Budgeting to be a peacemaker not a warmaker


When it comes to helping out the victims of war – refugees – the government says it can only afford $25 million a year for an extra 250 refugees, a derisory amount.

Yet when it comes to preparations for fighting wars, the sky’s the limit.

In its Defence White Paper

the government projects spending $20 billion on new defence equipment over the next 15 years?

Most of this $20 billion is so we can kit up with all the latest hi-tech gear to fight wars alongside the United States – wars which in recent times have only created chaos and more refugees.

Don’t be fooled by Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee spinning the $20 billion as necessary to “respond to activities in New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone, supporting New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, as well as increasing cyber threats to Defence Force networks.”

Expenditure for those purposes is at the cheap end of the spectrum. In 2011 the Defence Force completed a Project Protector which delivered a whole new naval capacity to operate in the EEZ, the South Pacific and the Southern Ocean. The project delivered two Off-shore Patrol Vessels, four In-shore Patrol Vessels and a Multi-Role Vessel, the Canterbury. All up Project Protector cost $500 million.

Compare this $500 million for seven completely new ships to the latest (of many) equipment upgrades on the two ANZAC frigates –

now scheduled to cost $473 million.

If the present frigates are replaced in the 2020s (as projected in the White Paper) that additional cost will be in the billions.

The frigates are so much more expensive to build and operate than the Multi-Role Vessel and the patrol boats because of all the high-tech equipment they need to fight a major war alongside the US and Australian navies.

In the 1980s there was a widespread public debate over whether we should get frigates at all. Frigate opponents argued that they were too expensive and they locked us into US and Australian defence objectives.  The arguments against wasting money on frigates apply even more today when America’s main military adversary is now our main trading partner, China.

The Defence White Paper seems calculated to annoy China.

It praises the “United States ‘rebalance’ towards the Asia-Pacific region” – which is actually all about confronting China. It praises the “degree of global influence” the US exerts and how New Zealand’s military relationship with the United States is “one of this country’s closest.”

You’d think that given the tension between China and the US, New Zealand would step back a bit. Instead the White Paper says that the “deepening geostrategic competition in Asia” is a reason New Zealand needs to be “able to contribute Defence resources beyond [our] immediate region if required.”

Part of this “geostrategic competition in Asia” is a military standoff between China and several other countries over some islands in the South China Sea. One of these countries is Malaysia. Is it wise then for the White Paper to explicitly promise that New Zealand would come to the defence of Malaysia, if it were the “subject of military attack”?

This is not to say that New Zealand should be uncritical of Chinese policy, domestic or foreign. But our criticism, on democratic rights issues for example, will be more effective if we are not seen as a military lapdog of the United States.

Each proposal for a major defence spend should be scrutinised closely to see if it meets New Zealand’s real needs. The proposal for “ice-strengthening the planned third offshore patrol vessel” may have merit, to catch trawlers depleting fish stocks in the Southern Ocean.

Sometimes a non-military equipment option will be better than a military one – and much cheaper. Other countries do much of their maritime surveillance with civilian planes, whose work is now made easier by access to satellite imagery and GPS transponders on boats. Drones may also be available for such work.

Most of the expenditure on the Air Force Orion planes is for military purposes unrelated to the day-to-day surveillance work it conducts around New Zealand and in the South Pacific. For example, the White Paper mentions “work is underway to upgrade the Orion’s underwater intelligence” – as part of a high tech revamp

costing nearly $400 million

. “Underwater intelligence” means detecting submarines. New Zealand’s submarine hunting was originally part of an American Cold War project to track Soviet submarines, wherever they happened to be. Presumably the idea now is to help the US track Chinese submarines. Is that really what we want our tax money spent on?

The White Paper also references the need for cyber-security “for the protection of Defence Force networks, platforms and people”. That’s fair enough, although we are much more likely to be a target of cyber-attacks if we are closely tied to the US military.

New Zealand is hardly facing any military threat and should be promoting itself as a peacemaker not a warmaker. Having a small military budget would then be an asset, not a liability.