Why keep spending billions on defence, when there’s no discernible threat?
by Gordon Campbell
Last year, the world began spending more money on weapons again, for the first time since 2011. Globally, defence budgets rose by 1 percent to $1.68 trillion in 2015, on figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of this outlay was by the United States, which spent $596 billion on arms last year– yet in fact, this marked a decline of 2.4 per cent on 2014 figures. China’s outlay rose by 7.4 per cent last year. However, despite the alarm bells being rung in Washington and Canberra about China’s military intentions, the Chinese spend of $215 billion remains little more than a third of the annual American expenditure on armaments.
New Zealand belongs to a region – Asia and Oceania – where military spending rose sharply in 2015, by 5.4 per cent. Much of that rise has been driven by tensions in the South China Sea, and by regional concerns about China’s intentions. As he is wont to do, Donald Trump has voiced the extreme version of those concerns: “We have rebuilt China, and yet they will go in the South China Sea and build a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen,” Trump told the New York Times last month. ” In fact, as one of Trump’s critics pointed out, while China may be acting aggressively in the South China Sea, it is not building a mega-fortress of the Galactic Empire on those rocky outcrops. More on that later.
Significantly for New Zealand, Australia has just released a White Paper on Defence. We are about to do the same. The spending spree on defence that the Australians have in mind almost beggars belief:
Australia’s defense spending will increase from A$32.4 billion in fiscal year 2016-17 to A$58.7 billion in 2025-26, according to the new 2016 Defense White Paper released by the Australian Department of Defense this week. That’s an 81 per cent jump in expenditure over the next decade.
Under this new budget model, defense spending is slated to grow to A$42.4 (US$30.42) billion by 2020-21, reaching two per cent of Australia’s GDP based on current projections. Overall spending in the next ten years for “investment in new and enhanced capabilities” will add up to A$195 billion.
You read that right. Canberra plans on spending an extra $30 billion a year on “new and enhanced capabilities” for its defence forces – including new frigates, armoured personnel carriers, strike fighter jets, drones and submarines. Overall, its outlay on armaments will amount to $A195 billion over the next decade and – incredibly – this commitment has been future proofed. Meaning : the spending programme on Defence has been de-coupled from GDP, which means there will be no reductions in defence spending even if Australia’s brittle economy should happen to tank in the years ahead. “This de-coupling from GDP forecasts will avoid the need to have to regularly adjust Defence’s force structure plans in response to fluctuations in Australia’s GDP,” the Aussie White Paper says.
That is the context – global and regional – for the upcoming New Zealand Defence White Paper. Everyone else it seems, is throwing money at Defence as if there is no tomorrow, while simultaneously running a fine tooth comb over social spending, despite (a) the health needs of an ageing population and (b) the impact that technological change is having on white collar jobs, and middle class incomes. Much of this lavish defence spending is occurring in the absence of any rational, discernible threat. Basically, it makes about as much sense as Lisa Simpson’s tiger-repelling rock:
That is exactly how Defence spending works. There once was a bear, so Homer “needs” to keep on patrolling (equipped with the latest stealth technology, paid for from taxes) forever more. And look at how successful those costly bear patrols are! No more bears! Looking ahead, Lisa’s tiger-repelling rock promises to work just as well. If we invest in the rock – and only if we do – can we be assured that no tigers will ever start coming in our direction.
On January 27 of this year, the authoritative Jane’s IHS Aerospace, Defence and Security publication carried a (paywalled) article outlining the spending programme on Defence envisaged by the Key government. A few weeks later, here’s how I reported Jane’s findings on Scoop:
The [Key] government ….is planning to spend $11 billion dollars in the next ten years on new gear for our Defence Forces. That’s not a misprint. … More than one billion dollars a year is being set aside each year, every year, for the next decade for military procurement purposes, while funding for the health system has been systematically reduced in real terms since 2010.
The key phrase in the Jane’s article was this:
The new [procurement] team [at NZDF] will deliver an acquisition programme of about NZD11 billion over the coming decade.
And as Scoop explained :
Reportedly, the money will be spent on new frigates, new cargo planes to replace the C-130 Hercules and new surveillance aircraft to replace the Orions. That cost by 2025 will be three and a half times more than the most fanciful MFAT estimates of what the TPP will deliver us by 2030. How on earth can John Key be talking about tax cuts in 2017 when this country is facing a state spending programme of this magnitude?
