What's the New Zealand Defence Force good for?

If New Zealand were to be invaded by some foreign power, I think we all know the answer to that. We are small and essentially powerless. Essentially, unless we hold a strategic advantage to either Australia or America, we'd be poked.

But if you need some basic humanity and grunt in a non-combat situation, they can deliver in spades. Watching the juvenile orca on Marlborough's Marfells Beach being refloated and helped back out to sea, after being stranded over 24 hours, was a wonderful case in point.

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It wasn't looking good for the young orca. Department of Conservation staff, Project Jonah volunteers, and Marlborough locals were doing their utmost. Orca expert and national treasure Dr Ingrid Visser was also on site to provide advice and direction.

Then, at first light, the cavalry arrived in the form of about 25 NZDF personnel who happened to be in the area for Exercise Southern Katipo. Working to high tide, they dug a channel or trench and then, using pontoons on either side of the orca to drag it into deep enough water, it eventually swam off by itself.

We all know New Zealand is a country where whales stranding happen with monotonous and heart-breaking regularity. We also know that DOC staff, along with keen locals, do their best in these situations. However, staff cuts and underfunding have impacted their work over the last nine years.

Maybe the NZDF could do much more of this work. I know the orca rescue made me proud when, to be entirely honest, I give the Defence Force nothing much more than an occasional thought. Which is likely true for most New Zealanders.

Last year's Defence White Paper did give me pause. $20 billion over 20 years - mostly being spent on new planes, boats, and cyber security - is a massive amount of money.

The paper's foreword by John Key talks about "the importance of national resilience" and highlighted the role the Defence Force plays in responding to natural disasters, protecting Southern Ocean resources, and supporting our civilian presence in Antarctica.

The actual words 'climate change' in the document barely appear, but the concertina effect of it is evident. Let's just say that it is written in disturbingly vague language.

Obviously scaring the horses by detailing the dangers of food security, ocean acidification affecting fisheries, migration due to rising seas, freshwater scarcity, agriculture breaking down, and having the capability to be able to respond to extreme weather events, was not in the brief.

Bottom line? Climate change is likely the biggest threat to national security we face. I also suspect that our military knows that, and is preparing for it in ways we can't even imagine just yet. Just like insurance companies know it, and are preparing for it with bigger premiums or no cover at all. It's the rest of us that need to play catch up.

I refuse to be one of those who equates having a defence force with protecting ourselves from a hostile force solely. In New Zealand's case, that is less likely.

What is very likely is another nation attempting to steal our resources. A foregone conclusion is how busy they're going to be assisting with disaster recovery due to climate change.

I'd hazard a guess that our previous government was less worried about such matters and, behind the scenes, the NZDF was leading the charge on the issue. Indeed, imagine the U.S. military and their relationship with climate change denier President Donald Trump.

In fact, an article in the Military Times back in September outlines how the Pentagon has continued to take steps to defend its military bases against extreme weather despite direction from the President to stop preparing for climate change. Thousands of troops worked on relief efforts following Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico.

Basically, every country's domestic security declines as the sea levels rise. The military truly gets that, and not funding a decent defence force capable of doing the work that climate change will necessitate would be negligent.

In the meantime, I hope to see more strong, capable, decent military personnel digging channels for whales to put them back in the sea where they belong.

There is a feeling beyond words when such 50/50 stories of survival occur. The reaction of the people on the ground at Marfell's Beach said it all.

The NZDF's reputation was massively enhanced, and with what's coming climate-wise, we should all be grateful they are there.

Because, one thing's for sure, it won't be anything like playing tiddlywinks.