The wretched saga of New Zealand’s Skyhawk and Aermacchi air force jets is limping toward its inevitable, shameful conclusion.
Not only are the RNZAF’s Skyhawk fighter-bombers destined to end up as museum pieces, but undefined “engine issues” now mean its Aermacchi jet trainers will not be brought back into service as defence officials originally hoped. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp is quoted in today’s Dominion Post as being “optimistic” that the 17 Aermacchis could be sold to offset costs, but experience tells us to take this with a grain of salt. For years we were strung along with assurances that the Skyhawks would be sold in going condition; now they are permanently mothballed and virtually worthless. Experience tells us to brace ourselves for an announcement in a couple of years’ time that the Aermacchis will be used as landfill.
It would have been more humane all round – and spared us a lot of expense, bullshit and prevarication – if the Skyhawks and Aermacchis had been blown up on the government’s orders when Labour came to power in 1999. At least we might have enjoyed the spectacle.
I agree with Lance Beath, a senior fellow in defence studies at Victoria University of Wellington, whom the Dom Post quotes as saying the Defence Force now completely lacks international credibility. Beath says he is tempted to use the word “scandal” to describe this travesty, but why hold back? “Scandal” seems mild in this context.
We are left with one of the world’s most toothless air forces, which is just as Labour wanted it. The party took office led by pacifists and idealists who cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s and remained gripped by a mindset that regarded any sort of offensive military capacity as bad. Hence the Clark government’s decision (one of the most lamentable of its nine years in office) to cancel a deal under which the air force would have cheaply acquired 28 F-16s to replace the Skyhawks, which even then were nearing the end of their operational life. Labour wanted a defence force with a nice smiley face: one that could undertake peacekeeping missions, rescue the occasional lost Tokelauan fisherman and fly relief operations, but never shoot at anyone (heaven forbid).
Helen Clark justified this touchy-feely, Defence-Lite approach with her famous pronouncement in 2001 – in justification of the decision to axe the air force’s combat wing – that we lived in an “incredibly benign strategic environment”. That was four months before 9/11. It’s interesting to square Clark’s statement against the reality today, when the entire planet has been destabilised by Islamic terrorism, an ascendant China is flexing its military muscles and any number of flashpoints (Pakistan and Korea being two of the more obvious examples) could ignite at any time.
Until the 1970s, New Zealand was led by politicians with bitter, painful memories of the Second World War. Many senior politicians - among them Robert Muldoon, Jack Marshall and Duncan MacIntyre - were ex-servicemen. The defence portfolio invariably went to a senior cabinet minister (no longer the case today) and the RSA, whose members and their fallen comrades had paid a high price for the Allies’ lack of preparation for war, was arguably the country’s most powerful lobby group. But as old soldiers died and memories of the war grew dimmer, defence slipped down the priority list. This helps explain why, in 2011, the air force is still flying Hercules, Orion and Iroquois aircraft purchased in the 1960s, when I was still at school (I’m 60 now).
In 1999, I wrote a column suggesting there would be a public outcry if the police were still driving around in Holden Belmonts, yet we expected our defence forces to get by with planes from the same era. More than a decade later, the Iroquois helicopters are finally being replaced but otherwise, all that’s changed is that more band-aids have been stuck on the Hercs and Orions to keep them flying.
Our half-hearted approach to defence means that we risk being seen by allies as freeloaders. National governments have been almost as much to blame for this state of affairs as Labour, though through passive neglect rather than outright ideological aversion.
At the time of the debate over the F-16 purchase, opponents made much of the fact that the RNZAF’s Skyhawks had never been used in combat and the F-16s probably wouldn’t be either, so why spend millions on them when the money could be better used elsewhere? This entirely missed the point, as I’m sure the critics knew. Most strike planes are never used in combat, but their mere existence greatly lessens the risk that combat will break out. Their value lies in the fact they are a deterrent to potential belligerents.
This is why New Zealand, by dispensing with its combat wing, lays itself open to the accusation that it’s not pulling its weight in defence terms. If every democratic government took the complacent, Utopian view that it should scrap its combat planes (or warships, or whatever) because they were unlikely to be deployed in warfare, belligerent states would very quickly be on the march.
The preservation of peace depends on the existence of international defence arrangements that pack sufficient punch to persuade would-be belligerents that it’s not in their interests to attack others. This in turn requires all countries that value freedom, such as New Zealand, to make a contribution commensurate with their resources. Can we be said to be doing that, when we no longer have an air combat wing capable of making even a token attempt to defend our own sovereignty before calling on others for help? I don’t think so.