No-one can predict the future although it’s reasonable to say that it is consistently much different to the present and that the rate of change generally outstrips all predictions. In many ways, science fiction has offered us the most useful glimpses into the shape of our future societies. That is why I believe that the genre is an essential planning element in the development of our defence forces.
Long lead times and enduring lifecycles are involved with the capabilities needed in a fighting force. It takes up to ten years to choose, purchase, take delivery of and train on to operational levels for most platforms and systems. They will likely then be in service for another 30 plus years. In terms of warfare that is several generations of change and about halfway through the life of most platforms, they will require significant modernisation just to remain relevant.
New Zealand’s two frigates are currently in the last of a series of mid-life upgrades and the RNZAF’s major aircraft types have had more changes than grandad’s axe (Three new handles and two new heads but it’s still grandad’s axe!) The bottom line, I believe, is that the current model of a defence force is inherently self-limiting and that will become even more apparent as rates of technological change continue to envelop us. I am not suggesting that the NZDF is not filled with keen, hard-working and talented individuals. However, finance and logistics are the keys to the debate.
The NZDF has fallen victim to a vicious cycle of increasing cost colliding with a lack of political will to grow the funding base for Defence (don’t be distracted with recent purchase announcements – most were inevitable). To make ends meet, the sharp end has become smaller and is effectively a ‘single-shot’ force with no ability to sustain a deployment above company size.
This is in stark contrast to only two decades ago when six battalions rotated through East Timor, the first troops deployed to Afghanistan and new peace-keeping commitments began in the Pacific and elsewhere. To further aggravate the situation, the political success of the full-time force in gaining structural and resource ascendency over reservists in the period since the early 1970s has had the unintended consequence of the NZDF having to abandon any hope of maintaining an expeditionary force capability.
So back to the future. Although impossible to predict with any accuracy, a theme appears in military fiction often enough that it could be considered a trend – the empty battlefield. This is the battlespace occupied by cyber warriors, autonomous and remotely-controlled systems. It transcends the traditional space, air, land, sea and sub-surface domains. The personnel required to fight in this environment will largely look nothing like the soldiers, sailors and airmen of today. In this world, physical fitness and looking good in a uniform are irrelevant. Stephen Hawking could command a theatre of operations. A twelve year old gamer operating a remote system is potentially more lethal than anyone in a rifle battalion.
The NZDF has made tentative steps in this direction and, it’s fair to say, they need some degree of tactical information domain capabilities. But it’s probably a better path for the country to direct the NZDF of today to simply focus on what it does well – manned kinetic operations across a wide cross-section of the spectrum of operations. The current NZDF culture and structure is unsuited to the empty battlespace and to attempt to make it fit would damage all the good that is embedded in the existing organisation.
In software development terms, the alpha stage is for in-house testing. Thus the creation of a totally new force for New Zealand – one that is devoid of the handbrake of history and focussed only on operations in the empty battlespace – might well be termed an ‘Alpha Force.’ It will look unlike any other defence force structure and, arguably, might not be part of the defence force at all but a new, enlarged national force that will inevitably be reservist (part-time) dominant. There is absolutely no reason why the Department of Conservation employee who uses drones in her day job to track four-legged predators can’t do the same for the two-legged version.
This force would not take long to put together as many of its components already exist around the country and could also include the hundreds of thousands of ex-patriot Kiwis. All that is required is a vision of how to prepare for future conflict. That thought-leadership must be political if it is to be funded. This is the sort of thinking that would be enshrined in a national security strategy.
To return to the software analogy, ‘betaware’ is when software is put out for limited external testing. I believe that this ‘Alpha Force’ could become a ‘Beta Force’ in eighteen months. In fact it’s essential that it does as experience shows that projects lasting longer than 18 months often don’t end well or at all.
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