Who should be deciding Defence Force spending priorities?

Without a doubt one of the most controversial areas of government spending is always that for the Defence Force. It does not matter how large or small, how sophisticated or out of date their inventory will be, the politics of defence spending is almost as much of a political minefield as any war that the equipment purchased might be used for. There will always be people who think a nation needs to spend more on their military establishment even when current spending is ample. There will always be those who think too much is being spent, even when their nations military cannot perform some of its most basic functions, is viewed with  concern by close friends and allies. But at the end of the day, are those elected to govern really the best people to be deciding on equipment purchases?

In New Zealand there has been a long record of controversial purchasing decisions made by civilians, most of whom have not spent any time in uniform, many of whom have ideological views rather than pragmatic ones based on sound advice that they wish to advance. Whilst one might wonder for example whether or not we really needed a combat component in the airforce consisting of aircraft worth N.Z.$50-60 million a piece, the decision to scrap the combat wing was made by a Labour Government that had as much as a decade earlier decided there was no purpose for it, without a Ministry of Defence white paper or any other report investigating the pros and cons. To the best of my knowledge none of the Ministers of Defence in the Helen Clark government had military experience.

It is interesting to note that the same Government decided to purchase 105 Light Armoured Vehicle III (LAV’s). The short sighted nature of this was multifold. First and foremost, it was noted that the C-130J Hercules aircraft were not up to the rigours of transporting one of these large vehicles. The number of vehicles that was purchased also raised significant questions – did we really need 105 of them, with a total cost of N.Z.$665 million for an army that barely had two functional battalions. In Iraq, during the U.S.-led war it was noted that these vehicles were vulnerable to attack from any enemy with access to relatively simple weapons systems such as rocket propelled grenades, and could not defend themselves against air strikes.

But National has raised questions about whether it is any better with its prioritizing of defence spending. In 1999 it announced it was looking at a third frigate of the A.N.Z.A.C. class, which would cost N.Z.$470 million. It ignored suggestions that European models of equal capability could be purchased for a third of the price. Because 1999 turned out to be National’s last year in office prior to the Clark Government, this never went ahead.

It’s recent announcement that it is looking at replacement aircraft for the C-130J transports, whilst welcome, was followed by another announcement that the proposed replacement aircraft would be C-17 Globemaster transports. The announcements were made by Gerry Brownlee, a former businessman and wood work teacher with no knowledge of the Defence Force. Several questions arise from this announcement:

  • Why spend N.Z.$2 billion on transport aircraft, which is equivalent to nearly 2 years expenditure on the entire New Zealand Defence Force
  • Why these aircraft, the most expensive transport plane currently on the market whose full carrying capacity we simply don’t need
  • Would there need to be infrastructure improvements needed to handle such big aircraft

With these examples borne in mind, I cannot help but wonder whether ideologically driven politicians with no military experience are really suited to making decisions on Defence Force purchases. Certainly I am glad that the military industrial complex with its morally and legally questionable ambitions, does not hold the same sway here as it does over American politicians whose careers are beholden to it. Several of them have military experience, and are of the view that might is right.

At the end of the day, the Government is responsible for the security of the nation, domestically and internationally. No self respecting nation would ever leave itself knowingly undefended, and New Zealand is very lucky to be far from the major conflicts. However, the potential for localized conflicts in the South Pacific or having to contribute significantly to a United Nations peace-keeping/making mission is very real. Without the experience of overseas deployment though, are politicians the right people to be making the decisions or should there be a panel of military personnel with civilian oversight?

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