Politics

For all the thrill of cyber armies and drones, there’s more to NZ’s new defence strategy

With an increased emphasis on our immediate neighbourhood and non-traditional defence activities, the White Paper strikes a refreshing balance, writes the Centre for Strategic Studies’ David Capie

The immediate media response to the 2016 Defence White Paper suggests we are all vulnerable to being mesmerised by high-tech toys. Even before the paper was officially launched yesterday morning, Paddy Gower was telling the Paul Henry Show’s breakfast audience that the New Zealand Defence Force was gearing up to fight in a world where China had “100,000 cyber warriors”. Gerry Brownlee had barely left the stage at the Beehive, before Stuff declared “New Zealand capable of cyber attacks”.

But last night’s Newshub coverage takes the prize for most breathless. “Behind all this is China and its massive cyber army,” it declared, claiming “top of the list” of Defence needs was a “high-tech drone”. Incredibly, it even featured film of a X-47B unmanned bomber (development cost, NZ $1.1 billion) landing on an aircraft carrier, gushing “the defence force could have one of these to patrol New Zealand seas”.

The White Paper

The White Paper made no specific mentions of the hoodie peril, but a crackdown seems inevitable

Happily, the reality is rather more prosaic. The tone of the White Paper is evident from the prime minister’s foreword, where he refers to “the importance of national resilience” and highlights the role the Defence Force plays in responding to natural disasters, protecting southern ocean resources and supporting our civilian presence in Antarctica. Although the White Paper talks about the growing threat to the rules-based international order in the Middle East and North Africa and rising tensions in East Asia, it has a pronounced leaning closer to home.

This is particularly clear in the new capabilities that are signalled: a third ice-strengthened Offshore Patrol Vessel, replacing the Endeavour with an ice-strengthened naval tanker, replacements for the C-130 Hercules, and a Littoral Support vessel. An “air surveillance capability” to replace to P-3 Orions is also on the list, and although Gerry Brownlee did say UAVs “might over time” be part of the solution, drones are not top of any list.

The claim that “behind all this is China” also doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. The government might have been tempted to sex up the threat assessment a little to justify $20 billion in new expenditure. But, on the contrary, the strategic outlook is refreshingly balanced, noting positive developments as well as more concerning trends. On the South China Sea the White Paper restates New Zealand’s view on the importance of respecting international law, and our traditional partners will have been pleased to see the many references to the importance of the “rules-based international order”.

But compared to any of the recent Australian Defence White Papers, this takes a more nuanced view of the changing balance of power in the region, and avoids leaning too much towards Washington. The capabilities signalled (at least as far as we can tell, and there are some big questions that deserve answers here) suggest New Zealand does not see itself playing a major role in any kind of future conflict in Asia.

defencewhitepaper

Where it does set down a marker is the South Pacific, where a range of economic, governance and environmental challenges means it is “likely that the Defence Force will have to deploy to the region over the next 10 years, for a response beyond a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief”. In the Pacific, New Zealand has to be able to lead an operation. Further afield we need to be able to make a “credible contribution” much like the NZDF is doing in Iraq, and has with its involvement in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

This to me, on the face of it, looks like a very politically astute White Paper. Labour defence spokesperson Phil Goff has decried the lack of clarity around the platforms the government has in mind, but I suspect Labour’s caucus and perhaps even the Greens are actually pretty comfortable with the increased attention on our immediate neighbourhood and the stress given to non-traditional defence activities. The prime minister’s insistence yesterday that he was comfortable with “modest” defence spending closer to 1% of GDP is also something that wouldn’t have been out of place when Mr Goff was Defence Minister.

If I’m right, this potential consensus around the core objectives, means that the priorities the government has identified in Defence White Paper 2016 have a good chance of being sustained and affordable whichever party is in power over the next decade. That’s not as exciting as a cyber army of thousands or an unmanned bomber drone, but good news nonetheless.

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