Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Defence needs to start on the broken home front

Called the "2016 Defence Capability Plan," it fleshes out the broad brush Defence White Paper released in June. Photo / Peter Bromhead
Called the "2016 Defence Capability Plan," it fleshes out the broad brush Defence White Paper released in June. Photo / Peter Bromhead

It was pure luck that visiting sailors were on hand to join HMNZS Canterbury in the rush to Kaikoura after last week's big earthquake.

The helicopters and trained personnel from the United States and Australian navies not only sped up the aid and evacuation process, they also highlighted how under-resourced we are to handle such a crisis on our own.

Despite the wake-up calls of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, the national tsunami alert system - or lack of it - proved Monty Pythonesque. And as one who foolishly assumes my masters will have these things already sorted, it was also alarming to discover that the only rescue helicopters the defence forces seem to be able to rustle up were a couple of NH90 helicopters which the promotional blurb says "can carry up to 12 fully equipped soldiers or up to 18 lightly equipped troops (allowing for door gunners.)"

All told the Air Force has a total of eight of these machines for use in military ground operations, disaster relief, search and rescue, counter-drug operations and counter terrorism.

In other words, if the big one strikes Wellington and all the roads north are blocked, and the port unusable, that's it.

Perhaps that's why the Government and the Defence department slipped out their $20 billion defence "modernisation" shopping list just two days after the Kaikoura quake, while the media was otherwise engaged.

Called the "2016 Defence Capability Plan," it fleshes out the broad brush Defence White Paper released in June.

In his foreword, Prime Minister John Key says the plan "sets out the Government's expectations for Defence over the coming decades." Along with the usual talk about battling terrorism and protecting our national security interests, he drew attention to two new priorities.

Referring to "The earthquakes that devastated Christchurch and its surrounding areas." Mr Key said they "underline the importance of national resilience, and the critical role the Defence Force plays alongside other government agencies in responding to national disasters."

This followed on from the White Paper's prediction that "natural disasters are likely to increase in frequency and intensity." It acknowledged that New Zealand is vulnerable not only "to a number of geological hazards including earthquakes,tsunami and volcanic activity," but also to a threat rather quaintly referred to as "meteorological hazards including flooding and droughts."

The other priority Mr Key highlighted in his foreword was "the protection of Southern Ocean resources and supporting our civilian presence in Antarctica."
Browsing through the shopping list, it's hard not to conclude that the Ross Sea penguins and the Antarctic toothfish have done rather better out of this review than any potential earthquake victim.

Indeed if I were of a suspicious mind, I'd think that the PM's awkward reference to "national resilience" and the White Paper's predictions about an increase in natural disasters, were last minute additions, inserted to pretend the generals and politicians were serious about adding "natural disasters" to the our traditional list of enemies.

Certainly the Minister of Defence, Gerry Brownlee is all bows and arrows in his foreword to the shopping list. He talks up the replacement of the navy frigates and expensive air planes - including the Prime Minister's ailing "Air Force One" Boeing 757.

But going through the shopping list, about the only things I could spot that would signal a new interest in responding to "natural disasters" is a reference to upgrading combat engineering equipment by buying small boats, explosive detectors, bridging equipment and bulldozers.

There's also plans to buy all-terrain vehicles and/or motorbikes from 2019-22. What is missing is a chapter, or even a page in either the White Paper or the shopping list, outlining plans for dealing with our most immediate and potentially deadly threat.

The vast majority of us were born after the deadly Napier earthquake. But three major shakes in the South Island in the last six years, have highlighted how the enemy we are most likely to have to front is the one within. "Bishop" Tamaki paints him as a scary homophobic Old Testament God. Science tells us we're at the mercy of tectonic plates rubbing against one another.

It's not an enemy we can fight. But it would be nice to think that some of the $20 billion Defence spend-up over the next 15 years, was being earmarked for disaster rescue, relief and reconstruction.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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