No doubt, the Defence Force deems that it ‘needs’ this gear to maintain business as usual. Yet at what cost, and to counter what level of rationally determined risk, exactly? Even the 2014 Defence Force Assessment published last year admitted that the threats that New Zealand faces are (a) limited and (b) of a nature that would give us time to upgrade and to prepare, should that ever be needed:
Para 66. New Zealand does not presently face a direct threat of physical invasion and occupation of New Zealand territory. The likelihood of such a threat to the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and territory over which we have a sovereign claim, emerging before 2040 is judged to be very low, and would be preceded by significant change to the international security environment. New Zealand could therefore expect to have a reasonable amount of time to re-orientate its defence priorities should this be necessary. Although there is no direct threat to our territorial integrity, New Zealand faces a range of other threats from state and non-state actors, including cyber threats and terrorism.
Which is quite a concession. As I pointed out in February on Scoop, cyber threats and terrorism are the palpable threats that the NZDF identifies, going forwards. But, hang on… how would a brand new batch of frigates or cargo planes or spotter planes help to defend us from the Defence Force’s own prioritisation of (a) cyber threats or (b) terrorists at home, or abroad? Even if they could defend us from such horrors – and they can’t – is it difficult to regard a handful of hackers and jihadists and fishing zone predators as posing so deadly a threat to our national security as to justify us spending $11 billion of allegedly scarce funds, on combatting them. It looks more like the Defence Force is simply rolling over its current force structure, and plucking off the shelf the next generation of gear to fulfil roles that belong to the Cold War era, 30 years ago or more.
That conclusion is not merely a New Zealand perspective. The prominent Australian economist and commentator John Quiggin has written a couple of articles recently about the rationale being offered for the massive outlays that the Turnbull government has in mind for Defence. It is worth quoting Quiggin at length, because the same mindset is driving the New Zealand spending agenda as well:
In keeping with his commitment to do exactly what Tony Abbott would have done, but with more style, Malcolm Turnbull has just announced that we are to spend [$195 million in total] on fighter planes and submarines….. Rather than look at the details, it’s worth asking why we are, yet again, arming ourselves to re-fight World War II.
World War II was fought on land, sea and air. Submarines and fighter planes played a crucial role. But since 1945, things have changed. The 70 years since 1945 have been marked by near-continuous land warfare in various parts of the world. On the other hand, there has been essentially no naval warfare, in the sense of battles between ships or carrier based aircraft, with the exception of the absurd and unnecessary Falklands conflict. Air combat between fighter planes lasted a bit longer after 1945, playing a big role in the Korean War, but has been pretty much non-existent since the 1980s. All warplanes, these days, are effectively bombers, usually hitting targets that have previously been rendered defenceless by missile attack. Yet the problems of the F-35 fighter [ the trouble-plagued and costly plane that Australia has ordered] stem, in large measure, from its capacity to engage in hypothetical dogfights… But the real work is increasingly done by drone operators, commuting from the suburbs to undertake their task of destruction in air conditioned offices….So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars.
Submarines – which are Australia’s other big ticket item, and which the costly replacement of our P-3 Orions will be supposed to augment – will be just as obsolete, upon delivery :
As for submarines, Wikipedia gives a list of submarine actions since 1945. There have been six of them, three involving the sinking of surface ships, and three involving the firing of cruise missiles, something that can be done from craft as small as corvettes. Submarines have been much more notable for sinking themselves. Wikipedia lists four US submarines sunk at sea since 1945, two with all hands. The Russians have done far worse, losing 18 subs, most notably the Kursk, lost with all hands in 2000.
Submarines aren’t obsolete in all their possible uses. If the world ends in a nuclear holocaust, the final missiles will probably be fired from nuclear-armed submarines. But the revival of old-style submarine warfare, using our subs to sink (say) Chinese naval vessels seems remote: the increasing power and range of land based anti-ship missiles will soon make naval power obsolete. Even more remote (thankfully) is the use of submarines to attack merchant ships without warning, as was done in both World Wars. Of course, no one can be certain that seemingly obsolete modes of warfare won’t be revived: For example, there was a cavalry charge during the Afghan war. But spending a trillion dollars on weapons systems that haven’t been used anywhere in the world for decades does not seem like a sensible use of public money.
