The new government’s defence policy

Colin James for Defence Quarterly, March issue

Foreign Minister Phil Goff says cancelling the F16 contract is just “reprioritising expenditure”. Actually, it marks a strategic shift.

Few on the left like the armed forces, which most of their persuasion associate with militarism, the instrument of aggression and oppression. They dismiss any military threat and so don’t feel they need even to see the forces as guard dogs. They are most comfortable with the armed forces as rescuers, through peacekeeping and peacemaking, a role which transforms militarism into humanitarianism.

The left does not see defence as diplomacy. This may be a blind spot or it may be a rationalisation — that is hard to tell. Certainly, the left dismisses the potential impact on bilateral relations of disapproval or frustration in Canberra, Washington, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Moreover, you don’t need to go to the far left to encounter this distaste of, or at least discomfort with, the military. Even many liberals a little right of centre think of the armed forces in much the same vein. And if you jump over the conservative right to the libertarian right — out where most of ACT mostly is — you will find another cluster of sceptics about the military’s value (in this case, value for money). ACT’s Derek Quigley chaired the parliamentary committee which produced what amounts to a blueprint for the new government’s humanitarian approach.

Indeed, if you start from a military-as-humanitarian perspective you will understand much more readily why the left and the liberals generally are so much at odds with the traditional military-as-military perspective.

Two corollaries follow from the military-as-humanitarian perspective. One is that only such fighting is to be done (and prepared for) as is necessary to make or maintain peace in deserving foreign territories. The second is that only such money as is necessary for that limited capability is to be spent.

For the left and liberals of the left — a span which encompasses the parliamentary majority supporting the new government — there are history and ideology behind this minimalist attitude.

Troops have traditionally — most recently in this country in 1951 — been used to break troublesome strikes or uphold lockouts, sometimes with lethal force. Troops have traditionally upheld the power of the privileged against progress for the poor, both within countries and across boundaries. For today’s middle-aged left, now in power, the United States’ intervention in Vietnam — a period in which many in today’s cabinet were politicised — was an example.

So there is no question for the new government of lifting spending above the current 1.1% of GDP — a very low figure by the standards of most developed countries, below even social democratic Denmark and Norway which are often seen by the left as models. This ceiling applies even though the 1997 white paper re-equipment plan was made unaffordable by a plunge in the value of the New Zealand dollar.

The previous National government set the 1.1% ceiling, which has conveniently made it in a sense bipartisan (indeed, multi-partisan). Labour and the Alliance do not have to argue for a reduction in order to be able to cry poor in their desire to cancel the F16 contract and settle for a two-frigate navy.

Crying poor conveniently relieves Labour and the Alliance of having to state their actual reason for parsimony — which is that jet fighters and frigates armed for full combat are outside the boundaries set by the rule that fighting capability is to be restricted to the needs of peacemaking and peacekeeping.

Goff and his Defence Minister, Mark Burton, can instead present the new government’s position pragmatically: on the Treasury’s figures we can’t afford F16s and a well-equipped army, so we must prioritise. Goff and Burton do not need to spell out what their government would do if it is still in office when the Skyhawks are decommissioned in 2007 or when the last of the Leanders has to be scrapped around the same time.

Instead, they can stick to the (undeniable) need to build up the army. At one point after his visit to East Timor Goff seemed to equate the need to cancel the F16s with the army’s desperate lack of modern armoured transport and communications equipment — ignoring the fact that the purchase of those items is now well in train.

The ministers’ pragmatic language is comfortingly centrist — and popular. Though National’s Wayne Mapp, who has inherited the defence role from Max Bradford, accuses the new government of wanting to model itself on non-aligned European countries, Goff and Burton do not sound adrift from the mainstream. They can even sound slightly bullish in their determination to have a properly equipped army.

This, of course, begs the question of whether a properly equipped army, backed by some armed helicopters, transport aircraft and a light naval force, is enough for all reasonably likely eventualities. The new government does not concede the need for the so-called “balanced force” the National government pursued (though more in name than in substance, given its equal pursuit of the virtue of miserliness).

New Zealand troops in East Timor had an umbrella of Australian strike aircraft just across the water in Darwin, supplemented potentially by the New Zealand Skyhawk squadron stationed in Nowra. A New Zealand frigate cruised offshore, along with other warships.

David Dickens of the Centre for Strategic Studies, in a briefing paper published in February, concluded that the ground forces in East Timor required “the security shield and support provided by fighter cover, surface warship protection and sea/air transport” to deter a threatened Indonesian attack, including by fighter jets. “East Timor emphatically reinforced the enduring relevance of this [balanced force] approach”, he wrote, each force having combat, combat support and logistics capabilities. “All services were relevant.”

Interestingly, this sort of reasoning is also to be found among some of the younger (more modern?) officers of the army, despite the fact that under the new government’s policies the army will have the place in the sun. The argument for air power as an integral part of army operations dates back to Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s insistence after the Greece and Crete debacles in 1941 that the army would not go into combat again without air power.

But Burton does not accept that those factors are arguments for New Zealand having strike aircraft. “We are not capable of doing everything ourselves,” he said in an interview. In East Timor in January Goff was much enamoured with the idea of strike helicopters as preferable to fighter aircraft.

But would the United States — or even Australia — come to the party on demand? Dickens sees United States’ refusal to supply combat forces to East Timor (except, briefly, a cruiser) as a warning that “Australia and New Zealand cannot assume others will shoulder the burden of their defence”.

