Reduced to worthy gestures, Ron Smith

The Armed Forces of New Zealand
James Rolfe
Allen & Unwin New Zealand, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86448 800 X

New Zealanders generally support the concept of international order. They believe that aggressors should be resisted and human rights protected. They recognise, too, that, as a trading nation, New Zealand has interests to defend around the world and particularly in the Asia Pacific region. Some even admit the possibility of needing to defend our interests closer to home. But for many people these concerns seem distant in time and place. They command little priority when policy is formed.

The consequence of this is a major disjunction between means and ends. We suddenly find ourselves wanting to do something, either because of sympathy for the victims of aggression, or because of a more “political” desire to be seen to be doing our bit. At this point we find that we do not have the resources. We are reduced (as we were recently in Kosovo) to worthy gestures.

On the other hand, we may send more substantial forces anyway, despite deficiencies in preparation and equipment. Then we hope for the best, relying on the professionalism and commitment of the service people themselves. We have done this many times in our history, to the detriment of the purposes we wanted to serve and accompanied by much unnecessary loss of life.

The recent publication of a Parliamentary Select Committee report, “Inquiry into Defence Beyond 2000”, has sparked fresh debate on the purposes and needs of defence. Jim Rolfe’s excellent new book, The Armed Forces of New Zealand, is thus very timely. Certainly, it represents essential reading for parliamentarians and others who intend to take part in the debate. In a little over 200 pages, Dr Rolfe raises all the pertinent questions and provides much of the information required to answer them.

There will also be academic readers. The volume will undoubtedly become a required text for students of defence policy, although in this context it must be said that some of the specifics will date rapidly. Let’s hope that sales of the book will be such as to encourage regular new editions in the years ahead.

The Armed Forces of New Zealand begins with an admirably succinct account of the content of recent defence policy papers. Dr Rolfe outlines the main objectives (which have been remarkably constant down the years) and indicates how, in the modern way, outcomes are assessed and efficiency is evaluated. The various elements of our armed forces are supposed to be held at certain required levels of operational readiness, and this state of readiness is to be reported at regular intervals. How the process works and what it reveals is very clearly laid out. There is also a comprehensive account of the command and control arrangements for the New Zealand armed forces and the administrative structures that link these to the political process.

Each of the three services is given a chapter of its own. In every case, there is a detailed description of the organisational structure, an account of the tasks allotted and a comprehensive survey of the major assets presently maintained. For the Navy, the crucial questions surround the size and composition of the frigate fleet. This is given extensive discussion, with the limitations that would be imposed by a two-frigate force very clearly set out.

The war-fighting capabilities of the New Zealand ANZAC frigates (as they are presently fitted out) also impose serious limitations on the roles that may be envisaged for them. Rolfe has grave doubts whether they could be offered for service in circumstances where potential adversaries have access to modern offensive weapons systems.

The chapter on the Royal New Zealand Air Force was written before the decision was taken to lease a squadron of nearly new fighter aircraft from the United States. Nonetheless, the crucial issue of the future of air attack is thoroughly discussed, with the pros and cons clearly laid out. There are major decisions to be made for the Air Force, too, and they don’t just concern fighters. Our maritime patrol and air transport fleets (Orions and Hercules, respectively) are generally in need of replacement. In other air forces they would already have been replaced.

For those who wish the detail, Dr Rolfe provides it. Of the Orions, for example, he says:

A fatigue analysis in 1993 showed that the aircraft have accumulated fatigue life indexes of up to 135. In comparison the United States Navy retired most of its aircraft at a level between 60 and 80.

As far as the capabilities of the New Zealand Army are concerned, it must be noted that the front cover of the book gives a rather misleading impression. A small infantry unit is pictured deploying with armoured support. In fact, the support is nothing more than a heavy calibre machine-gun on top of an antiquated M113 personnel carrier. The protective armour on these vehicles was widely recognised as not being up to the job at the time of the Bosnian deployment a few years ago. As matters stand, the New Zealand Army has neither modern troop-carrying capacity nor proper mobile fire support.

At various points in the book, the author observes of a particular issue that it is “political”. He is surely right about this. Indeed it may be a major problem of defence that it is, in a certain sense, too political. It may reflect too much the naïve prejudices of political activists and not enough the generally better-informed opinions of those whose business is security. Be that as it may, there will be some crucial decisions made in the years immediately ahead, and these will have a major impact not only on our security in the long term but also on our relations with allies and trading partners around the world. If these things are to get the serious attention they deserve, there is no better start than to read Jim Rolfe’s new book.

Ron Smith is Director of Defence and Strategic Studies in the Political Science Department at the University of Waikato.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review, War
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