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NZ shrinks its defense force, cuts fighter jets

John Howard
Howard: Changes would have domestic and international consequences  

In this story:

Big savings

'Must face the consequences'

Australia's 'strong role'

'No need' to defend NZ

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- New Zealand has confirmed plans to axe its ageing front-line fighter aircraft because they are redundant and expensive to maintain.

The move, which is part of a wider downsizing of the nation's military forces, has sparked a debate on both sides of the Tasman Sea as to how much New Zealand needs to defend itself from attack.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke said on Tuesday after a regular defense review that it would decommission its air combat wing.

The wing comprises 17 decades old MacDonnell Douglas A4K Skyhawk jets and a number of Aermacchi trainer jets.

The nation's opposition party promised to bring back some form of air defense capability if it is voted into office, claiming New Zealand's air defenses now matched those of Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Big savings

New Zealand military
New Zealand takes part in UN's peacekeeping force in East Timor  

Clarke said the cutting of the air wing would save $NZ870 million ($365 million) over ten years with the loss of 700 jobs.

The money would be re-invested as part of a $NZ2 billion military procurement program that will see New Zealand acquire more high-tech equipment.

The procurement plans include a new navy ship as well as upgraded or new helicopters, transport and maritime surveillance aircraft and new anti-ship missiles.

The army has also been promised 105 new light armored vehicles, new radio equipment and 115 light operational vehicles.

But analysts warned the cutback in New Zealand's air capabilities might displease neighboring Australia, which it often has partnered in military exercises.

'Must face the consequences'

Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Tuesday warned New Zealand's Government had to face the consequences of any changes it makes to its defense force.

"What New Zealand does with New Zealand's defense force is a matter for New Zealand," Howard said in an interview Tuesday.

"I've made that plain privately and publicly in my discussions with (New Zealand Prime Minister) Helen Clark.

"However every time a country takes a decision about the size or the readiness of its defense force that decision has both domestic and international consequences.

"And every Government makes these decisions according to its assessment of the national interest and having taken that decision you must accept the consequences of it," Howard said.

Australia's 'strong role'

Howard said Australia would continue to play a very strong role in regional defense.

The New Zealand Government meanwhile says it hopes Australia will understand its need for a major restructure of its defense force.

New Zealand has a Skyhawk fighter jet squadron based at Nowra in Australia and the aircraft provide 1,350 hours of flying time each year under a trans-Tasman agreement.

Clark has confirmed that Howard has asked New Zealand to consider keeping the Skyhawk squadron at Nowra until 2003.

Clark said on Monday that New Zealand's defense forces would become more tailored to a 21st century strategic environment, and would not be aimed at protecting New Zealand from enemy attack.

The navy's traditional fleet of four frigates is to be halved. Instead, it will gain up to four new, but much smaller, naval patrol craft for use in New Zealand's extensive maritime economic zone.

Australia was annoyed by the New Zealand Government's decision last year to pull out of a contract to buy two Australian-made ANZAC frigates. "I think anyone looking at this [raft of changes] would say that New Zealand is doing the very best it can, with a small population, to have a very credible defense capability," Clark said.

New Zealand has a population of 3.7 million compared with 19.3 million in Australia.

'No need' to defend NZ

Clark emphasized the changes were not aimed at defending New Zealand from an external enemy.

"That's not even on anyone's remotest scenario," she said.

"In terms of protecting ourselves, the main issues are around how do we protect our borders [from illegal migrants and livestock and plant diseases], how do we protect our fisheries?" Clark said.

New Zealand military authorities will be permitted to buy a new ship for troop and equipment transportation to trouble spots for what are seen by military planners as mainly regional peacekeeping duties.

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORY:
Jets, frigates face chop in NZ military shake-up
May 7, 2001

RELATED SITES:
New Zealand Ministry of Defence
Prime Minister of Australia

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