Let’s cut straight to the chase. The New Zealand Defence Force exists to fight the nation’s wars. Preparing for that means they have tightly selected, highly trained personnel operating specialist equipment. They represent a unique national asset. There is nothing else in New Zealand that can be compared to the vast array of capabilities that the NZDF can bring to the table.
They have acquitted themselves well, so far, in the national response to COVID-19 and much of this response has been invisible to the public. From planning and logistics functions to managing isolation facilities and checkpoints, they have delivered in the tradition we have come to expect of our Navy, Army and Air Force. I know you can hear the ‘BUT’ coming.
Just because they CAN do many of these outputs…SHOULD they?
In a first responder sense – I think the answer is ABSOLUTELY!
But given that we know the ‘War on Covid-19’ is a long game, it would be madness to lock down our Defence Force into a cycle of running hotels, manning roadside barriers, ‘handbag checking’ and ‘drain-sniffing’. There are plenty of other agencies and people that can and should do this.
In earlier articles, I wrote about mobilising our tiny Defence Reserve Force and also standing up a ‘Veteran or V-Force’. Same skills and discipline; just not currently serving and not necessarily that old. We have 20,000 contemporary veterans in our community from recent operations. I don’t resile from those suggestions. What I am adding to the discussion is that the government and the NZDF need to conclude an exit strategy sooner rather than later.
There are two reasons why that’s important. First, is the degrading effect on defence capability of decisive engagement in ANY extended operation. Our experience of extended commitments such as East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan is that the tempo of operations consistently results in a degraded ability to train personnel to advance their learning which limits promotion and therefore money. Families are apart for extended periods more often causing stress and pressure to leave for civilian employment. There’s a lot more but I’ll keep that bit brief. For those who haven’t served who think the serviceperson should just ‘suck that one up’, I suggest checking out veteran mental health statistics here and around the world. Not all wounds are caused by bullets and bombs.
Second is the fact that the world is an increasingly unstable place. We have no other national capability that can project force in support of our national interest. Whether that might be instability in the South West Pacific, a UN mandated operation or – as I premised in a recent fiction piece – civil unrest inside the borders of a traditional ally, the NZDF is the only spanner in the toolbox. We need to keep it clean, oiled and ready to use. In the context of current Government Covid settings, it isn’t. We can’t keep the NZDF tied up for years on Covid simply so politicians don’t have to come up with another, more appropriate solution.
While not wishing to seem alarmist, the fact that China and Russia claim to have developed a Covid vaccine but are only deploying it to their respective military forces, is concerning. Taking a worst-case scenario, what will New Zealand do if these two openly ‘expeditionary’ regimes decide to use the current virus-induced chaos to annex the Baltic States, Ukraine or Taiwan? We must be prepared to contribute to the general deterrent effect of western democratic forces. It’s not acceptable to say that we support our allies but we’re a little busy checking to make sure no-one’s going to their bach during lockdown.
The recent report on events in Afghanistan in 2010 have been troubling for the NZDF. But we should isolate those people and those events and deal with that separately. The vast majority of people who have ever served New Zealand in uniform have done so selflessly and with honour. They have provided the trusted, reliable response that most Kiwis would expect of them during Covid. Now, it’s time for recovery thinking as a nation and to focus on other agencies (public or private) that can fulfill the roles they currently have. The NZDF is an easy ‘go to’ for politicians so I think that the eternally polite Chief of Defence Force will have to make the point very bluntly to the Prime Minister. Kevin…Be like Angus.
Other COVID-NZ articles by the author
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