Editorial: Review must recognise new defence reality

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It has been 10 years since a major inquiry took a broad look at the Defence Force. During that time, much has changed. No longer does this region enjoy the "benign strategic environment" that underpinned the Clark Government's transformation of the armed forces into peacekeepers. Indeed, the level of unrest in the Asia-Pacific area calls into question the very basis of that policy. As such, a white paper review of the Defence Force is extremely timely.

Initial comment on the exercise has highlighted what are essentially minor issues, notably the consideration of public-private partnerships for defence bases and the possibility that school-leavers will be offered a gap year in the military that helps pay for their tertiary education. Unfortunately, also, the Defence Minister has placed constraints on the review's authors. Excluded from examination, says Wayne Mapp, will be the reconstruction of the Air Force's strike wing. The review will also labour under the knowledge that there is unlikely to be a "significant increase" in the inadequate 1 per cent of gross domestic product that New Zealand has spent on defence over the past 15 years.

Those restrictions suggest a continuation of the miserly approach that has undermined this country's defence preparedness in that period. Add to this ill-considered purchases, such as the Army's 105 light armoured vehicles (LAVs), and it is little wonder Defence Force morale is low.

Many men and women, feeling deprived of job satisfaction and opportunities, have quit. They will be replaced by high-quality recruits only when the Defence Force boasts equipment of a calibre that makes them proud to serve.

The Government has the opportunity to achieve this. Much of the current hardware is nearing the end of its life. In particular, the Air Force's Hercules transports and Orion maritime surveillance aircraft will need to be replaced over the next decade or so, as will the Navy's two overworked Anzac frigates. There should be no skimping on this. All are integral to the defence of a trading nation. Other purchases should reflect increased regional instability and recognise this means that closer ties with the Australian armed forces should be ranked higher than support for UN peacekeeping operations. That, in turn, raises the issue of an Air Force combat wing. It is regrettable that cost, plus the loss of top pilots and support personnel overseas, has encouraged the Government to place this in the too-hard basket.

A little funding should be freed up by the sale of some of the LAVs. Not only were far too many bought, a product of the Army having the ear of the Labour Government, but they have a chequered record with other armed forces. Their $700 million purchase in 2005 also deprived other parts of the Defence Force of badly needed equipment. That situation must now be rectified.

It would be wrong, however, for money for this to be sourced from the placing of defence bases in public-private partnerships. It may be that housing on bases could be the subject of such an arrangement. But the land and buildings used for armed forces operations are, and always will be, part of core government. The Defence Force must have the flexibility to do what it wishes with these, often at short notice. Further, any short-term financial gain from sales would quickly be dissipated by ongoing lease payments, which would be a drain on the defence budget.

The Clark Government was able to emasculate much of the Defence Force because most people bought into the idea that this was a uniquely stable region. That has been found to be a hopelessly optimistic assessment. When it is released next March, the white paper review must recognise the new reality, and the Government must fashion a Defence Force to meet it.

- NZ Herald

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