whatever costs are involved, and to support the rationale. In that respect, a public relations blitz that was sentimentally based on the ANZAC legacy would get the government only so far – and may prove not enough to allay concerns about the loss of sovereignty the RRF will entail.

Many New Zealanders already resent how this country has become a branch office of the Australian economy. For similar reasons, there could be widespread public resistance against buying into the strategic world view of the Australians on regional and global conflicts. Since 9/11, New Zealand has succeeded in furthering its own interests (and inflicted less harm on others) by adopting a relatively independent response to the war against terrorism, one guided by UN resolutions. In doing so, it has done far, far better than if it had dutifully signed up for the coalition led by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard. New Zealand is a safer place, untouched by threats from jihadi terrorism, as a result.

Will the White Paper due at the end of this month seek to crush that independence? These days, sovereignty is a more complex concept that it used to be. Routinely, countries now regard a degree of delegation to global institutions – eg the UN or the World Court or the European Community – as a valid way of furthering their national interests. Even so, full control of one’s armed forces remains a central plank of all modern notions of sovereignty.

The symbolism of joining with Australia in a joint police force for the Pacific region is a statement of common purpose that is not only questionable in strategic terms – do we really share the same perceptions of the likely regional threats, or agree on how to combat them ? This healthy divergence of views, you would think, would render impractical any plans to act in unison, operationally. Whatever the jargon, we will be perceived to have surrendered a degree of our sovereignty – and in practical terms, that’s exactly what we will have done. While in theory, we may retain operational control of our RRF component, many decisions in the field will inevitably be made without prior recourse to Wellington.

In sum, it is hard to see any benefits to the wider New Zealand public or business community from the formation of the Rapid Reaction Force. Any narrow benefits to the armed forces stand to be outweighed by the actual and opportunity costs involved. Not to mention the risk to our wider trade and diplomatic efforts from being seen to be cosying up to Canberra. Already, our ability to advance proposals within the Pacific Forum is affected by suspicions of our collusion with Canberra, and by the grievances felt by its smaller regional powers and interests. The RRF would only intensify such concerns.

Arguably, New Zealand would be better advised to focus the development of its armed forces on tasks central to our own conception of national mission – and not on tasks and perceptions’ jointly’ arrived at in discussions with our bigger, wealthier, and more gung ho friend across the Tasman. Australia can still be our very, very, very good friend – but there are greater trade, security and diplomatic advantages to be won by New Zealand, through keeping our distance.