(First published in The Dominion Post, May 1.)
Something was missing amid the outpouring of sentiment surrounding the Gallipoli centenary.Go back 30 years, and Anzac Day was often an occasion for debate about the state of the armed forces.
The Returned Services Association was then still an influential voice. Its leaders were men who had served in World War II. They consistently sounded warnings about the dangers of running down our defence capability.My generation – the generation that marched against the Vietnam War – dismissed them as crusty old reactionaries. But the veterans in the RSA had personally experienced the consequences of being thrust into war ill-prepared.
Defence spending had been greatly reduced after World War I, the so-called war to end all wars. It’s now widely accepted among military historians that our lack of preparedness was one reason why New Zealand forces had such a high casualty rate – twice that of Australia – in World War II. So how’s our preparedness today?We got rid of our combat aircraft in the early 2000s. The mainstays of our air force, the Orion and Hercules aircraft, date from the 1960s; they’re contemporaries of the Morris 1100.
Admittedly we have a relatively modern, if small, naval fleet and the army has progressively upgraded its vehicles, although the suitability of the replacements remains a subject of fierce debate.But by world standards our defence spending is low: just 1 per cent of GDP, compared with Australia (1.6 per cent), Britain (2.2) and the United States (3.8). All four countries have cut defence spending in recent years, but New Zealand’s commitment has consistently been far weaker than that of its friends.
Combat has become a disreputable word, as opposition to the current Iraqi deployment shows.As long as it’s safely distanced by history, as with Gallipoli, war seems acceptable, even noble, but we prefer our modern defence force to be cuddly and non-threatening. It exists chiefly to monitor truces, conduct fisheries patrols and occasionally locate lost Tokelauan fishermen.
New Zealand defence personnel are internationally acclaimed for the work they do, but no one should kid themselves that they’re capable of defending us against attack. For that we would have to rely on our friends, principally Australia and the United States.How has this come about? For one thing, there has been a generational change in politics. The baton passed from politicians with first-hand experience of war – men like Jack Marshall and Robert Muldoon – to the idealists of the protest generation.
The RSA has lost its clout as its numbers have thinned, so there’s no one to harass the government on defence issues.In any case, spending on defence has never been a vote winner. It becomes important only when the country’s security is at risk.
It doesn’t help that defence equipment is eye-wateringly expensive. A single Boeing Globemaster, one of the planes being touted as a replacement for the venerable Hercules, costs $300 million.The government spent $650 million buying 105 light armoured vehicles in 2001 – a crazy decision – and only 11 have been deployed in combat (in Afghanistan, where they proved unsuitable).
Politicians find it hard to justify that sort of expense, especially when vociferous lobby groups are clamouring for more spending on health, education and welfare.But defence spending has been compared with buying an insurance policy. It’s something you do even when you hope it won’t be necessary. And if we expect other countries to help us in a crisis, they’re surely entitled to expect that we’ll pull our weight proportionately.
A symbolic turning point was the Labour government’s decision in 2001 to scrap the air force’s combat wing. Justifying that decision, Helen Clark famously said that we lived in an “incredibly benign strategic environment”.Five months later, al-Qaeda launched its attacks on the United States and the world was spectacularly destabilised overnight.
How does Clark’s assessment stack up today? The Middle East is a seething cauldron. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is back to its aggressive Cold War ways, flexing its muscles over the North Sea as well as in Ukraine.Tension between China and a nationalistic, militarily resurgent Japan has risen to dangerous levels and the North Korean despot Kim Jong-un has nuclear missiles that he may just be mad enough to use.
Benign? Hardly. But Anzac Day has come and gone, and with it an opportunity for a useful discussion about defence. Clearly, we're more comfortable wallowing in sentiment over the conflicts of the past than with the troublesome realities of the here and now.