Colin James for Defence Quarterly: October 1999
A funny thing happened on the way to the APEC summit. Peaceniks marched in the streets demanding war. And shortly afterwards off our warriors went, under-equipped with out-of-date gear.
The East Timor incident which was the focus of this peace-seeking warmongering highlighted an evolving defence debate which has brought us either to the verge of a major policy shift or, if not, at least at a point of sharp disagreement between amateurs and professionals. That is an unstable state of affairs.
This disagreement is represented in Parliament. On one side is the majority of ACT MP Derek Quigley’s parliamentary foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee, which produced its final report in late August. On the other is the defence establishment, National party Defence Minister Max Bradford and his three National backbench colleagues on the Quigley committee, Marie Hasler, Wayne Mapp and Annabel Young (Mr Bradford’s sister-in-law and a forming serving army officer).
Normally a parliamentary foreign affairs committee can be safely discounted as amusing, perhaps even interesting, but irrelevant. Few voters care about foreign affairs issues. But in the past few years “peace” has pushed foreign affairs into the living room with disquieting television images of mayhem and oppression.
Mr Quigley prised the committee chair out of government hands as part of the post-election deal-making in 1996. Though a former territorial officer and a member of a party supporting the government, he proved no stooge for the minister.
By the time the cabinet woke up to the tack he was taking his committee was far outside the bounds of polite defence debate. All sorts of people not normally listened to in development of defence policy made submissions. When it published an interim report in November 1998 Labour leader Helen Clark declared that, if Prime Minister, she would want him to put his committee’s ideas into practice.
Peacekeeping used to be a handful of defence personnel patrolling far-flung places. But now as like as not the peace has to be made first. That, as East Timor showed even the most anti-militarist of the armed forces’ critics, needs warlike capability. Suddenly the critics have found a need to take a closer interest in how they are organised, trained, equipped and deployed.
For 20 years after the Vietnam war, which divided the old from the young and plunged us into another of our anti-militarist phases, the armed forces were, in essence, left to rot, starved of funds and of friends in the inner circle. But if they are to rescue oppressed people, as in Bosnia or Kosovo or East Timor, they can be starved of funds no longer.
But the question then is: what exactly should be funded? Suddenly amateurs are in where the professionals don’t want them — the ranking of defence expenditure and priorities. Not literally, of course. By proxy through the likes of the Quigley committee.
This challenge goes to the heart of the constitution. Historically, defence is a matter for the Crown. Parliament, of course, has to agree to the spending but decisions about strategy, priorities and when to deploy troops are constitutionally the Crown’s — that is, the cabinet’s — prerogative.
The Quigley committee argues “a need for a large measure of consensus in Parliament — as an expression of widespread popular support — in relation to deployment of armed forces in warlike operations”. The National minority on the committee said that was “not common internationally” and would “likely end in paralysis at a time when decisive action is most often required”. In fact, though Jenny Shipley unilaterally took the decision to send troops to East Timor, she also submitted it to a special one-day sitting of Parliament and won unanimous endorsement.
The Quigley committee has suggested a radical reordering of priorities, with peacekeeping close to the top and defending the realm — which even the most ardent advocate of the minimal state usually acknowledges as a legitimate and necessary function of government — at the bottom. The committee’s order is:
* protecting the nation’s interests, including the fishing zone and “responsibilities in the South Pacific”;
* contributing forces for “peace support”, particularly in “coalitions of like-minded countries . . . under a United Nations mandate”;
* civil defence (“services to local communities”);
* helping the police maintain law and order;
* contributing forces under collective security arrangements, though this is less likely than in the past because “more durable cooperation arrangements” are emerging in areas of most concern;
* defending New Zealand, “noting that we are not likely, in the short to medium term at least, to face the direct use of armed force against us”.
These priorities are to serve strategic interests of: a secure New Zealand and fishing zone; good governance and human rights in the south Pacific; a strong relationship with Australia in pursuit of common interests; regional dialogue with south-east and north-east Asia; global security.
These are uncontentious objectives, similar to the government’s, as laid out in its parliamentary response on 18 October to the Quigley committee, though the detailed wording is different.
