Defence white paper a sign of changing times: Part II

Yesterday I mentioned the changing national security environment that New Zealand finds itself in. The national security environment, which just like like the economic, political and social and physical environments which it finds itself increasingly integrated with, evolves in response to a range of inputs. To ensure New Zealand is secure the New Zealand Defence Force must evolve with the environment in which it finds itself operating.

That means being appropriately equipped for the challenges that may arise in that environment. New Zealand has an army, navy and air force. It spends about 1% of its G.D.P. per annum on defence, which is consistent with the last 20 years. Governments have tended to put big purchases until they are absolutely needed, which has led to some equipment now being too old to upgrade any further and more and more prone to failure – cases in point, the aging P-3K Orions and C-130J Hercules aircraft whose proneness to equipment failure requiring emergency services to be on standby are increasing along side the annual maintenance costs.

Whilst the Defence Force has the primary role of protecting New Zealand from attack, it also has a number of other roles:

  1. Disaster relief
  2. Search and Rescue
  3. Assisting authorities in civil emergencies

This is why Minister of Defence Ron Mark has in the last week announced replacements for the P-3K Orions. 4 P-8 Poseidon aircraft based on the much newer 737-800 airframe are to be purchased at a cost of $2 billion. These will be used for maritime patrol, surveillance as well as search and rescue. New Zealand has a large maritime zone to patrol that our small navy will not be able to cover on its own.

I expect in the next year or so that an announcement will be made on the replacement aircraft for the C-130J Hercules, which is based on a 1954 airframe. Front runner and personal favourite is the A400M from Airbus, which has extra carrying capacity, can operate from short runways and on Antarctic ice. Likely cost is around $2 billion.

The Royal New Zealand Navy will in the next decade need to seriously overhaul its two A.N.Z.A.C. class frigates or replace them. H.M.N.Z.S.’s Te Mana and Te Kaha were part of a plan to build three frigates in the 1990’s to replace the outgoing Leander Class ships. Whilst unlikely to be used in fully fledged combat situation, both have participated in United Nations maritime enforcement operations against pirates as well as Ross Sea patrols. Perhaps the major argument against new frigates is the cost – $470 million a piece for the two frigates, which I found questionable whilst knowing cheaper ships with similar capabilities existed then.

The New Zealand Army has 105 L.A.V. III vehicles of Canadian manufacture. The purchase of so many was questionable at the time – and still is today when one considers that only a fraction of them have been used in deployment. The cost at the time was $665 million, and replaced M-113 A.P.C.’s even though the latter still performed the functions expected of them. New Zealand should be open to considering whether we need all of them and whether they still fit our operational requirements.

In light of the instability in the south Pacific with nearly lawless situations existing in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and tensions involving world powers such as China, the ability to deploy N.Z.D.F. assets in the South Pacific should be New Zealand’s biggest external priority.

Whatever happens New Zealand needs to maintain the ability to operate with Australian Defence Force assets, as those of our longest and most immediate ally. Whilst there are differences in terms of priorities, Australia understands that the protection of the south Pacific is a major security as well as the place where peace time operations such as disaster relief and surveillance are likely to be performed.

There will always be a need for a Defence Force, contrary to what some on the left think. Our military is also not just a fighting force as I have mentioned above. It performs a variety of peace time roles as well and we owe it to our servicemen and women to make sure the armed forces they serve us so well in are appropriately equipped for the future.

A.N.Z.A.C. Day not a glorification of war

On Wednesday morning, thousands of people all over New Zealand gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to attend the Dawn Service, acknowledging the sacrifices made by the New Zealand Defence Force. They gathered to remember those that had gone to war and never came home, those that fought and came home bearing both physical and mental scars. They came to say thanks.

But they did not come to glorify war.

Across all of the ceremonies I have been to in Christchurch, not one struck me as vaguely promoting war or militarism. Not one failed to mention the horrendous loss of life and the effects on society that are felt from having lost so many people.

So, whilst we see plenty of coverage about our soldiers going away in the two world wars and fighting on foreign battlefields, I do not believe that there has been any effort to downplay the losses. This is irrespective of whether they happened on the sun baked slopes of Gallipoli, in the muddy hell of Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Cambrai. It is irrespective of whether they died in the skies above Britain, at sea fighting the Germans or Japanese or in the Mediterranean theatre.

All of the ceremonies set an appropriate tone, sombre and respectful. The high losses suffered are shown in the number of war memorials all over New Zealand from little towns through to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and so forth.

One concern I had was upon finding out decades ago that World War 1 was also the “Great War”. It did not bother me so much until I started to question what I was taught about the war and whether those teachings were honest. On the whole I think my education has been relatively honest about New Zealand’s involvement in the wars. When I saw the phrase “Great War” several years ago, I asked and it was explained to me that the name is not from any descriptor seeking to make the war look good or grand in any way, but a simple acknowledgement that the scale of the destruction in the countries affected had – until World War 2 – no parallel.

