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Sunray Says – Military Spending

SUNRAY – commentary on politics and policy
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Read Darel Hall‘s commentary every Tuesday.
Darel has a background in tertiary education policy and politics and was the Deputy Director of the Labour Party Research Unit during the first term of the last Labour-led government. His goal is to provide a thoughtful perspective that causes readers to reflect on their experience, understanding and beliefs.

National governments cut military spending – this one is the same as the last in that regard. During the last Labour-led government National regained its hawkish language about air strike wings and third frigates and what not. Unfortunately it had decreased expenditure during the 1990s so it was all a bit hollow.

Now this National government is leading new cuts.

Of course spending does not equal capacity and capability. However, neither does pretty graphics and fine words which feature heavily in the Briefing to the Incoming Minister (BIM) and other Defence Force documents like the 2010 White Paper.

Two of the issues I keep a wee eye on are the civilianizing of the military, and the Territorial Force.

This is because I did 5 years as a territorial infantry soldier and later covered Defence in the Labour Party Research Unit. The first experience frames how I still look at these issues.

Territorials are important for surge capacity such as in Timor, the Canterbury earthquakes and the Rena sinking. They are also important for sustaining long term operations when units need to be rotated out of operations so they can refit and retrain. And they are important to pick up the quasi-military roles demanded of the Defence Force so that more of the regular force soldiers can stay at peak efficiency for the core military roles.

The government wants to cut the Territorials by a third from 1,800 to 1,200 to save $10 million a year.

Part of the context that allows this is a BIM that talks about the “focus over the next three years will be a steady draw down from current operations in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands”.

However none of these operations were planned. The strategic environment that led to these commitments means it is more likely rather than less likely that similar calls for commitments will occur.

Similarly no one predicted the Canterbury Earthquakes or Rena and it seems that New Zealanders want our military helping in these situations. Having been in Christchurch last February I can’t see how the response could have occurred without the military, including overseas contingents (including from Brunei from memory). And of course the hundreds of Australian police (not military; it’s just another opportunity to recognize them and say thank you).

I remain skeptical that the National government is shifting the cost of maintaining a credible Defence Force onto the next Labour-led government. That’s what happened in the 1990s – working to save pennies now that will cost dollars later.

The BIM document is very upbeat about civilianising some positions in the Defence Force.

It says “Civilianisation is of significant benefit to both the NZDF and the individual serviceperson. It will provide the flexibility for military personnel to continue on to a second career in the NZDF, and for the NZDF to retain a comprehensive level of professional knowledge within the organization”.

That all sounds fine and good and reason to suspend skepticism. Unfortunately the BIM Key Points document contains a more balanced assessment absent from the main document when it states: “The civilianisation process has inevitably impacted on morale, leading to staff retention issues and associated costs and risks from lost expertise”.

So what has been the net cost of the civilianization process? How much expertise has been lost?

Ouch. Someone will get spanked for getting the script wrong on that one. If that gets picked up by the media expect fluff about an earlier draft or misinterpretation by a junior staff member.

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