The purpose of a Defence White Paper is to inform the public about how the government plans to arm and use the armed forces to enhance our security and strategic interests – while at the same time, telling our allies and neighbours (friendly or otherwise) just how New Zealand sees the world. On every count, this much-delayed report (originally due at the end of March) is a letdown. Anyone looking to this document for the clarity, independence and intellectual rigour that Derek Quigley brought to the Defence Beyond 2000 review eleven years ago will be disappointed. Yes, every item on the agenda gets a mention, but details, priorities, coherence? Not so much.
The Strategic Outlook Until 2025 section in particular, barely rises above the level of a fourth form geography essay. Does New Zealand think China or the US will be the dominant military power in the Pacific over the next two decades? Well, the White Paper thinks China will become more powerful economically and militarily, while the United States – though remaining the world’s leading military and economic power – will become less directly engaged in the region, and may be looking to its regional allies to make a greater contribution. End of analysis. And how might we strike a balance in our dealings with these two great powers – and would cozying up to Australia be a help or a hindrance to us forging our own links with the Chinese? Evidently, such matters were far too difficult for our Defence boffins to even hazard a guess.
Yet that surely, is the issue. Do we plan to treat China’s rise in military capability as inherently expansionist and hegemonic, or as mainly defensive in nature? Last year, the Australian government’s own White Paper succeeded in enraging the Chinese by focusing on China’s naval build-up in the Pacific, and on the threat to stability this was seen to represent. So when in this document we call Australia ‘our principal defence and security partner’ (para 1.10) and say that we think (para 2.21) it is ‘in our interest to add to Australia’s strategic weight’ and even that we envisage ( para 3.38 ) “ combining with it in an extra-regional conflict’ we seem tone deaf to the diplomatic signals that we are sending..
Superficially, this dog whistling (and friendly tail wagging) to our old ANZUS allies is the most striking thing about the White Paper. In a misty-eyed resurrection of the neo-colonial past, the document talks about fostering bilateral relations with ‘like-minded’ states…grounded in common traditions, experience and values..” Lest there is any doubt who we are talking about, the White Paper lists them (2.18) as Australia, the US, the United Kingdom and Canada.” New Zealand describes itself as “ an engaged, active and stalwart partner of the US” and (most alarmingly) the document adds that our relationships with ‘like-minded states’ should be ‘made concrete with the sharing of risk in operations around the world.’
In other words, the sharing of risk with our old imperial allies is depicted as an obligation that we must shoulder, as part and parcel of our existing ties. Hard to see the difference between this and the old ‘where Britain goes, so goes the Empire.’ Stance. Given this mindset of dutiful subservience to the ‘sharing of risk in operations around the globe’ it seems obvious that the Key government would have made New Zealand part of the coalition of the willing in the invasion of Iraq – with all the attendant ‘risks’ from terrorism that this would have entailed, and despite the related negative impacts on our trade and diplomatic efforts across the Middle East, and beyond. Such a stance might be tolerable if there were some balancing expressions of the need for independence, and some sign that we intend to define and pursue our own strategic interests – but such expressions are noticeably absent from a White Paper that reads just like an ANZUS- era document. The tone is subservient, the language is of dependence and obligation.
Does New Zealand intend to manage the impact that closer dancing with the Australian military will have on our relationship with China, which is already one of our key trading partners? I’m not saying that we should let China’s responses dictate our defence policy. I’m just saying that there should be some evidence in this document of how we intend to carry out a balancing act that is manifestly in our own best interests – first to keep us out of wars where we have no strategic interest off our own at stake, and secondly, to avoid looking like the member of a posse put together by the budding neo-colonial sheriff in the Pacific region. Can such deference to Australia (and beyond, to the US and the UK) really be in our best trade and diplomatic interests for the next 25 years? We seem to be walking backwards into the future.
The hardware. To the Key government’s clear relief, its predecessor essentially re-equipped the armed forces with almost everything on the military’s wishlist. Therefore, no big ticket items need to be bought in the next couple of years – and the White Paper dodges giving any specifics beyond that point. Instead, it postpones all the details until the Defence Review in 2015, at least. It says the C130 Hercules won’t have to be replaced until 2020, the P-3 Orions until 2025, the ANZAC frigates until 2030. It doesn’t offer a clue as to what the replacements will be – beyond saying they will be the same or better- or how these replacements can be afforded. At para 5.52, it blandly reports the alarming news that by 2013 the current Fleet Replenishment Ship (ie, the Endeavour.) will no longer comply with international maritime regulations. It will be replaced, the White Paper promises, but it can’t be specific, even though the problem is barely two years away. ‘Possibly’ a more versatile vessel ‘incorporating some sealift capability’ and working in tandem with HMNZS Canterbury will do the trick. Hey, this is only a document providing an outline of our defence plans until 2035. It can’t be expected to say what we will be doing in two years time to address a looming shortfall in our capacity in our capacity to support and supply our overseas deployments.
