Opinion: New Zealand needs to drop its pacifist outlook

New Zealand's fleet of Hercules transport planes are well over half a century old.
New Zealand's fleet of Hercules transport planes are well over half a century old. Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: Defence spending is a polarising subject - but New Zealanders shouldn't be afraid of investing in their nation's military capabilities.

Most Kiwis are anti-military - they would rather spend money on health and education than buy mega-expensive jet fighters and tanks.

And while we don't need jet fighters or tanks - we do need a modern and efficient military force to both help and protect us.

Because most of us haven't had to experience a war - we've become a nation of pacifists.

This anti-military sentiment was perhaps best summed up on Three's The Project in August 2017, when co-host Kanoa Lloyd asked military history expert Dr Stephen Clarke why New Zealand needed an army - in the wake of alleged revelations of a botched fire-fight between Kiwi soldiers and insurgents in Afghanistan as told in the investigative documentary The Valley.

Ms Lloyd was deeply serious - she questioned why we needed to have any New Zealand soldiers at all.

Dr Clarke's reply spoke plenty of common sense: "We need an army to help out in the event of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods".

Last week, an aging Hercules transport plane (built 53 years ago) took off from Auckland with much needed supplies for cyclone ravaged Tonga.

A bigger and faster transport plane, which the New Zealand Air Force desperately needs, would have got many more supplies to Tonga much faster than the Vietnam War-era Hercules did.

To put it simply, New Zealand's aging military hardware can no longer 'cut the mustard', and needs to be replaced soon before that hardware becomes too dangerous for Kiwis to operate.

Defence Minister Ron Mark is already eying-up a big spend on new surveillance and transport planes for the RNZAF - the cost of which will go well into the billions.

New Zealand needs new expensive surveillance planes for search and rescue - most of the current squadron of six Orions are also over 50 years old.

A history of poor purchases

There's a sad history of New Zealand governments buying the wrong equipment for its military. This goes as far back as Gallipoli, when thousands of Kiwi soldiers stormed the beaches with two-decade-old rifles from the South African Wars. Many picked up a more modern rifle from a dead Australian.

Even before this, the New Zealand government spent the equivalent of $400m in today's money on a warship it gifted to Great Britain in 1912.

Unfortunately the wrong type of battle cruiser was built and HMS New Zealand was judged obsolete and too slow by the time World War I started three years later. It simply couldn't keep up with other warships during the war's first naval engagement, the First Battle of Heligoland Bight.

In modern times, the New Zealand military has made a slew of poor purchases.

Among them, the acquisition of 9000 Steyr assault rifles in 1987 that constantly jammed and were unreliable in combat.

In 2003, the Labour-led government purchased 105 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) for $653m.

Only 11 of these army vehicles have ever seen service overseas, and many hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money was wasted on the LAVs purchase.

So what will the Government splash the cash on this time?

It is my opinion, and hopefully the opinion of the new Government, that it will purchase military hardware that is compatible with what our neighbours Australia are operating.

That doesn't mean we should spend billions on a squadron of the much-maligned Stealth Fighter that Australia is buying off the United States - but we should have the same transport and surveillance planes, and perhaps the same surveillance drones.

This way we operate in tandem with our closest ally, and we become in essence, a surveillance partner of Australia operating in the South Pacific.

If a natural disaster strikes in either country, both could operate the same expensive military hardware to help the other - it would be a win-win for both.

Parts could be swapped, officers exchanged, and plenty of knowledge and expertise shared.

Whether Kiwis like it or not, we need to fund a world-class (but relatively small) military force to not only defend ourselves if needed, but to help save us from mother-nature.

 Tony Wright is a Newshub Nation reporter