Garth George

Garth George is a Herald columnist

Garth George: Bringing our forces back in from the cold

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A Royal NZ Air Force Iroquois helicopter. File photo / Wanganui Chronicle
A Royal NZ Air Force Iroquois helicopter. File photo / Wanganui Chronicle

The Government's Defence white paper, delivered last week, is a tremendously encouraging document and a credit to the hundreds of people who contributed to it and wrote it.

Running to more than 26,000 words, the review has been two years in the making and if it shows us nothing else, it is that the National-led Government takes seriously its sacred duty of defence of the realm.

How comforting this is after years of putting up with Labour and Green politicians, who seemed to hold their noses every time the word defence cropped up, or who tried to ignore the Defence Force altogether.

The last time I wrote at any length about defence was just after the turn of the millennium, when Helen Clark's crowd reneged on a deal to acquire F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft to replace our antiquated A-4 Skyhawk strike fighters.

I, and a lot of other Kiwis, ranted and raved over that decision and insisted that an airstrike wing was essential to our defence capability.

It's funny how things change: this year's defence review makes no reference whatsoever to strike fighters - not even to the leftover Skyhawks which are costing a bomb to maintain - yet I hardly noticed.

Nor do I care any more, for this year's review - the first in 13 years, incidentally - paints a picture of a Defence Force tailored not only to the needs of domestic defence but to our commitments to Australia and the Pacific in particular, and to the world at large.

This is not a document reflecting the ideology of a political party. More than 600 written submissions were received from individuals and organisations, including the RSA. Public meetings were held across the country.

Workshops were held throughout the defence community and an independent panel of experts was appointed to test key assumptions fundamental to the review.

Throughout the nine-year term of the Labour-led government, containing as it did a bunch of Vietnam-era activists, the Army, Navy and Air Force seemed to be looked upon with disapproval, if not with disdain.

One of the results of that attitude was that the three services struggled to recruit their personnel needs.

And, as the white paper records, the attrition rate in the first year of service is undesirably high, ranging from 10 per cent to 25 per cent across the three services. It was almost as if there were something reprehensible in becoming a soldier, sailor or airman.

If the ambitions for the Defence Force outlined in the review are achieved even partially, that will change. It should soon become apparent that a career in the armed forces is something to be desired.

As the white paper puts it: "More effort will need to be put into recruiting personnel from non-traditional sources, including from ethnic groups which are under-represented in the NZDF. We want an NZDF which is valued by all New Zealanders not only for what it does but also because it reflects contemporary New Zealand society."

It outlines numerous changes to remuneration and benefits to be applied to servicemen and women, but it is the fact that the Defence Force is being returned to the bosom of the nation that will have the biggest effect.

The whole review reveals a desire for the Defence Force to be an integral part of government to a greater extent than it has been thus far.

It reveals, too, a determination on the part of the Government to give the armed services the place in our society that they need and deserve.

The review also makes mention of the New Zealand Cadet Forces, which have about 4000 members in 100 units throughout the land.

It assures us that the aim of these units - to foster adventure and teamwork, to provide challenging and disciplined training activities, and to promote an awareness of the armed forces and the role they play in the community - will be maintained and encouraged.

But what about money? It is not surprising that the question of value for money is a recurring theme throughout the report.

It seems that much is planned to be saved by relocation, reorganisation and redistribution of land, buildings, equipment and personnel within the existing defence budget.

However - and this is cause for celebration - the review says that while such a redistribution from within the existing budget will make its proposals more affordable, "they will not remove the need for the Government still to contribute new money over time".

Says Defence Minister Wayne Mapp: "This white paper sets the overall direction for Defence over the next 25 years.

"Each major proposal will be fully scrutinised before approval to proceed is given. Moreover, a fresh review will occur every five years to take account of strategic, fiscal and other developments."

So, while our Defence Force is being rehabilitated, strengthened and streamlined, we Kiwis can once again take pride in the fact that we will continue, even more effectively, to punch above our weight in an unstable world.

- NZ Herald

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