Spend if we must - don't sell out

The $20 billion increase in defence spending announced by the Government for the next 15 years adds up to a significant investment in this country's capabilities.

There are some big-budget items. The air force will get a full makeover - a replacement of its ageing Boeings, Hercules and Orions. The navy will get new vessels to replace its Anzac frigates, an ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessel and two new craft to replace its current naval tanker, dive ship and hydrographic ship.

The army will get new digitised navigation and communications systems, new equipment for the Special Forces, and new land combat weapons. There will be investment in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, plus money to develop cyber support capability.

The Government spends about $2 billion a year on defence, so the increase ($1.3 billion more each year) is no small change. Is that much necessary? Or is it the price we pay for being "in the club''?

The reasons for the funding boost are compelling, according to the Defence White Paper 2016 (released last week), which sets out the Government's expectations to 2040.

The main "strategic challenges'' are increased military spending in Southeast Asia, plus an increase in foreign interests and operators in the Southern Ocean, South Pacific and New Zealand's large exclusive economic zone.

There are heightened tensions in the East and South China Seas, intensifying turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa and worsening relations between Russia and the West. And a growing risk of terrorist and cyber attacks.

Are we playing on the "fear factor'' and powerful rhetoric, though? We are proudly independent. Do we really require the sort of "firepower'' indicated? Can we really not continue to undertake our core defence duties (the likes of surveillance, search and rescue, peacekeeping, humanitarian, disaster relief and civil defence work, and Antarctic support) within the existing budget?

The relatively little political noise around the announcement suggests there is support for the increased spending. Our ageing infrastructure (some aircraft are almost 50 years old) will have to be replaced, and there will never be a right time to do so.

We are no longer an isolated nation. Physical terrorism can occur from within our own borders, cyber terrorism from outside. But, no matter what we spend, given our size, should any significant threat occur, we would be reliant on our allies for support, so there will be certain expectations of us.

New Zealand and Australian officials reportedly worked closely over their respective White Papers. Australia has considerably increased its defence spending - by 2020-21, it will spend 2% of its GDP.

By comparison, we only spend 1.1% of our GDP. The US figure is 3.3%. We are working hard to repair our post-Anzus "cold war'' relationship with the United States. But we must be mindful of our own, possibly conflicting, interests and relationships, too, notably in the Pacific and with China.

Being armed and ready to support ourselves and our neighbours and allies is fair and reasonable - if expensive. But we should not compromise on our core values.

Prime Minister John Key must make every effort to reassure the public his invitation to the US to send a ship to our navy's 75th anniversary celebrations in November will not threaten our nuclear-free stance, for example.

The advice from officials is the visit will be a safe bet, despite the US' "neither confirm nor deny'' nuclear policy. It would certainly be the ultimate "brothers in arms'' symbol.

But we must defend the policy which has served us well. If we are spending heavily on defence, we deserve to know the truth about security. That includes being safe in the knowledge we can truly roll out the welcome mat to our powerful "friends'', not swallow a dead rat.

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