Last Friday, Defence Minister Peeni Henare announced his intention to seek savings within the circa $20 billion allocated to Defence over the next decade or so. At the same time, Henare also offered assurances that the three really big ticket, multi-billion dollar recent acquisitions– the frigates upgrades, the four Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft, and the new Hercules heavy lift aircraft – would be exempted from this economy drive. Assuming that Labour really is serious about seeking substantial savings, this probably calls into question the mooted purchases of a new Southern Patrol Vessel (SPV), and an “enhanced” sealift vessel planned to work alongside HMNZS Canterbury. Reportedly, these two investments would cost more than $NZ1.5billion.
Time will tell whether Labour really is going to make major cutbacks. Certainly though, none of the new military equipment will do anything to protect New Zealand from the threats it actually faces – from cyber security, climate change and domestic and foreign terrorism. None of the investment programme seems to be in drone technology – always a cheaper option than the Poseidons for surveillance and search and rescue duties. Still, now that the government has raised the subject of looking for savings in Defence, why not ask a more fundamental question – namely, why does New Zealand need a military at all? What are we getting back from our membership of the military club to justify that annual membership fee of roughly $2 billion a year over the next decade?
I’m not suggesting any political party – including the Greens – is seriously considering de-militarisation as a realistic option. The belief that we need a military for (a) the nation’s defence (b) for offensive actions in tandem with our allies and (c) for humanitarian efforts at home and in the Pacific is too deeply ingrained. Yet it is just as hard to stand idly by while so many billions are being poured down the drain irrationally, when that money could so much better spent on social needs, and/or on building the nation’s productive base. By any logical standard, there is a more compelling case for rebuilding New Zealand’s physical and social infrastructure than there is for pouring money into Australian shipyards (to create jobs for Aussie workers) for the upgrading of frigates that would be next to useless in any real time combat situation.
The military top brass know this, too. That’s why they make the case for the huge investment in Defence in terms of our obligations to our allies, our need to provide aid and emergency relief in the event of natural disasters here and in the Pacific and our need to carry out surveillance within our Exclusive Economic Zone, while locating the odd sailor in distress. None of these arguments make any sense. If that is the real world role for our armed forces, all of those jobs could be done more efficiently and at a fraction of the price by a civilian force trained and kitted out specifically to do such work.
Meaning: We don’t need a Poseidon squadron jammed full of ultra-expensive anti-submarine gear to police our EEZ, and to look for lost sailors. Similarly, we don’t need vastly expensive anti-missile defences on frigates to deter foreign fishing boats. In such cases, an array of drones could do the detection work, and a civilian force armed with conventional, off the shelf weaponry could handle the seizures of catch, and the impounding of foreign vessels, when and if necessary.
That’s the point. Poseidons, frigates and Hercules heavy lift aircraft ( able to transport tanks and APCs) are not useful in any conflict scenario that even the NZDF itself can imagine arising over the next 40 years. To repeat: this ultra-expensive equipment is next to useless when it comes to combatting the actual threats to New Zealand’s security – from cyber security, terrorism and climate change – likely over the course of the investment period in question.
Would we lose much by scrapping the military and replacing it with a well-equipped civil defence force? Well, it would mean a break with traditions that we associate with the spirit of Anzac, Gallipoli, El Alamein and all that. Yet as the recent Operation Burnham inquiry findings have shown, the NZDF leadership has done a pretty thorough job of sullying that tradition all by themselves by (a) systematically misleading the public, and (b) colluding with the Beehive ministers of the day to project an image of competence and integrity not supported by the facts on the ground.
Basically the armed forces are carrying into the 21st century a mindset and a defence posture forged during the Cold War of the 1950s.Only one upgrade has been made since then – China has replaced the Soviet Union as the bogey du jour meant to justify the whole charade. The huge circa $3 billion investment in the four Poseidon aircraft for instance will also require extra ongoing maintenance and data retrieval processing costs involved in running the planes out of their upgraded base at Ohakea. There has been no cost/benefit justification offered for this outlay.
The Poseidons seem intended to serve as an adjunct to Australia’s anti-submarine forces. That Aussie submarine fleet is itself transitioning to where it will have a long range, low noise, long submersion, force projection capability that may well be reliant in future, on nuclear propulsion Last year, the argument for the nuclear transformation of Australia’s submarine fleet (with the assistance of the French) was still being made.
In other words… it would be bad enough if our uniformed military were merely an expensive form of cosplay, mainly reliant on nostalgia for its theatrical effect. But it is much worse than that. These recent defence purchases are tying us back into military configurations over which we have little or no control – and this, in turn, will have repercussions for the contradictory messages we are trying to send to Beijing when we happen to be wearing our trade and diplomacy hats.
….. The tensions in the South China Sea – and keeping our sealanes open for our trade – are being touted as the military rationales for our Defence spend… Simultaneously though, the government is claiming that the current regional disputes (in Asia and the South Pacific) will never result in military conflict, and that China poses absolutely no threat to us, or to the region.
Yep, that’s a rational strategy worth spending $20 billion on, right? IMO, we’d be far better off cutting our losses, abolishing the military altogether, and starting again, from scratch.
The case for de-militarisation
How could New Zealand pursue a less harmful, cheaper, and more realistic path? As a concession to political reality, and as an interim measure on the road to de-militarisation, we could retain the SAS, for a while at least. The SAS is, after all, the most efficient, least expensive element of force projection that we have at our disposal, and the one most highly valued by our allies.