Exactly. In the 21st century, the Defence Force and the armchair generals have to try harder. They need to make a case for why Defence “needs” should automatically trump everyone else’s. For example, we could have solved the shortfall in special needs funding in New Zealand schools for a fraction of the $440 million that we’ve just spent on temporary upgrades to the weapon platforms on our ageing, soon-to-be replaced frigates. Surely, some public debate is needed on whether we can afford to bankroll the ability of our armed forces to keep on puttering around the globe in the manner accustomed. At least the Australians are upfront about the fact that their spending spree on defence is also a massive job creation and r & d programme in disguise. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made that clear in a recent speech to the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney:
Our defence industry plan, part of the Defence White Paper….is investing $1.6 billion, alone, as part of a huge program in supporting local advanced manufacturing and high technology jobs in innovative industries. The Defence White Paper is a plan for ensuring our defence forces have the capabilities, the physical capacities, they need to secure us in the 21st century. But it will also serve to ensure that as far as possible, every dollar that can be spent in Australia, in Australian industries, in Australian advanced manufacturing, in Australian innovation and technology, will be spent here. Because we will make, through this plan, Australia more secure, not just in a conventional military sense but by building up that technology and industry base upon which our economy, and hence our security, depends.
No such luck for New Zealand. Our $11 billion spend-up will almost entirely go into (a) the coffers of North American arms suppliers, and (b) into creating and sustaining jobs across the Tasman, within the likes of the Australian shipbuilding industry. As Quiggin concludes, the kind of military spend-up that’s envisaged has never been subjected to a cost-benefit test, and would fail it if they were.
Luckily, we have been given a reasonably clear idea of how the Key government views the military threat situation within the Asia Pacific region. Short answer: it doesn’t think there is one. Last September at a function held at China’s National Defence University, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee told us – and the Chinese – how he regarded the threat profile.
For starters, he saw China as posing no military threat now, or in the future: “ We do not expect the South Pacific will face an external military threat. ” Brownlee also called China a “strategic partner” and lavishly praised our “Five Year Engagement Plan with the Peoples’ Liberation Army.” In that same speech, Brownlee tiptoed around the South China Sea issue, calling on “all claimant states to take steps to reduce tensions” within the framework of international law. No blame being levelled there. Interestingly, Brownlee also said : “We do not see our defence relationships with the United States and China as mutually exclusive.” So…don’t count New Zealand as being (only) in the Western military club, alongside the Americans and Australians. The Chinese, it would seem, are seen by the Key government to be our military allies, as well as our partners in trade.
This perspective is quite different from the one outlined in the recent Australian Defence White Paper. In discussing that document, the boffins at the Lowy Institute are pretty sure that Australia has a perceived regional threat – China – in its sights.
“Why”, then, this unprecedented peacetime investment in bolstering of Australia’s defence capabilities? This is probably the easiest question for the Defence White Paper to answer. The strategic outlook notes that “the framework of the rules-based global order is under increasing pressure and has shown signs of fragility”. The challenge from “newly powerful countries” – a paper-thin reference to China – is perceived to be primarily regional. China’s military modernisation, already sporting Asia’s largest navy and 70 submarines, is the backdrop for particular concerns about “points of friction” in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing’s reclamation project is singled out.
Is this concern about an alleged threat in future from China at all justified? Despite all the huffing and puffing by the Australians, it should be noted that China is still being invited to take part in this year’s RIMPAC ( Rim of the Pacific) joint military exercises alongside the US, and other regional powers. Regardless, Australia will be putting pressure on New Zealand to stand with it as a regional counterweight to China in the Asia-Pacific. Expectations won’t be all that high, though. Ever since New Zealand bailed out of ANZUS, the Australians have become accustomed to viewing this country as a disappointing, somewhat cheapskate defence partner. We’re seen to be good for a bit of policing and disaster relief work in the Pacific island states, but not much else. That could be why New Zealand receives only a token mention in the Australian White Paper.
All the same, the rhetoric in our own upcoming Defence White Paper will try very, very hard to invoke the old Anzac mythology of days gone by. Meanwhile, we will continue to shuttle to and fro between placating our closest defence partner (Australia) and our prime trading partner (China). It is not a situation that’s likely to engender respect from either of them – and over the next decade, it will cost us a bundle to maintain this Defence pretence.