But the government objects strongly to the Quigley priorities. They are wrong, “narrow” and “minimise our commitments to our neighbours and our obligations to our regional and global partners”.
Start close to home. Central to current defence strategy is a statement that for defence purposes Australia and New Zealand are a single strategic entity. In plain language that means an attack on Australia is an attack on New Zealand.
The Quigley committee points to substantial differences between the two Tasman countries in strategy, interests and the relationship with the United States and over nuclear ships and argues that Singapore, Kuwait and Ireland don’t see themselves as in a strategic entity with neighbours. The National party minority says Kuwait and Ireland are de facto parts of broader strategic entities.
This difference is important. If a government were to adopt the Quigley committee’s approach, relations between Wellington and Canberra almost certainly cool and that would affect far more than defence. When we dithered over frigate purchases in the mid-1990s then Prime Minister Paul Keating felt free to renege (by fax!) on an agreement for a single air market covering the two countries.
There is also serious disagreement between the Quigley committee and the government over what constitutes credibility in the eyes of south-east Asian capitals.
The government insists that unless there is a “balanced force”, with strike capacity in the air force and the navy, we would lack the credibility needed in those capitals for sympathetic treatment on trade matters. The National minority says downgrading air and sea combat capability would be “seen by our allies as somewhat isolationist and naïve”. Constant visits to Asia by ships, planes and people are “visible signs of the nation’s willingness and commitment to assist in promoting stability in the Asia-Pacific region”.
The Quigley committee says that our involvement in peacekeeping would be enough and argues that we must diversify our defence linkages beyond our allies (“essential” as it acknowledges them to be), to developing interoperability with a wider range of fellow-peacekeepers, including, for example, Ireland, and (the Alliance’s Matt Robson dissenting). It also wants closer contact with Malaysia, the French South Pacific forces and Fiji. (The government says it is doing the latter but in some cases the armed forces are well below New Zealand’s standard.)
But in any case, the committee goes on, “New Zealand’s interests [in Asia] are advanced more by diplomacy and assiduous trade development than by the symbolism of an air combat force” (which, it says, will never be used in combat).
There is also a more bedrock argument: fiscal constraints mean the frigates and F-16s will not be equipped with leading edge capability and so are not capable of taking full part in naval or air warfare. That is not good for credibility. Since there is no evidence the public will allow fiscal constraints to be eased, it is better to go for “depth” instead of “breadth” and aim to do less but to do it better.
So the committee says:
* Junk the F-16s. They are not the latest model, will cost a great deal to modernise and will probably never be used in combat. Instead, explore the idea of attack helicopters and using as strike aircraft. More important than strike aircraft are planes capable of providing transport and logistic and combat support for ground troops.
The National minority on the committee says Kuwait showed and Kosovo proved that ground troops are not used in the sorts of operations in which New Zealand might be involved until air power has paved the way. Attack helicopters were available in Kosovo but not used. “Strike aircraft were essential.”
* Don’t buy any more frigates. The ones we have are not fully armed for high-level contingencies — they are “fitted for”, not “fitted with” state-of-the-art weaponry and in these days of quickly brewing crises, demonstrated by the East Timor incident, it would take too long to get them “fitted with”. They aren’t much use in the Antarctic, so cannot even fully police our southern ocean fishery. Better to buy two ice-strengthened logistic support vessels, to be replaced stepwise over time.
The government says the fact that we are a “maritime” nation — the Quigley committee says we are a trading nation but not a maritime nation, since almost all of our trade is moved in foreign ships — requires a strong and well-equipped naval and air force. It points out that it could meet the demand for a frigate for East Timor while at the same time maintaining its commitment to continue to maintain a frigate in the Persian gulf to police the Iraq sanctions only by having three frigates.
* Centre the defence effort on the army. Develop two fully operational mobile battalion groups on 60 days standby, each with a “reconnaissance” company on 28 days standby, and keep them equipped with gear for medium-level combat, replaced continuously according to a “stepped” procurement policy to avoid “block obsolescence”. The idea is that this force would be available, as self-contained units with sea and air support, to slot into coalition and United Nations operations.
