Editor's Insight: Defence paper takes right step forward

The quality of the debate over defence capability and policies has been too low for too long.

The absence of thinktanks and defence commentators has created a vacuum filled largely by ideas promoted by pacifists and anti-American activists.

This wasn’t helped by the abolition under Labour of the air force’s strike wing, some strange procurement decision for unsuitable ships and armoured vehicles, and an emphasis on peace-keeping, humanitarian support and disaster relief.

Important though these last three items are, they are no substitute for a well-armed and trained force.

It’s been six years since the last White Paper was published, so the one issued this week should help raise the level of discussion.

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has headlined a 15-year modernisation plan worth nearly $20 billion. Apart from protecting maritime and Antarctic interests, it also includes a new focus on protecting defence information networks against increasing cyber threats.

This will be welcomed by New Zealand’s allies, such as Australia and the US, who may detect a stronger commitment to defending this country’s wider interests than just the immediate maritime environment.

“The White Paper outlines current plans to replace or enhance existing major capabilities such as the Anzac frigates and strategic and tactical airlift capability, as well as investing in new capabilities,” Mr Brownlee says.

This includes ice strengthening for a third offshore patrol vessel and a naval tanker; improved communications and enhanced air surveillance capability; and extra intelligence personnel to support military operations.

None of this will please those in the Labour and Green parties that oppose government intelligence of any sort – it is routinely and inaccurately labelled in the media as “spying” – and who believe offshore security threats are largely imaginary.

In reality, the government needs to double its efforts to raise the profile of defence. A $20 billion spend over 15 years is nothing against the $16 billion that will be spent on health alone for the coming financial year.

For its part, Labour needs to consult its comrades in Australia to learn more about why they stand a much greater chance of being elected as the government on July 2 than does a Labour-Green coalition here.

Apart from people and hardware, the White Paper outlines the new dangers that have emerged since 2010 – China’s expansion into the East and South China Seas, increased military spending in Southeast Asia, “degraded” relations between Russia and the West; and, of course, the threat of terrorism (still rated as low-risk) and “intensifying turmoil” in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although the White Paper is a start in setting off a new level of debate, it will take more to change the mindset that a modern, globalised country can do defence on the cheap any more than it can on research and development.

A chart of military spending as a percentage of GDP puts New Zealand at 1.1%, slightly above Japan’s 1.0% (though this is the largest military spend in Asia after China) and well below that of Australia (1.9%).

Critics will point out Ireland’s is a measly 0.4% and Canada’s 1.0%. But that shouldn’t stop the government lifting the priorities of its defence obligations.

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