A maritime shift? Colin Robinson speculates on the proper force balance for the New Zealand Defence Force in future.

AuthorRobinson, Colin

This article attempts to forecast what will be the New Zealand Defence Forces most important future operating environment from ten to twenty years in the future. There will be shifts in the operating environment, partially due to rising great power competition. For the vast majority of New Zealand's history, culturally similar powers--Great Britain and then the United States--have dominated the oceans. With the rise of China, this situation is beginning to change, at the very least in the Western Pacific. The scenario laid out here is becoming possible, maybe even likely.

The article is divided into three parts. The first part highlights New Zealand's initial focus on land expeditionary operations alongside other parts of the British Empire, which changed with the rapid advance of Japanese forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Air and naval forces then also became vitally important. Then from the early 1990s there was a shift back in emphasis towards land operations, amid the repeated deployment of forces overseas to preserve the security guarantee from the United States. The second part discusses China's rising air and naval power, and thus the potential need for the NZDF's force structure to change in response. But managing relations diplomatically with both the United States and China may ease the need to build up new air and naval forces. The third part discusses the recent deployment of HMNZS Te Kaba with a US carrier strike group to the South China Sea. As New Zealand needs to manage its relations with both the United States and China carefully, future such deployments in close association with the United States in contested waters need careful consideration.

New Zealand started its military history with an uncompromising focus on land operations, in the New Zealand Wars, and with the contingents sent to South Africa in 1899-1902 for the South African War. At the time the Royal Navy had a good claim to command of the seas. This sea control supported a British vision of global order. The inter-war period from 1918 changed this position slowly, with the buildup of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, (1) and the creation of the New Zealand Permanent Air Force in 1923. Later there were periodic debates over the potential of the Singapore naval base, and 'persistent doubt about the Royal Navy' (2)--whether it could be relied upon to send a fleet east to Singapore in time of war.

New Zealand's initial contribution to the Second World War was again land-focused; tens of thousands of soldiers were sent to the Middle East. But it was December 1941 before an urgent, dire challenge to Anglo-American naval forces in the Pacific saw Pearl Harbor bombed. Suddenly, it was vitally important that strong joint air/naval forces be amassed to contest the Pacific against oncoming Japanese power.

So the Second World War in the Pacific showed quickly that both land and joint air/naval forces were required, which can be seen from this point as the twin pillars of New Zealand fighting power. After the war, several of Great Britain's former colonies, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, joined Britain in a variety of military co-operation agreements with the United States. These culturally similar countries became our closest military allies. Both land and joint air/naval forces were maintained from 1945 onwards. Land and naval forces were sent to Korea, but only land forces to Vietnam, with supporting helicopter pilots. New Zealand forces were sent to Vietnam 'in the interests of preserving the long term security guarantee which the United States provided'. '

Significant cuts

After the Quigley review of the late 1980s, (4) significant cuts were made in defence spending. (5) New Zealand has always wished to minimise defence expenditure except when vitally necessary. (6) All these equipment choices began to dictate operating patterns. The pendulum began to swing away from joint air/naval forces towards land forces with the air combat force retired and frigate numbers falling. The New Zealand light...

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