There are two subtexts here. One is the distaste of the parties on the left (Labour and the Alliance) for frigates and fighters because they are so visibly militaristic. The second is a pitch for a bigger role for the cinderella of the forces: New Zealand First’s Ron Mark is ex-army and so is Geoff Braybrooke, one of Labour’s defence speakers.
Rolled together, these tendencies prodded the committee in its interim report towards arguing for a “niche” defence force. That word has disappeared from the final report but, the National minority argues, the concept has not: the Quigley formula amounts to, “in effect, a larger army tailored to a smaller number of tasks supported by a small coastguard navy and air transport service”.
The army focus, plus a desire for savings, has led the Quigley committee down another route: to a joint force instead of the present three separate forces. The committee proposes a single joint operational headquarters under a joint operational commander directly responsible to the Chief of Defence Staff. And there should be joint recruitment and training to eliminate expensive duplication.
The government protests that this is “based on a complete misunderstanding of joint operations”. Training has to be force-specific and in any case the three forces “already have a synergy that results in shared expertise, military knowledge and a willingness to combine their skills to achieve a common outcome”.
The government also disputes the core of the Quigley argument: that there is not enough money to maintain the three forces. The re-equipment path laid out in the 1997 Defence White Paper and the 1998 cabinet purchasing decisions is built into forward fiscal projections. It rejects the stepped purchasing proposal as potentially counterproductive for a small defence force: “Equipment bought at different times would invariably be different due to rapidly changing technology. Operating and maintaining small quantities of different equipment would be expensive and inefficient.”
The more one reads the Quigley report, the minority dissent and the government response, the more it looks like a dispute between amateurs and professionals. Some of the responses have a contemptuous ring about them unlikely to win hearts and minds in the wider public.
And this point is at the heart of the Quigley exercise: an attempt to inject into defence policy development a wider perspective. It recommends the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade take more part in developing objectives. It wants stronger civilian input into defence policy within the Ministry of Defence/Defence Force loop and auditing of the Defence Force to be returned to the ministry.
The committee also wants an independent forum to encourage debate outside the establishment — it doubts the independence of Victoria University’s centre for strategic studies (CSS), which is part-funded by the Ministry of Defence which sees it as providing “public information” and acting “as a lobby group”. The government says it has always welcomed outside advice. But it made little secret of its dislike of Terence O’Brien’s stewardship of the CSS.
Where does the argument go from here?
Labour has said the Quigley committee has given parliamentary weight to the direction it was heading in anyway — Ms Clark takes the committee’s report as a “consensus” for an army-based, peacekeeping-focused, non-alliance policy line. Labour’s supporters, the Greens and the Alliance, would want to go further down the civil defence/peacekeeping route.
National would want to continue the status quo and supporters are unlikely to deflect it: Mr Quigley apart, ACT does not get excited about defence; Ron Mark apart, New Zealand First has other, more important, fish to fry in its limited oil.
But has something deeper taken place than a square-off between old foes?
The Quigley report can be seen as the product of unique circumstances and an unusual makeup of the first MMP Parliament: Mr Quigley himself, trying to make something of the usually backwater role as chair of the foreign affairs committee; Mr Mark with a bee in his bonnet about the army; an inattentive minister, a not-well-focused deputy committee chair (Ms Hasler) and failure by Mr Mapp at the time of the interim report to recognise when government policy required backbench footsoldiers to play hard ball and not chase the moonbeams of consensus.
But sometimes unique circumstances reflect deeper currents.
The public has got interested in defence policy — through the long end of the telescope, peacekeeping. With each new East Timor (and our region is anything but settled) there will be a clamour for troops on the ground to stop the oppression (and cleanse our television screens).
That requires an army, well-staffed, on the ready and with modern equipment and full logistical and tactical support. That is roughly the Quigley formula. It doesn’t rule out frigates and F-16s but when it comes down to what that long-end-of-the-telescope voters will pay for, a peacekeeping force will beat big ships and flash planes. National pride is for the football field, not the firing range.
There are bigger strategic considerations, you say, vital for securing our place in an internationalised trading world? Let the brass worry about that. In the political crunch voters speak louder than vice-marshals. And didn’t the Quigley committee say diplomats are better at diplomacy than a fly-past?