- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When it comes to military matters, New Zealanders are more likely to hear from the minister of disarmament than the minister of defense these days.
Having angered the United States and other allies in the 1980s by banning visits by nuclear-powered or armed warships, New Zealand now has opted to be the first advanced nation to virtually scrap its air defenses.
The left-of-center government announced last month that it is junking the air forces combat jets, turning the force into a transport service.
The small army, meanwhile, is being remade into a peacekeeping force and the navy cut to just two oceangoing warships.
The army also has been instructed to do a feasibility study on setting up a peace school at which soldiers would sit in seminars with aid workers and peace campaigners to discuss methodology and share experiences.
New Zealand may be small and far away from just about everywhere, but the Labor Party government believes it can set an example to the world on defense.
Opponents of the cutbacks contend the government is really pursuing total disarmament by stealth, cloaking its true aim with talk about peacekeeping because most New Zealanders want a strong defense.
"These are peaceniks trying to run the armed forces," said defense commentator Graeme Hunt. "Every other center-left government in the world — except New Zealand is spending more on defense."
"We have a naive belief that if we run down our armed forces, others will too," Mr. Hunt said.
Prime Minister Helen Clark insists the changes are justified because there is virtually no chance of New Zealand being attacked. She denies she is leaving the country almost defenseless, and she rejects the notion the government wants to withdraw into isolationism.
New Zealand is investing in the army to carry out peacekeeping missions with the United Nations and other world bodies, she said. "This defense strategy is the very opposite of being isolationist."
While the government is buying new vehicles and other equipment for the army, defense analysts say little of the money is going for weapons or front-line combat gear despite an urgent need for such items.
"The army is an orphan army now … and theyre deeply concerned about their combat viability," said David Dickens, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Studies.
Opinion polls indicate that just under 60 percent of New Zealanders believe the country needs strong defenses and must play a full role in defense alliances with the United States and Australia.

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