A US Coastguard C-130J demonstrating you don't need to have Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft to patrol an EEZ ( sourced from pixabay user Skeeze)

On 8 June 2016 The Minister of Defence announced a white paper proposing the expenditure of $20,000,000,000 (NZ$20 billion) over 15 years on defence. The white paper is a traditional response to defence thinking rooted in Second World War (1939-45) concepts of strategy.

The New Zealand Defence Force is already a very, very expensive organ of the New Zealand Government consuming NZ$5 billion per year of taxes or $1.61 of every $100 that changes hands (GDP) each year in the country. The naval 'combat' force (the frigates) operations cost $336 million per year or $1.5m for every day at sea the frigates spend.

By comparison Pharmac's total annual budget for life saving drugs is a quarter of the defence bill at $985 million. Another way of looking at it is that the government puts five times the emphasis on defence as life saving drugs spends more on running frigates than new educational initiatives.

The budget for capital expenditure is even more astonishing. In 2019/2020 the New Zealand government spent $255 million on new housing, $106 million on Police and $2,074 million on defence and defence force capital lands, buildings and equipment. In short even a tenth shaved off our defence bill and added to some other aspect of government would have a very significant impact.

Total Appropriations by Budget Sector

CAPEX (Capital Expenditure on land, buildings, plant, machinery, ships, aircraft, vehicles, software)

sources: NZ Treasury budget estimates of appropriations 2019

The argument given by the defence force for its considerable expenditure on equipment is usually that anything less would be operationally unsafe for its people. This may be so but there is no particular need for them to be in harms way in the first place, and, by taking such a large slice of taxpayer funding that could be directed to saving civilian lives in New Zealand it is, in effect, killing New Zealanders every year who are deprived of life saving medicines, warm, safe housing, and crime prevention because funding is directed to this giant game of soldiers.

Because there are no hostile nations within 4,000km of New Zealand's shores, and that the only foreign military operation on New Zealand soil (the French DGSE attacking Greenpeace's M.V Rainbow Warrior) was handled by the Police, the term "defence" is inherently at odds with both the actual risk of armed hostilities or, indeed, the actual activities of our "defence" force. In fact the NZDEF is an expeditionary force in most of its deployments and exercises. It doesn't wait for hostilities to reach New Zealand it actively goes looking for them elsewhere in the world.

Defence Expenditure

source CIA Factbook 2017 data

This table of small nations (plus Australia) shows that New Zealand's defence spend given both our relative wealth (GDP per person in internationally standardised purchasing power parity dollars) and our distance to any hostile nation is completely our of proportion. Ireland devotes the least of its GDP to defence (0.5), with Switzerland(0.7), Austria (0.8) and Belgium(1) also spending less of their GDP on defence than we do (1.1), taking advantage of their friendly neighbours. Not only has New Zealand the least need to spend on defence our relative wealth shows we can least afford to spend what we do on defence.

Shown graphically with richest nations (gold) wealthy nations (blue) and average nations (black). NZ is the poorest nation (red). The linear regression line indicates NZ would spend about 0.8% of GDP. Of course if NZ was not included in this regression line it would be predicted to spend nothing.

If we spent 0.8% on defence instead, we would liberate $1.1 billion of defence spending every year for things like social housing and medicines.

The argument is that every government needs to spend on defence in order to prevent us being invaded or our sovereign rights transgressed on. This site does not dispute that there is a role for some defence spending but questions the current level given the absence of any realistic threat. The Republic of Ireland spends half as much as we do on defence (NZ$1.5 billion) and operates 7,200 army personnel with light armoured vehicles and scorpion tanks, five offshore patrol vessels and an air corps with six utility helicopters, seven trainers and two maritime patrol aircraft.

The question is not whether we should spend on defence but how much do we realistically need to spend on it, when we could more usefully use that taxpayers money to save people's lives and educate our children to maintain our economy into the future instead.

The United States has insisted that its NATO and other allies spend 2% of their GDP on defence. In theory this is so that the US need not shoulder so much of the defence burden. But in reality US defence spending is increasing, not reducing. In fact what the US is doing is increasing the market so that it's vast arms industry can profit from it. To accede to such a policy is sacrifice New Zealanders health for US arms industries profits. No responsible New Zealand government should countenance such nonsense.

This study progresses an argument as follows:

  1. It examines the threats to New Zealand and determines the major ones are tectonic
  2. It looks at the role of the military and concludes it is largely diplomatic
  3. It details the flaws in our military examining massive cost disparities with other nations or comparable civilian operations
  4. It discusses how military spending could stimulate some New Zealand industries, particularly fashion and clothing; aerospace and maritime industries
  5. It proposes a smaller more focused defence force leveraging civilian efficiencies, creating clearer cost centres; and merging functions
  6. It proposes selling our most expensive and useless military equipment and buying more appropriate ones
  7. It shows how the focused defence force could provide better defence value, reduced expenditure and a an economic and health dividend to taxpayers.
  8. It looks at how the transition can be managed so that military personnel aren't plunged suddenly into unemployment.

There is no question that defence "experts" will sneer at this argument but don't be taken in by their culture of institutional bullying. They are defending expenditure on defence for the sake of expenditure because they are part of the problem. They refuse to see that expenditure on defence inarguably denies funding to other taxpayer services on which lives and our economy depends.

But there is more to it than that. Transferring spending from wages to military workers to civilian workers is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is jobs. If we simply transfer military workers from a job to nothing there is a taxpayer benefit but not a social one. Better is to develop industries that employ more people and the defence industry has plenty of scope to do that. This doesn't necessarily mean making weapons. It can mean building on New Zealand's outdoor experience brands by adding the credibility a military agency like the Army brings with it.

While our military is disengaged from the impost it creates on civilian life it will also be disengaged from the opportunities that it presents to improve civilian life. That wall needs to come down. It will take time and it shouldn't be rushed but the movement must start soon, before the military is allowed to gallop off on another mad spending spree subsidising something that adds costs not value to the New Zealand economy.

For an executive summary of findings see here.

Responsible Defence NZ Blog

This site is the third in a series examining the role, purpose, organisation and equipping of the New Zealand Defence Force.Previous sites by this author have:1) compared the current force to a hypothetical alternative against a range of risks and2) examined the scope for change towards 2030.The focus of this site extends from its predecessors proposing an entirely new structure from 2030 onwards.