Burton does see regional security as central to the government’s defence strategy. Citing the East Timor involvement, he says that increasingly the defence focus will be in “our region”, which includes south-east Asia and not just the South Pacific (in its pre-election policy Labour seemed in places to equate “region” with the South Pacific). “This (East Timor) is close to home,” he says. “It is our neighbourhood and warrants our commitment.”

But, like Prime Minister Helen Clark, Burton dismisses worries that Singapore and Malaysia, with their fears of an expansionist China, might be less convinced of New Zealand’s commitment to regional security if we baulk at upgrading our air strike capability. While New Zealand must look at the implications for those relationships in its defence decisions, he is confident New Zealand can participate in the region “in a meaningful way” (with Timor as proof). “We have a sound basis to maintain those relationships,” Burton said.

Alright, what about Australia? The 1991 Defence Review stated that New Zealand considers Australia and New Zealand a single strategic entity. That, in effect, means that if Australia is attacked, New Zealand will regard that as an attack on itself and react accordingly.

Dickens states in another of his February briefing papers: “Ultimately New Zealand’s defence rests on the defence of Australia.” And specifically he says that a squadron of New Zealand F16s would fill large gaps in Australia’s air defence. “From an Australian perspective the F16s are an important force multiplier.”

Burton sidles around the issue of what New Zealand would do if Australia was attacked. “There is no question that our No 1 defence relationship is with Australia. It is the closest. It is special.” But “we haven’t been approaching it from the point of view of attack.” Instead, he focuses on interoperability and being able to operate in a cooperative and complementary fashion, as in Timor.

Burton also doesn’t accept that failure to buy the F16s now might be interpreted by Australia as lack of seriousness about maintaining air strike capability after 2007 and would lower willingness in Canberra to fight New Zealand’s corner on controversial issues such as social welfare for New Zealanders in Australia, immigration and some trade issues.

Would a strongly expressed Australian opinion be taken into account by the government? Burton evades the direct question: “I would expect we we’ll be in regular contact and hear each other’s views.” He takes comfort from the Goff interpretation of his meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in late January, that decisions on defence are matters for New Zealand and that Downer accepted that cancelling the F16s is a reprioritisation. (Dickens, who has interviewed a large number of Australians, classes Downer’s response as “exact correctness”, masking a likely distancing if the F16 deal is cancelled.)

So what is the new government’s defence policy?

The detail must await another full defence review, similar to that of 1991. But in broad terms the main items of Labour’s policy are:

• Adopt the direction laid out in the Quigley report, of which Labour is “strongly supportive”.

• Rely on multilateral diplomacy as the best means of achieving long-term regional and global security.

• Continue to meet obligations under the Canberra Pact with Australia and the Five-power Defence Arrangement with Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Britain.

• Redefine the Defence Force’s roles to “include involvement in such activities as United Nations and regional peacekeeping, disaster relief, delivery of aid, fisheries patrol and international exchange of skills such as landmine clearance”.

• Make “the principal service in [peacekeeping] the army, with the navy and air force also having important roles to play. The navy should provide transportation, initial base operations support logistic support and offshore fire support. The air force, where required and where practicable, should supply the means of rapid transportation and support for smaller army units.” Accordingly, make modernisation of army equipment the highest priority.

• Stop the frigate programme at two and look “urgently” for “alternative multi-role-designed vessels”.

• Make greater use of the territorial force for civil defence. “Extend basic military training to cover civil defence and peacekeeping skills in the recognition that these skills are as specialised as the traditional war-fighting skills.”

• “Foster greater non-governmental defence and strategic analysis, possibly by building on the Centre for Strategic Studies or by establish a centre for global security and disarmament and consider formalising channels for delivery of alternative strategic advice” to the Defence Ministry. (Labour is unlikely, however, to be enthusiastic about giving Dickens more rope.)

Labour has kept foreign affairs and defence very much in its own hands and out of the Alliance’s. Both relevant ministers are from the Labour party and Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark keeps a close eye.

The Alliance’s defence policy diverged from Labour’s in wanting the defence force in effect converted to not much more than a civil defence and peacekeeping force and Matt Robson, the party’s speaker on defence matters, disagreed with some Quigley recommendations. Generally, however, the Alliance’s wishes for the armed forces’ role are close to Labour’s, with only minor differences of emphasis.

The Alliance wants the focus to be on land forces “in response to United Nations requests in niche roles, organised in a “single defence force” (Burton insists there will be three services, though that will “evolve”). The Alliance’s “primary goal” for defence policy would be “contributing to world peace by establishing our reputation as an independent and neutral peacemaker”; Labour agrees with the idea but does not make it central.

An important divergence is in the Alliance’s opposition to alliances (“defence blocks”) but Labour will prevail in maintaining CDR and the FPDA. The Alliance has a tighter focus on the South Pacific than Labour. And it would like to go further than Labour will agree to down the civil defence road, “integrating” “defence into a civil defence structure” and giving them a wide range of essentially civilian disaster relief roles both in New Zealand and in the South Pacific.

Will the Alliance bid defence spending down in the budget round? Even if the Alliance did want to lower spending, Burton insists that the present spending level is a floor, not a ceiling and “we have no intention of reducing it”.

And what about the Greens, whose votes Labour needs for a majority? Keith Locke, a former member of both the Labour and Alliance parties and an active worker in the peace movement for many years, would take an even more anti-militaristic line than either Labour or the Alliance.

But the Greens have no say in the cabinet, are unlikely to make defence a sticking point in their general relationship with Labour and are very unlikely to line up with National to defeat the Coalition. In any case New Zealand First’s Ron Mark, who supports the Quigley direction, can deliver his party’s five votes to Labour’s cause.

So Labour’s strategic shift will be carried through. It will be quite a wrench.