I am further assured by the words of General TIm Keating, Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, who said that the ongoing and increasing popularity of A.N.Z.A.C. Day is not related to any glorification. Rather those that were children 30-40 years ago and now have children themselves who lost grandfathers and uncles, great grandfathers and great uncles in the wars. They are now wanting to show their children what it means to go to an A.N.Z.A.C. Day Dawn Service, to listen to the stories shared and appreciate what past generations have done for the country.

Like a lot of boys when I was younger, I was fascinated by war stories and the battles fought. I played computer games and read magazines from the bookshop. I participated in mock infantry charges and watched documentaries on television, such as “The World at War”. Whilst it made me interested in the how and why of battles being fought, listening to the stories of the service personnel who were there, one realizes that sometimes the real war was about surviving the elements in whatever form one found them.

Then I saw Saving Private Ryan. Any jingoistic ideas I had about war and the reasons for war were splattered on the floor when I dropped a half litre bottle of coke that I had just opened. Aside from the sheer savagery portrayed in the movie it rammed home the futility, seeing how it had marked Ryan all these years later as a war veteran. The realism was so strong many veterans who had been in France on D-Day in 1944 could not watch because it brought back too many bad memories.

And when service personnel come home from war, a lot leave the services. They go into farming, or train as teachers, or lawyers, or doctors – something more constructive than killing people. But they never forget where they went and what the saw. And whilst bullet wounds generally heal, the mental scars are often more impervious.

Whilst I will be pro-military, it is not because of a revision of my thoughts on war. It is horrible, senseless and usually started for reasons that are questionable at best. It is because no sane country leaves itself unprotected in a day and age where future wars are going to be about geopolitics and resources. I will be pro-military because the New Zealand Defence Force is an honourable and professional outfit to be a part of, and – despite the investigation into the fight in Afghanistan – does not believe in nor participate in the use of torture.

One day the Defence Force may have to fight. Like all I hope it never comes and that future generations of soldiers will not find their names etched into the cold hard gravestones like their forebears. But I don’t think anyone of them will be going to war any more enthusiastically than any of their many predecessors.


Time to compensate nuclear test witnesses

There is something eerily beautiful about the signature of the most sinister, most terrifying invention man has conceived. Watching a mushroom cloud rise after a nuclear weapon has been detonated is one of the most – for all the wrong reasons – shockingly mesmerising sights. Even veterans of nuclear test veterans have been impressed by the clouds.

Numerous New Zealanders in the Royal New Zealand Navy sailed to various test sites around the Pacific to witness tests. Mururoa (French Polynesia) and Christmas Island (British/Indian Ocean)were common destinations. But from those clouds came something truly dreadful. As the fire ball expanded in the sky in atmospheric or above ground tests, as the water of calm aquamarine lagoons exploded in tests at places like Johnston and Kwajalein (U.S. sites), Mururoa (French), and Christmas Island, vast quantities of gamma rays were emitted. Although the servicemen were stationed on ships or observation points some distance from the explosion, they would have felt the heat from the initial flash and seen the flash, particularly if the exploding device was a thermonuclear one with a yield in the megaton range

Many of the New Zealand sailors involved witnessed British testing during Operation Grapple. These were a series of nuclear weapons tests during the early stages of British thermonuclear weapons development. The yields ranged between 24 kilotons and 3 megatons. New Zealand Navy ships acted as weather vessels during the test. They would remain near the tests for a time after the explosion when fallout was occurring.

In the ┬álate1960’s France undertook nuclear weapons testing of devices with yields of up to 2.6 megatons at Fangataufa Atoll (the 2.6 megaton test contaminated the atoll so badly it was not used for 6 years). Then France moved to Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia. New Zealand sailors witnessed nuclear tests conducted in the 1970’s by France at Mururoa Atoll with yields that ranged between 1 ton (thought to be a safety experiment)to 955 kilotons.

To this day I do not believe a single Government in possession of nuclear weapons can truthfully say it has been totally transparent about the effects that nuclear testing has had on those in the armed forces that witnessed the tests. Only the United States, Britain and France can say that they have offered any compensation or otherwise made an effort to acknowledge the significant medical effects being exposed to the levels of radiation that they were, would have had. Certainly not Russia or China, where a lack of Government transparency means only activists and investigative journalists taking significant risks to their well being have tried in vain to expose the testing activities and the fallout consequences for those down wind.

The New Zealand Government has never fully acknowledged the effects of nuclear testing on New Zealanders who sailed to these locations. Nor have successive Labour or National led Governments made an effort to compensate those victims found to be displaying the symptoms of fallout from these explosions. The best chance for New Zealand veterans to get compensation is based on research that was proposed in 2016 by Brunei University to undertake chromosomal research into veterans of the British nuclear weapons testing programme.

The Government says that we appreciate what our veterans have been through.

No. No we don’t. Until these veterans get assessed for illnesses related to their exposure to nuclear testing, those effects acknowledged in full and in public and they receive appropriate compensation, this is a bald faced lie.

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.

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?