Who? How? and With What? The Defence White Paper currently being drafted will attempt to answer the most basic questions about New Zealand's military posture. Who should do our fighting? How should they fight? What sort of weapons should they use? And, how much are we willing to pay? Historically, that last question has been crucial.
RIGHT NOW a hand-picked group of worthy citizens are hard at work spending $26 million of our money. They are doing so at the behest of the Prime Minister, John Key, who decided, a few years back, that what New Zealand really needed was a new flag. At the same time, but a lot further back in the decision-making machinery of state, a diverse collection of top-ranking military officers, senior bureaucrats and politicians are engaged in producing the 2015 Defence White Paper. As part of the flag-changing exercise, New Zealanders are being asked what they stand for. The much lower-key consultative exercise for the Defence White Paper needs to know what they’ll fight for – and how.
It’s a great shame that the same quantum of resources currently being poured into the flag-changing exercise have not been devoted to determining what goes into the Defence White Paper. Certainly a country’s flag is (or should be) a powerful symbol of national identity. As many old soldiers are quick to remind us, it’s the object under which tens-of-thousands of young New Zealanders marched off to war in 1939. And it’s still the object we drape over the caskets of the fallen as we pipe them off our ageing Hercules transport aircraft and into the care of their grieving families. It would, however, be foolish to equate the symbolism of war with war itself. Deciding how our nation should be defended, and by whom, is surely as worthy of intense public debate as the colour of the flag they fight under?
A Government “White Paper” is, as its name suggests, an attempt to come at important public policy from first principles. It should be a statement of fundamental intent: the starting point from which we collectively determine to set forth. What then, are the first principles of a New Zealand strategy for national defence?
The first big question to ask must surely be: Who will defend us?
This is not as naïve as it sounds, because if your answer to that first question is: “a defence force made up of New Zealanders”, then you’re immediately faced with a whole host of other questions. Should that defence force be large and conscripted, or small and professional? Should it operate on the assumption that New Zealand will be fighting its enemies alone, or as part of coalitions of allied forces? And, if it’s the latter, then how much of our national sovereignty are we willing to forfeit in return for the military assistance of larger, richer and more militarily formidable nation states?
The second big question to answer is: How shall we fight?
Should we attempt to equip ourselves with the most sophisticated and effective military technology in order to repel enemies attacking us from any quarter – land, sea or air? Or, should we build military proficiency in only a limited number of areas, relying, once again, on more powerful allies to supply the full array of military options?
The acquisition of full-spectrum military capability would entail the reconstitution of the RNZAF’s fighter-bomber squadrons, along with medium- and short-range surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, a submarine force and naval vessels at least equal to the task of apprehending Patagonian Tooth-Fishers.
The other alternative is to build a resistance-style defence force, based upon a universal people’s militia, ferociously schooled in the strategy and tactics of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.
The latter option would be by far the cheapest option – a not unimportant consideration. Indeed, the third big question is: How much are we willing to pay?
The answer, historically, is “not very much”. Certainly, a defence force capable of defending New Zealand unaided, using conventional military weapons, would be eye-wateringly expensive. Taxes would rise and our welfare state would shrink. In the absence of a slavering, swivel-eyed existential threat, it is, therefore, very difficult to see the average Kiwi voter ponying-up for a Swiss or Israeli-style defence force. Equally unlikely is the prospect of New Zealanders suddenly becoming the South Pacific’s answer to the Viet Cong or Islamic State.
All of which leaves us in the position of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche relied upon “the kindness of strangers”, New Zealand’s security depends on the kindness of her “friends”.
Bluntly speaking: once a colony, always a colony – with or without a new flag.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 June 2015.