Similar vagueness surrounds the level of self-defence upgrades that we intend to buy for the ANZAC frigates. In June of last year Defence Minister Wayne Mapp told Jane’s Defence Weekly (not online] just how hard some of these decisions were :
Things like – what do you do about the Endeavour? 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.
Well, the White Paper has come and gone now, and we’re still none the wiser. All we’re told (5.47) is that the self-defence upgrade will ‘address obsolescence’ in the frigates and ‘improve their defensive capability’ – which tells us nothing at all. Significant backdowns have also occurred. National spent the best part of a decade criticizing the decision to buy 105 LAVS for the Army and indicated it would slash them by up to a half on gaining office, Yet the White Paper reveals (5.28) that the LAVS will be cut from 105 to…’around 90.’ Similarly, when it comes to the wider configuration of forces, all the huffing and puffing about the air combat has come to nothing. Now, the Key government accepts (at 1.19-22 and also at 5.58-59) the Army-focused configuration defined by Quigley and put into effect by the Clark government, with the two other services playing an ‘enabling’ and “ supporting’ role.
As always, affordability will determine how we equip and deploy our troops. All very well to exalt the relationship with Australia, but (at 3.13) the review points out the escalating expense of modern weapons systems – with obvious implications ‘for the ability of like-minded countries to remain interoperable.’ The gap between us and Australia in particular, is likely to increase, the White Paper concedes (at 3.38) as Australia continues to invest in ‘high end military capabilities.’ Luckily, it is deemed highly unlikely (3.70) that New Zealand will face a direct military threat in the period up until 2035.
Privatisation. Over the next 5-10 years at least, the White Paper assumes that the extra needs of the defence forces are to be funded mainly by internal cost savings. In line with the Key government’s usual rhetoric, resources are to be shifted from to the front lines, from support staff – magically, without any loss of quality in front line performance, or in the subsequent counselling and care of deployed troops. Where possible, this will be achieved via a process of civilianization of support staff, and by contracting out – which the White Paper optimistically says (6.41) will be cheaper.
Some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings projected (8.16) by the White Paper look both arbitrary – a suspiciously neat 10% can be shaved off the $150 million cost of training, the report jauntily assumes – and overly optimistic. Especially since $84 million in ‘ quick win’ savings (see 8.10) have already been made. In a poignant paragraph, the armed forces are advised to ‘manage’ the recruitment of good prospects who are failing the literacy and numeracy tests that are currently required. Elsewhere, the possible impact of employing civilians on military career structures and retention is barely addressed. It is simply taken on faith that military personnel will want to move in and out of military service over the course of their career. Contracting out, it concedes in an aside (6.49) will increase the possibility of price gouging by contractors. Not to worry about that, though.
Time will tell ( come the Defence Review in 2015) if this privatization process has saved as much money as the White Paper proposes. Certainly, some of its recommendations will increase the paperwork – the demands for supportive documentation for every single major purchase for instance, and the addition of a specific manager to manage the interface between the Ministry and the NZDF on each purchase, do not look consistent with the drive to prune back bureaucracy. So far, surprisingly little comment has been addressed at the proposals to increase political control of the armed forces. From now on, (9.7) Cabinet will be advised beforehand about – and will be able to veto – the appointments of the heads of the various services. How such politicization will survive a change in government is not discussed.
Such details matter, but it is the wider strategic vision that will concern most New Zealanders about the White Paper. Arguably, New Zealand would be better advised to focus the development of its armed forces on tasks related to our own independent sense of national mission. Making it mandatory that there be a robust UN mandate for the deployment of our troops into foreign wars and peacekeeping missions would be a start. That way, the Clark government kept us safe from the the military risks and adventures by our traditional allies that this White Paper heartily embraces. In particular, any joint operations with our bigger, wealthier, and more gung ho friend across the Tasman will need to be rigorously assessed. Australia can still be our very, very, good friend – but arguably, there are far greater trade, security and diplomatic advantages to be won by New Zealand, through keeping our distance.