New Zealand’s Defence White Paper: look south
10 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Yvonne Larsson

Imagine that Australia released a Defence White Paper that refused even in the most veiled terms to discuss China’s destabilising policies in the South China Sea, which didn’t mention Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, and which concluded that ‘Asia has seen some positive security developments in recent years.’

Imagine further that this White Paper offered no substance on equipment acquisition plans, simply pointing to a future statement that may contain details. Imagine a White Paper that says nothing—zero, zip, nada—about Defence spending, not even mentioning the size of the current Defence budget.

Impossible, you cry! No government could get away with that. Allow me to introduce New Zealand’s Defence White Paper 2016, a policy statement that plumbs new depths of vacuity in its desperation to say nothing offensive to outsiders nor to commit Wellington to a precise course of action.

Previous New Zealand defence white papers have had considerably more substance. The document released this week, however, suggests that our Kiwi siblings are going through some kind of existential crisis about the shape, purpose, cost and direction of New Zealand Defence.

The White Paper has some rather confused messages about New Zealand’s strategic outlook to 2040. It claims:

By 2030 Asia is expected to have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, a measure defined by gross domestic product, population size, military spending and technological investment.’

But ‘Asia’ isn’t a single actor wielding power. It’s a grouping of many states with conflicting strategic objectives. ‘Power’ isn’t a measure of size but rather a state’s willingness to use it. The White Paper points to the enduring nature of terrorism, resource competition, WMD proliferation and information technology as features shaping New Zealand’s strategic outlook. It’s an odd list, producing policy gems like ‘the adoption of technology has a number of advantages in the military context’, but missing other factors such as the rise of Asian nationalism, climate change and any serious discussion of military technology trends.

The document points to some ‘positive security developments in recent years’ in Asia without saying what those might be, but then says ‘tensions in the region are greater than they were five years ago.’ On the South China Sea the New Zealand statement can’t bring itself to say that Chinese assertiveness is undermining security. Rather we have a comment that Wellington ‘does oppose actions that undermine peace and erode trust.’

New Zealand will address that by increasing international defence cooperation because ‘through continued, meaningful engagement, New Zealand develops familiarity with those with whom its relationships may be less established.’ The documents notes that ‘over half of New Zealand’s maritime trade passes through the South China Sea’ but there is no expression of Wellington’s willingness to exercise freedom of navigation or overflight rights, only the limp observation that such rights have ‘been tested in recent years.’

On Australia, the White Paper solidly says that ‘Australia is New Zealand’s most important bilateral partner. New Zealand has no better friend and no closer ally. … While a direct armed attack on Australia is unlikely in the foreseeable future, should it be subject to such an attack, New Zealand would respond immediately.’ But there’s a distressing lack of detail in how New Zealand might work with Australia. Closer interoperability is only to be pursued ‘where relevant [to] ensure Defence capabilities are complementary and compatible.’ There’s no acknowledgement of the industry synergies that might work both to Australia and New Zealand’s advantage in ship and vehicle building and sustainment.

The geographic area getting most of the limelight in the White Paper is, surprisingly, Antarctica, which is mentioned 35 times. By contrast Australia gets 31 mentions, China only 14 and Indonesia and PNG aren’t mentioned at all. One of the few precise force structure commitments in the document is to ice-strengthen the planned third offshore patrol vessel and replacement naval tanker.

Australia will only benefit from Wellington’s increased commitment to Antarctic operations, but no thought seems to have been given to how the two countries might jointly approach this task. The bigger problem overall is that Antarctica is hardly a compelling rationale to sustain the New Zealand military. Servicing New Zealand’s presence down south is a useful secondary task, but nothing more than that.

The White Paper squibs New Zealand’s most urgent task, which is to come up with a practical plan addressing the block obsolescence of most big ticket equipment items in the Defence Force. On replacing the P3 maritime surveillance aircraft, the White Paper says only that an ‘air surveillance capability’ is required. Likewise a ‘Littoral Operations Support vessel’ is needed and that will be used to transport ‘land combat capabilities including personnel, helicopters and light armoured vehicles that can be deployed (by sea) for up to 36 months.’ (Yes, readers—36 months!)

ANZAC frigates must also be replaced, but all the White Paper can say about this major acquisition is that ‘Work on options for the replacement of the frigates will begin well before they reach the end of their service life in the 2020s.’

The answers to all of those force structure challenges will apparently appear in ‘a Defence Capability Plan scheduled for release later in 2016.’ Perhaps the White Paper should have been held for release until then. Gerry Brownlee, the Defence Minister, advises that the total cost will be ‘close to $20 billion over the next 15 years.’ It’s not clear how much analysis has gone into that figure, but the White Paper makes clear that Defence’s job is to design the future force around that target rather than come up with a capability driven cost estimate. There is, in any event, not a single financial data point in the ‘Affordability’ chapter on which to plan a future spend. There are, however, plenty of sentences that read like this:

Defence is working with other government agencies to formalise a process for updating and reviewing its assumptions related to a range of external factors that have a heavy influence on forecasting costs.’

Well, that will keep people busy then.

Overall New Zealand’s Defence White Paper 2016 looks like it was hit with a series of unhappy compromises around the language of its strategic judgements, and was unable to land its targets for force structure decision making. Australia has been down this track before, so we shouldn’t get smug here.

Canberra and Wellington should surely have some hard discussions about the things we could be doing better together. For all our talk about being family, the ANZAC relationship is a persistent underachiever, marked more with the protection of comfort zones than any aspiration for excellence. We must do much better than this.