Arm me with confidence

In 1941 New Zealand troops on Crete were
minced up by German forces backed by air supremacy. Thereafter Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser insisted the army would not fight without air cover.
He woke up bit late. Two decades earlier Labour’s hero of the left, John Lee, who lost an arm in the first world war, had argued the same point. Cannon fodder in Lee’s war, our troops met the same fate initially in Fraser’s war after defence spending was heavily cut in the 1930s.
Now Helen Clark, who owes more in style to Peter Fraser than any Labour leader and in social policy ambitions would not be out of place beside Lee, wants to cancel the National cabinet’s deal to lease-to-buy F16 fighters, raising the real prospect the air force’s combat capability will lapse when the Skyhawks run down in 2007.
Clark was politicised by the Vietnam war. Her peers developed suspicion of and distaste for the military, especially the United States military and nuclear weapons. To reconcile that anti-militarism with the inescapability of having armed forces, they have focused on peacekeeping, disaster assistance and policing our fishing zone.
Public opinion has taken similar route. Defence is like sewage disposal: you want it done but want not to have to think about it or pay too much.
Few get into the substance of the debate, for the issues are dauntingly complex. They involve international politics at several levels and on several scales, domestic politics, fiscal tradeoffs, military doctrine and strategy and jealousies between the three forces.
That makes it fearsomely difficult to argue the case for spending on the armed forces — and especially argue the case for expensive high-tech “toys for the boys”. Politicians find it easier to pick convenient line from the range available, cry poor and squeeze more blood out of the military stone.
Politicians of the right and the left have run down the defence budget — it dropped by third as percentage of GDP last decade. This left the forces, particularly the army, seriously under-equipped for the job.
The National government halted the slide and set out re-equipment plan in 1997, which they modified in 1998 after the currency plunged. But even the sabre-rattlers in National’s cabinet didn’t seriously push for an increase in the 1.1 percent share of GDP defence gets (versus 2.1 percent in Australia and 4.4 percent in Singapore).
National’s ex-ministers insist the re-equipment plan, including the F16s, can be met from the budget. The Coalition’s new ministers insist it can’t, put that beside their wish for an army-based defence force and want the F16s dumped, even though that will mean spending large sum for nothing.
That leads to several other arguments. Among them:
* Can we have an effective army-based force without fighter aircraft?
Labour, the Alliance and Derek Quigley, plus the top army brass, say yes and insist the army did not need fighter cover to do the job in East Timor (attack helicopters would have been better).
National, the Defence Ministry, David Dickens of the Centre for Strategic Studies and some mid-ranking army officers say no: only Australian fighter presence in Darwin ensured the Indonesian army did not carry out threat to intervene (including with fighter aircraft).
Peacekeeping, humanitarian activity, has had often in the past decade to be preceded or matched by peacemaking, war activity. The Kosovo peacemaking was fought entirely with fighters. Others will not always stump up fighter cover for our peacemaking.
* Having dropped the third frigate, will we still be credible with Australia, our South-east Asian partners, Singapore and Malaysia, and the United States?
Yes, say the new ministers and we have proved our regional security credentials in East Timor and Bougainville. No, say the critics: Dickens concluded after interviewing more than 30 “senior sources” that we would lose ground badly in the United States, drop credibility in South-east Asia and only contain Canberra’s exasperation if we spent an equivalent amount on something new outside the 1998 plan (which the new ministers do not envisage doing).
• Does it matter, apart from in the defence bunkers?
No, say the new ministers. Trade and investment matters are kept separate. It does matter, say their opponents: in subtle ways we will lose arguments on those fronts we might otherwise have won.
On one point most agree: F16s are complicated.

Colin James is Wellington-based political commentator.

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