The buzz from New Zealand’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement (DPS) released last Friday has focused on its uncommon candor about China. According to a statement at the end of the document, the DPS was heavily coordinated across the government, and reflects a commendable shift in public tone. It’s on-trend with how other liberal democracies see the world today, and avoids doublespeak about threats to New Zealand’s interests.
But there’s a more consequential and tangible challenge that the DPS also surfaces: the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has what’s known in force planning as a strategy-force mismatch. That’s when the military lacks the resources to do what it might be asked to do. Where there’s a mismatch there’s risk—to lives, to values, and to international reputations.
Put aside for a moment meta-questions about China and the United States. All the elements of New Zealand security (economic interdependence, multilateral institutions, and hedging between great powers…for now) have long depended on a stable, rules-based international order. This isn’t just fluffy theory: that formula of security translates into NZDF requirements. The military has to be able to do a lot of different things in a lot of different places. The international system doesn’t sustain itself.
And that’s where the mismatch comes in. What the New Zealand government quite reasonably believes is necessary for New Zealand to be able to do in the security realm is wildly out of proportion with the competent but modestly sized NZDF. The biggest debate about the defence budget seems to be whether to replace out-of-production P-3s with P-8s.
But even P-8 acquisitions wouldn’t be enough for NZDF to simultaneously, for example, conduct combined surveillance operations in Antarctica, contribute to a hypothetical UN Peacekeeping Operation in Vanuatu, participate in a UN nuclear proliferation maritime enforcement regime against North Korea, enforce laws against illegal fishing in New Zealand territorial waters, and respond to a natural disaster at home. Perhaps the New Zealand government can decide how to manage forces across these challenges by using discretion, prioritizing one over another. But perhaps “discretion” is a euphemism for risk. These are all roles and priorities that the DPS commits the NZDF to, and the government doesn’t get to decide when the forces are needed; only whether they’ll they’ll be supplied.
To be clear, I’m not claiming NZDF is simply underfunded; I’m pointing out that it’s vastly underfunded relative to what it’s asked to do—and it has been for a while. Because of how the world is changing, the gap between real-world demands for New Zealand defence assets and the ability of NZDF to meet those demands is going to grow.
The DPS indicates that the current government is clear-eyed about the world as it is, but gives no indication if it’s willing to make the defence decisions necessary to meet the demands of that world. The future of NZDF and the international system New Zealand has long counted on are in flux. Will the current government be up to the task?
Van Jackson is the Defence and Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, a Senior Lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Image credit: NZDF Facebook page: Guard of Honour for the new Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Kevin Short, 29 June 2018