Winkin, Blinkin or Nod? NZ Defence changes: peace promoting or business as usual?

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 21, Spring 2001

by Alyn Ware

On 8 May 2001 the Government announced military expenditure for the coming year along with several major changes to the structure of the defence forces that had been the subject of some debate over the past few months. Included in the changes are:

scrapping the combat wing of the airforce,

a decision not to purchase a third frigate,

a decision not to proceed with the planned upgrade of the Orion aircraft anti-submarine capbility.

Following on from last year’s decision to cancel an order agreed to by the previous government for F-16 fighter planes, these changes appear to be a significant downgrading of New Zealand’s defence capabilities.

However, the Government has made great efforts to emphasise that defence capability is not being reduced but just made more efficient and appropriate to New Zealand’s security needs. While there are cutbacks to the navy and air force, the budget included an increase in spending on equipment for the army. Included in the budget are plans for acquisition of new armoured vehicles, tactical communications, and light operational vehicles, and possibilities for increasing close-in fire support, and enhancing command and control equipment and artillery.

This has prompted some peace groups to criticise the changes as giving the appearance of change without making any real difference. A paper from Peace Movement Aotearoa (PMA), for example, notes that New Zealand’s contribution to offensive warmaking in the past, such as Vietnam and the Gulf War, has been undertaken mostly by the army, and to a lesser extent the navy. Thus the current modernising of the army could indicate an increase in New Zealand’s capability for offensive armed forces operations. The PMA paper goes on to say that ‘the underlying belief that military might is a useful thing in itself has not changed.’ And that ‘In terms of regional and global peace and security, the focus on re-arming of the army does not seem a particularly positive contribution in an already grossly over-militarised world.’

On the other hand, the government has been heavily criticised by some academics and military strategists for these changes on the basis that they supposedly reduce New Zealand’s security by seriously eroding defensive capability and impairing New Zealand’s ability to operate with our allies. National media gave prominent coverage, for example, to an alarmist letter by seven former defence chiefs which claims the government’s new direction is ‘a reliance on hope’ rather than on military preparedness, reminiscent of the 1938-39 period which ‘led to the loss of thousands of New Zealanders’ in World War II. The letter also argues that we are letting our allies down. ‘All of our friends and neighbours think it wisest to be prepared for a greater level of risk.’ There have also been reports that the US, UK and Australian governments are far from happy with the changes.

Between these two perspectives is a third which supports the defence changes and seems to have widespread adherence, and that is that the changes are a small but significant step away from coalition warmaking strategy towards peacekeeping. This perspective has been argued quite strongly in Parliament, the media and at academic conferences by the Green Party. Keith Locke, Green Party MP, said recently that ‘For most of our history in defence, we’ve been dancing to someone else’s tune: firstly the British, and in recent decades the Americans and the Australians. At last we’re starting to determine our defence capability according to our needs, and what we can best contribute to the world.’ Locke noted that the defence changes reduce New Zealand’s capability to participate in offensive military actions in coalition with traditional allies, and increase New Zealand’s capability to participate in UN peacekeeping operations.

While this is far from a pacifist approach to security, Locke noted that the government has also agreed to establish a peacekeeping school which would include training in non-violent conflict resolution in the field. Locke also notes that the naval and airforce changes indicate a change in policy from military preparation for unlikely military threats to a more practical development of capabilities to respond to the more real threats to our security including threats to the environment, ocean resources and to justice in the Pacific region.

The changes have also been noted favourably by international NGOs including, among others, Global Action to Prevent War, some Veterans organisations, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, all of whom have sent supportive communications to the Prime Minister. Such groups appreciated New Zealand’s efforts to challenge the myth of nuclear deterrence in the 1980s, and appreciate just as much New Zealand’s current challenge to the predominantly militaristic perceptions of security which hold power in many countries.

So far the government has kept on track with the proposed changes despite the strong opposition from New Zealand’s allies and from elements of New Zealand academia and military. While there have been no opinion polls on the changes, it appears that the government is confident of public backing, particularly given the high level of support for New Zealand’s contributions to peacekeeping in East Timor and Bougainville, a widespread opinion that such contributions enhance New Zealand’s international image, and a belief that such contributions could be even more effective if given a larger slice of the military budget.

Alyn Ware works full time as a peace educator and lobbyist. This article first appeared in Peaceworks, Winter 2001.

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