Minimalistic thinking (and foresight) decimating New Zealand Defence Force

In nine days time we will commemorate A.N.Z.A.C. Day. As I think about the sacrifices of the Defence Force, I wonder about the persistent erosion of an institution that once upon a time was a very highly regarded military force.

For two decades now I have watched in angst as the New Zealand Defence Force has slowly been eroded by tunnel vision Government thinking. The decline was probably already in progress when the fifth Labour Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark took office. That Government deserves credit for the investment in the army, but it came at the expense of what New Zealand should be viewing as a priority: a balanced Defence Force with a combat component in all three services. Despite claims to the contrary, defence expenditure continued to decline under Labour from one year to the next.

When National took office in 2008, it was probably unrealistic to expect much in the way of new defence spending as it had to improve an economy that was then in recession. However seven and a half years later, with a controversial deployment to Iraq in progress in the name of beating terrorism, and the news that some Royal New Zealand Navy ships have hardly left port since 2009, makes me wonder if National knows any better. Like every other part of Government it has been instructed to cut staff and programmes in order to meet  spending cuts made by Ministers who have never spent a day in the military.

I have no qualms saying that I support increased defence spending. However I want to be clear that it should not be done in lump sum blobs here and there, which seems to be the way of the Labour-led Government of former Prime Minister Helen Clark and the current National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key. From one year to the next, there needs to be a sustained increase in spending. The priorities for the increased spending should be in the following order:

  1. To ensure that all three branches – Army, Navy and Airforce – have personnel numbers necessary to perform their statutory functions
  2. To ensure that the personnel in all three of these branches are brought up to what their branch considers to be deployment ready
  3. To ensure that the personnel know how to use and deploy existing equipment

When we can do this, New Zealand can think about upgrades, overhauls and replacements.

My concerns stem from the fact that the Royal New Zealand Navy has ships tied up in port that are now several years old and have allegedly hardly put to sea. The reasons for their remaining tied up at Devonport Naval Base include (but are probably not limited to):

  • A lack of funding for Navy training programmes, forcing things such as live firing drills to be severely restricted
  • A lack of investment in qualified sailors caused by cost cutting
  • A government tendency across both Labour and National Governments to ignore the recommendations of defence white papers aimed at showing a direction for future defence priorities

I suspect that although the R.N.Z.N. is not the only branch struggling with defence spending cuts, as the only one that regularly has to deal with intruders, it might be the service most in need. Seeing as New Zealand has an Economic Exclusion Zone bigger than Europe and the Ross Dependency in order to keep illegal fishing trawlers out, it is important that H.M.N.Z.S.’s Te Kaha and Te Mana are able to be at sea as often as possible. That is where the patrol boats currently tied up for lack of funding enabling them to go to sea become very important.

And New Zealanders are not fools. They know that the Navy has a huge area of sea to patrol and when they read about it being tied up, effectively mothballed they will want to know what is going on.

And rightly so.

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