Van Jackson: The price of NZ's strategy-force mismatch

As the world changes, the gap between the demands on the NZDF and its ability to meet them will grow, writes Van Jackson. Photo: NZDF.

The Government's new defence policy statement caught the eye of many for its more candid discussion of China. But a bigger challenge facing New Zealand may be the gap between its defence resources and what the country may be asked to do, as Van Jackson writes.

The buzz from New Zealand’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement (DPS) released last Friday has focused on its uncommon candour 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 raises: 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 is risk - to lives, to values, and to international reputations.

The DPS outlines an extensive list of unobjectionable roles and priorities: support to law enforcement, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, monitoring the entire Antarctic region, interoperability in war-fighting coalitions, and the list goes on.

In theory, every operation that NZDF conducts nests within one or more of those roles or priorities. While the document isn’t explicit about NZDF’s operational mission sets - hopefully that will come out later this year as part of a capability review - it makes clear that New Zealand’s interests are deeply intertwined with global currents.

Such is the nature of small powers and open societies. In an interconnected world, no nation is an island…even when it is.

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.

A mismatch in expectations and resources

And that’s where the mismatch comes in. What our 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 Government can decide how to manage forces across these challenges by using discretion, prioritising 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, and a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University. This piece was *originally published on Incline and is reproduced with permission.*