I’m in New Zealand at the moment, attending a public symposium on future security issues. It’s an interesting model for this sort of discussion. We have a room full—and I mean full as the forum has been heavily oversubscribed—of military, government officials, academics, students, journalists (who let them in?) and interested laypeople from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s a mix I haven’t seen in Australia, and I think it reflects the benefit of having a small community of national security practitioners.
Some of the discussion topics are very familiar, including the pros and cons of manoeuvring for a UN Security Council position. (I wonder if there is such a thing as Kiwi candy to help out?) But the discussion had a different tone to the one we went through in Australia. The pro position in Australia was about us realising our influence as a middle power. Here in Wellington, it’s more about New Zealand being a good global citizen and doing its bit to make the world a better place. And there’s a lot more discussion about the responsibilities or expectations that would come with a UN seat. For example, whether New Zealand will be pressed to take part in UN peacekeeping and stabilisation operations in far flung places, especially as its commitments in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands wind down.
The reawakening of New Zealand’s security relationship with the United States is seen a positive here, but there’s a distinct subtext of ‘but only because it was done on our terms’. A significant cooling of Australia’s relationship with the US would be a political disaster for the incumbent government in Canberra. In Wellington it’s almost a badge of honour—at least in retrospect. Here, giving ground to the US in order to further the relationship, especially on nuclear issues, would be widely unpopular.
Similarly, New Zealand’s view of China is different to Australia’s. Like us, they see the economic opportunities of greater trade with a growing giant. Unlike us, they don’t see themselves wedged between the US and China. To an extent I think that’s due to a more cautious embrace of American power, but I think it’s mostly a more accurate assessment of China’s levers of power. (Though the local paper noted today that China stopped tonnes of New Zealand frozen meat on the waterfront for ‘lacking proper paperwork’ about the same time New Zealand is closing a free trade deal with Taiwan.)
Of most interest to me, however, were discussions of military strategy and force structure. I said some nice things about Kiwi thinking about strategy and budgets here on The Strategist recently. And I think that was a reasonably accurate assessment. The NZDF has a reasonably well-defined role and understands what it’s being asked to do. But, just like Australia, there’s a disconnect between aspiration and resourcing. While it’s an obvious point, I should have added a caveat in my series of blog pieces (parts one, two and three) on matching Australia’s aspiration, ADF capability and the defence budget: even a modest strategy needs adequate funding. Lowering the bar on capability goals won’t in itself solve the resourcing problem if the funding is lowered even further.
That seems to be a real risk the NZDF is facing. New Zealand’s defence budget (PDF) is currently about US$2.1 billion, or a bit over 1% of local GDP. Over the next few years that share is likely to drop to below 1%. At the same time, the RNZAF is going to have to replace its C-130 Hercules fleet—an absolutely essential capability for a country with at least a three hour flight to pretty much anywhere. Beyond that, it faces the task of replacing its ageing P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and its Anzac frigates. There’s real concern here about the ability to do that. Part of the problem seems to be the baseline of the depreciation funding model that’s been adopted, but that was hardly incalculable, and actually shows the lack of priority being given to defence funding.
Australia’s force structure solutions aren’t helping. Our recent purchases of C-17 has given the RAAF’s airlift capability a big boost, and the decision to buy new C-27 battlefield air lifters makes a lot of sense with Australia’s regional geography. New Zealand probably can’t afford a C-17 purchase (although a share arrangement with Australia might make sense and hasn’t been ruled out) and the C-27 isn’t at all a good fit. And if Australia continues with its bigger and more capable line of thought about the future frigate program, we’ll produce a vessel that won’t fit New Zealand’s requirements and will far outstrip their purchasing power. There’s nothing unusual about this situation, and I’ve written frequently about the stresses on defence budgets caused by the rising generational cost of military equipment. But when you’re already on a small scale and a pretty lean budget, it starts to look like an existential threat.
The net result is a real question mark over the continuing ability of the NZDF to execute the tasks identified for it. The consensus here seems to be that the minimum capability required is air and sea lift in support of stabilisation and peacekeeping operations, and the ability to put a battalion on the ground if required (around 600 personnel). As well, everyone agrees that New Zealand needs a maritime constabulary capability. I think there’s a critical question to be asked if capability drops below the level required to reliably meet such requirements—at what stage does a defence force stop being worth having? If you can’t plan on being able to conduct even low level operations, do you end up with an expensive civil response capability which doesn’t add to your external national power base?
To be clear, New Zealand is far from that point at the moment, but it’s not a preposterous prospect given the resourcing environment and the current trend. The message I’ve taken away from this meeting is that our mates across the Tasman have some hard thinking to do. New Zealand is a commendably independent country which can make tough decisions and devise its own strategy. But, like us, they’re having trouble matching those strategies with the resources required to support them.
Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user New Zealand Defence Force.