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Naval gazing: the view from my office on the eighth floor of Bowen house includes a chunk of Customhouse Quay where the police launch, the lady Elizabeth IV, ties up.

She's an impressive looking tub, an 18-metre catamaran with aggressively angular lines and a purposeful shiny aluminium finish. With a suitable gun turret on her bow, say a 20mm twin-mount, I reckon she'd pass muster as a respectable enough patrol boat.

My Thorndon Quay apartment overlooks another bit of the waterfront. Smack in the line of sight are the log loading docks, and more often than not there will be a Korean bulk carrier tied up alongside, in the process of being piled high with North Island radiata.

This morning however it was the HMNZS Canterbury which was anchored where the log carriers and the car transporters usually lie. I have every respect for our Navy and the fine people who sail in her, but it has to be said that even with a gun turret (a naval version of the 25mm Bushmaster cannon fitted to the Army's LAVIII white elephants wheeled APCs) the Canterbury doesn't look like a warship.

In this writer's opinion that's probably because she isn't a warship. You can dress it up any way you like, but Canterbury's design is based a roll-on, roll-off, Irish Sea ferry, and the addition of a helicopter deck and a coat of grey paint don't change any of that.

Canterbury was the centrepiece of the previous Labour Government's Project Protector programme, which aimed to "modernise" the RNZN by equipping it with a bunch of shiny new ships intended to suit that peacenik administration's "no defence" agenda.

In reality, Project Protector effectively demilitarised the Navy in the same way that the scrapping of the RNZAF's combat wing demilitarised the Air Force. Yes, they bought some new ships. But the Offshore Patrol Vessels are not frigates, and none of the new assets were built to military spec. Project Protector was run on a fixed budget, with ships built down to a price, not up to a specification. Real Naval vessels have multi-channel redundancy inbuilt into command and control infrastructures; multiple streams of wiring, piping, and cabling, to enable the ship to continue functioning even if one or more pathways are damaged in combat. They have two or three shafts and screws instead of one. They have real and actual weapons systems. All this makes a genuine warship very much more expensive than its grey-painted civilian counterpart.

Canterbury can at least carry the NZDF's Seasprite helicopters, and embark the new NH-90, even if both helos have their own issues, and notwithstanding the fact that we don't have anywhere enough of either type, or that lack of money and personnel means that we can't assign the ship with a permanent chopper, or indeed man it even if we did.

The Seasprites were a new build of a retired design, and although New Zealand hasn't had the same issues with our SH-2Gs as have the Australians with their refurbished models, they have still been a source of problems-a-plenty. Corrosion and vibration damage conspire to keep much of the fleet grounded or on reduced hours, and a global lack of parts for what is almost an orphan aircraft--otherwise operated only by Poland and Egypt--make the task of maintaining the type that much more difficult.

Why didn't we buy the tried and tested SH-60 Seahawk instead? Probably because it was too expensive for Labour's anti-defence apologists.

The NH-90 newly acquired by the RNZAF has been touted as the best thing since sliced cheese, but it too is bedevilled by difficulties unforeseen at the time of purchase. Screens which need to be fitted to prevent debris from entering the engine intakes will mean that the choppers can't fly in heavy snow conditions. The seats can't support the weight of a fully equipped infantryman, they don't come with gun mounts as standard, the software for the onboard computers doesn't meet New Zealand's requirements, and just like the LAV, the NH-90 won't fit in a C-130 Hercules. On top of that, we have bought just eight new helicopters to replace 14 Iroquois, and with the best capabilities in the world, eight choppers can't be in fourteen places at once.

Why didn't we buy a proven machine like the UH-60 Blackhawk or the EH-101? Again, probably because of the price tag. Is there a pattern developing here?

Well, there are some things which can't be skimped on, and defence is one of them. I have been banging on about this for a decade now, and I'm not about to stop. New Zealand doesn't spend enough money on our defence forces, plain and simple. We are a wealthy nation; our rates of obesity are undeniable testament to that fact. Poor countries don't have fat people.

Countries with similar populations to our own, and who are like us in other regards, spend considerably more than this country on ensuring their safety and security, without breaking the bank or causing the sky to fall.

Norway, Finland, Singapore; small modern nations with many parallels to New Zealand, all have universal military service in one form or another, considerably larger professional military forces than this country, and an impressive rack of combat jets in each case--140 for the Singaporeans, 125 for the Finns, and 70-odd for the Noggies. How is it, and why, that these comparable countries find this realistic level of investment in defence resourcing so much more essential than does New Zealand, and also so much more affordable?

The answer of course is twofold. The first part is their acceptance of the need for real industry as the basis for economic wealth and growth, against our own bizarrely naive insistence that a first-world lifestyle should be affordable from the proceeds of a commodity-based third-world economy; but that is another topic for another day. The second is their acceptance of the existence of threat, and their willingness to be ready and prepared to meet it, against our--again--bizarrely naive insistence that there is no threat, that we live in the mythical Benign Strategic Environment much beloved of a certain former Prime Minister. These fellow nations have all been bombed and invaded, and like our neighbours across the Tasman who also suffered assault from the air, they are resolved to maintaining the vigilance and capability to prevent it from ever happening again.

We, however, appear to have forgotten the threat of an invasion which came so close, but which, thanks to the intervention of the United States, never happened (Japan had banknotes and postage stamps already printed for its new New Zealand colony) to the point that we now pretend it never existed.

Well it did and it does, and one day, whether we are ready or not, it will come and visit us again; and every day that passes, brings that day one day closer. This is not paranoia or scaremongering; it is a simple acceptance of the facts of history.

Our Navy and our Air Force are by definition our first lines of defence, because it is only by sea or by air that our isolated maritime nation may be approached, and neither service is in any fit state to meet that tasking requirement.

The Army has had some new equipment in recent years, but it remains as woefully under-resourced in terms of money and people as the rest of the NZDF. Personnel attrition rates are at an all-time high and morale is at an all-time low.

It is time, people, it is high time, that New Zealand swallowed a big dose of reality where defence is concerned. We need to spend more money on it. We need to give the NZDF a proper military focus again. All three services need a real sharp end. This country needs to stop navel-gazing, and take a good hard look at our Navy, our Air Force, and our Army, instead. The NZDF can still be saved, and it can still be our saviour--but only if we act now.

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Author:Prosser, Richard
Publication:Investigate HIS
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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