There would be parallels in doing so, with Costa Rica – a small Central American country in a region riven by war that famously abolished its military back in 1948. Costa Rica replaced its military with a civilian force (the Fuerza Publica) responsible for on-the-ground security, counter-narcotics work, patrolling of the borders, and tourism security.
Since 1996 though, Costa Rica has also had its equivalent of our SAS – a 70 strong body called the Special Intervention Unit – which trains with other special forces units around the world. This unit is under the command and control of the nation’s Intelligence and Security Directorate. Arguably, our SAS could be similarly extracted from the NZDF military command structure and allocated a new role defined in terms of national security needs, and not by the imperatives of our current Defence alliances.
In the wake of the Royal Commission into the mosque shootings, there are steps already underway to integrate the SIS/GCSB and make our security agencies more accountable. Given that restructuring, there is a once-in a generation opportunity to re-define the SAS, and to relocate it.
Pacifism’s role in the mix
There is a tendency to equate de-militarisation with pacifism. There is no reason to do so. A decision to abolish the NZDF and replace it with a better focussed civilian agency could go hand in hand with a training programme – starting in high schools – to equip the entire civilian population with the basic skills required to defend the country. If we are truly concerned about invasion and occupation – and there is no reason to assume China or anyone else actually has that in mind over the next 50 years – we could initiate educational programmes in the history and the techniques of non-violent resistance.
Basically, the question to ask is – what do we think our current defence forces exist to do ? Is our Defence spending really about protecting this country and our Pacific neighbours from external threats? Or are we equipping the military mainly to enable them to take part in force projection actions in overseas locations? Certainly, the armed forces tend to pride themselves on their capacity to project force well beyond our borders, as much as on their ability to “protect” the homeland from foreign aggressors.
In fact, as the NZDF has indicated in its own reviews and White Papers for the past decade or more, the actual threat to New Zealand’s borders from foreign powers is vanishingly slim to non-existent. As then Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said in a major speech delivered in Beijing in 2016:
New Zealand maintains a direct interest in security and prosperity in the South Pacific. We do not expect that the South Pacific will face an external military threat.
Similarly, the Defence Force Assessment of 2014 contained this telling admission that the threats that New Zealand faces are (a) limited and (b) of a nature that would give us plenty of 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.
Exactly. And taking steps to counter those threats is not at all how we’re spending our money. For the foreseeable, we will intend to bankroll our capacity to putter around the globe flying the New Zealand flag on frigates, even though such vessels can be readily taken out these days by a missile mounted on a truck.
Looking the Wrong Way
Would scrapping the military expose us to any real threat ? Hardly. The Christchurch mosque shootings have made a case to the exact opposite. Arguably, it has been our defence and security alliances that have been actively detrimental to our national security. We should be asking: why were the SIS and GCSB looking the wrong way for Islamic terrorism when the real threat to our community was from white supremacists ? It was because the security agencies had internalised the threat priorities promoted by our 5 Eyes allies and by the Cold War defence club. De-militarisation would go a long way towards dis-engaging New Zealand from such alliances that have done us far more harm than good, from the Rainbow Warrior bombings onwards.
Once freed from the priorities and the interventionist impulses of our traditional allies, New Zealand could then develop a truly independent foreign policy. It would be one based on the actual threats to our national security, and not on the imaginary threats foisted on us by our paranoid friends and neighbours.
Footnote One: De-militarisation would have Treaty implications. Our defence forces have long been a major employer of Maori, who comprise 15% of the general population, but a significantly higher proportion of the armed forces. Yet as Newsroom reported in 2018, Maori evidently face barriers to career advancement within the current NZDF :
The fact that Māori make up around 20 percent of enlisted soldiers but only around 8 percent of commissioned officers is another indicator that the Army may be unfriendly to Māori trying to enter command and management positions.
It is a complex picture, though. Victoria University academic Maria Bargh’s 2015 book The Hidden Economy- Maori in The Privatised Military Industry also indicated how and why the SAS has been an important avenue for Maori elite soldiers to participate in the lucrative global market for highly trained security personnel.
However, if the SAS was retained in the interim, and as the defence forces transitioned into being essentially a civil defence agency here at home and in the Pacific…. There would be no good reason why the employment prospects of Maori and Pasifika should suffer as a consequence.
Footnote Two: The military-industrial complex has an obvious interest in inflating the military threat posed by China. While China has indeed been expanding its military spending for several years, its military firepower and levels of technological expertise are still vastly inferior to that of the US military and its allies. China is best, is only a regional military power. Its ability to project force much beyond its borders is very limited, and its Navy is too poorly equipped to sustain China’s supply lines – for food and for imported oil– for any length of time should military conflict ever eventuate.
Unlike the US, China’s borders are also difficult to defend. China has 14 countries on its borders, and four of them are nuclear armed. Several of China’s neighbours ( including India, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea) can be relied on to oppose any serious attempt at military expansionism that Beijing might have in mind. In sum, we don’t need to waste money on defending ourselves to the teeth against a virtually non-existent Chinese menace.
Footnote Three. Does NZ currently spend too little or too much on Defence? In 2019, we were spending 1.5% of our annual GDP of $US207 billion on Defence. In percentage terms we are not far behind Australia’s 1.9% figure in 2019, but of course Australia’s GDP is far bigger than ours, at $US1.36 trillion dollars. The more relevant comparative figure is per capita defence spending. On 2019 figures, Australia reportedly spent an estimated $US419 per capita on Defence, while New Zealand spent $US270 per capita. Not as much, but not insubstantial, either.
Time to fight the savage foe
And from the White Horse Inn operetta, here’s a stirring ode to military adventurism. Still a big hit down at NZDF HQ, one can safely bet :