Garth George: Defence Force deterioration shame

By Garth George

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It's a national disgrace. Even worse, it's a shameful international embarrassment. Our so-called Defence Force, all three parts of it, is a shambles.

For a nation which continues to revere the spirit of Anzac, the state to which the public and politicians have allowed our military services to deteriorate is insufferable.

For an island nation planted on the rim of two oceans and a sea, the state of our navy - which can't even meet its own limited objectives - is simply beyond understanding.

As the headline on a comprehensive newspaper report on the sorry state of the Navy last weekend said, we now have "The little navy that couldn't".

You can't blame the army, the navy or the air force for this sad situation. But we can blame ourselves and the politicians we elect: successive governments over the past nearly 15 years have continually demanded more "savings" from our Defence Force and mandated changes in operations and personnel which have all blown up in their faces, having the opposite effect to that which was intended.

The most obvious of these was the decision of the National-led government to "civilianise" so-called back-office jobs in the Defence Force, hiring non-military people at lesser rates of pay, allowances and conditions.

What happened? Five hundred people were made redundant over the three services, two-thirds of them frontline staff.

But another 1500 voluntarily flagged it away, thoroughly brassed off at the unfairness of it all and the brutal breaking in some cases of 15-year contracts.

So all three services found themselves desperately short of uniformed staff, a shortage they have not been able to rectify.

Even worse, however, as an Audit Office report points out, is the damage done to "the bonds of camaraderie, integrity and commitment" that are part of military culture and the resulting impact on morale and staff turnover.

The rot started when Helen Clark canned the air force's strike fighter wing and reduced job opportunities for pilots to those of glorified aerial truck and bus drivers, jobs they'd get paid a lot more for by a commercial airline.

The army has been reduced to peacekeeping and disaster relief roles, except for our wonderful Special Air Service (SAS), which can hold its own against any similar fighting unit in the world.

Our peacekeepers, too, are acknowledged as the best in the business.

But the army is desperately short of money and personnel and you have to wonder if the five deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan last August might have been avoided if the troops sent to Bamiyan province had been better trained.

And when it comes to training, the air force is under a very dark cloud over its safety performance, specially after the fatal crash of the Iroquois helicopter on the way to Wellington on Anzac Day three years ago.

The air force has moved quickly to improve operational safety but, because of lack of funds, it cannot fit to all aircraft even basic safety devices, such as ground proximity warning, locator beacons and cockpit voice recorders.

As for the navy, its staff turnover in the 2011/12 year doubled from 11.25 per cent to 22.96 per cent which, the annual Defence Force report to Parliament said, was "unsustainable".

And no wonder. Many of its ships lie idle because they can't be crewed and there is no money to pay for their operation. Fisheries protection has become a joke, illegal fishing is rampant by overseas and local operators, so we don't even meet our minimal obligations to regional security.

A growing public indifference to our Defence Force has been used by successive governments to starve it of imperative funding. That has to stop. More money has to be found.

Meanwhile, we all must share the blame and the shame.

garth.george@hotmail.com

- Rotorua Daily Post

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