New Zealand’s involvement in the Ukraine war has mostly answered the rhetorical question, “How can we be most useful?”
Defence personnel have been sent to Britain to help train Ukrainians and others in Europe on logistics and liaison work. A C-130 Hercules workhorse flew in military supplies. Alongside humanitarian aid, useful battlefield equipment was sent including medical kits, body armour, helmets and communications gear.
Although the overriding impulse has been to support Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression, the way the war has unfolded has also been an eye-opener to military strategists and countries deciding how to spend their defence budgets.
There are lessons for outside countries to take from it, including New Zealand.
The biggest would be for countries to prepare for a wide range of war scenarios and equipment, including the use of surprising and brutal tactics, and a mix of old and new battlefield technology.
After weeks of retreats, Russia is now trying to hold on to territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. It has skirted around its battlefield losses to launch long-range missile attacks, damaging civilian infrastructure, particularly power plants in cold weather, to apply political pressure on Ukraine. The Ukrainians have made repairs and evacuated civilians near the frontlines. They have received some air defence systems to shoot down missiles but need more.
How would New Zealand fare if an invading country attacked our energy grid, motorway system and airports, on top of targeting central government? How long would our military supplies last, and how easily would we be supplied with more?
A feature of the Ukraine war is how expensive the early phase of it was for troops and equipment. Moscow’s Army is stalled partly because of shortages of weapons and supplies. Russia has had to call up conscripts and seek military help from Iran and North Korea.
Road and rail links have continued to bring in Western military aid to Kyiv. Ukraine has hit Russia’s ammunition dumps and supply lines with Himars rockets. But Ukraine is also burning through weapons supplies, which means Western nations are having to restock. Some major weaponry has been held back out of concern Kyiv could attack targets in Russia.
Old tech in the form of artillery and armoured vehicles played a heavy part on both sides. Some experts believe Russia’s key military failure was one of insufficient preparation and logistics, combined with an expectation Kyiv could be quickly subdued.
The wide use of light, mobile weapons such as Himars rocket systems, air defence missiles, air and boat drones, anti-drone guns, anti-tank Javelins, and information software in this conflict also makes it a testing ground. Russia has used drones to attack Ukrainian cities. Mobile Ukrainian teams use small drones to provide surveillance on a target and then fire at it. The Ukrainians have developed a reputation for being innovative in comparison with the top-down Russian military.
Clever, low-cost ways of improving defence through tech advances seem a good investment for New Zealand.
The overall idea of New Zealand being a target may seem far-fetched. But Asia generally and Oceania more recently have been attracting more geopolitical interest. We are part of the Western democratic system yet maintain our international independence.
And in a warming future where global supplies of food and water are less reliable - and this country as a stable food producer with a reasonably temperate climate - being a target might be more likely.