At an altitude of 2,700 m, something went wrong. On March 20, Flight Lieut. Phillip Barnes was taking part in war games over the Indian Ocean, protecting Royal Australian Navy ships about 166 km west of Perth. As he maneuvered to engage an "enemy" plane, the Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot lost control of his 30-year-old A-4 Skyhawk jet fighter and was thrown into a steep dive. Realizing the plane was beyond rescue, he ejected and landed safely in the water. Barnes was lucky. A month earlier, near his No. 2 squadron's Australian base at Nowra, New South Wales, squadron leader Murray Neilson, a 37-year-old father of two, had died in a Skyhawk crash.
Awaiting the outcome of investigations into both incidents, Barnes' unit last week received even more bad news. In a radical overhaul of the New Zealand Defence Force, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced on May 8 that No. 2 squadron, and New Zealand based squadrons No. 14 and 75, are to be disbanded and their 17 Skyhawks and 17 Aermacchi trainers sold. Though the aging of the planes was a cause of concern, the decision wasn't prompted by the crashes. In the Labour government's view, New Zealand simply cannot justify maintaining an air combat force. For the members of the doomed units, losing men and machines is part of a risky job. The shutdown-expected to save $370 million over 10 years-is harder to stomach. Says aircraft armorer Sergeant Glen Turner: "I feel sickened and betrayed."
Under the Clark government's new defense plan, the n.z.d.f. will receive an infusion of $840 million over the next decade. But it will no longer try to be a balanced force (with modest combat capabilities in all three services); instead it will focus almost exclusively on peacekeeping. Though such changes have been under discussion for over two years, the plan's unveiling last week sparked furious debate. Critics on both sides of the Tasman Sea accused Clark's government of abrogating New Zealand's basic defense responsibilities and undermining the anzac alliance. The government says it has made the only realistic choice: since New Zealand cannot hope to compete in an increasingly complex and costly military race, it must accept that in the event of war it will be heavily dependent on its allies.
After its combat squadrons go, the r.n.z.a.f. will have only transport planes-and the six Orion P3 surveillance aircraft of its maritime patrol force. (Though these will receive a limited upgrade, they will be left without anti-submarine technology.) The Navy's third frigate, h.m.n.z.s. Canterbury, will not be replaced when it is retired in 2005. Instead, the Navy will be given extra patrol boats and a multi-role long-range vessel fitted for Antarctic conditions. Its heavy-duty transport ship (h.m.n.z.s. Charles Upham) will be sold and replaced by commercial charters. The Army will be the greatest beneficiary of the defense funding boost, with new armored transports and light vehicles, and long-awaited upgrades in helicopters and radio technology.
Australian defense analyst Paul Dibb said the n.z.d.f. now risks falling "below what is a credible minimum"; defense industry lobbyist Michael O'Connor said it was being whittled to "a local constabulary." Australian Prime Minister John Howard repeated Canberra's oft-stated position that New Zealand defense decisions were a matter for New Zealand. But he warned that the plan would have "domestic and international consequences."
It's unclear how the defense cuts will affect the application of the Anzac partnership, spelled out in the 1991 Closer Defence Relations agreement. In a 1998 joint statement, Australia and New Zealand committed themselves to sustaining "the capacity for effective combined response to regional contingencies" and providing resources to "ensure the effective achievement of these outcomes."
Australian Defence Force Academy analyst Stewart Woodman, for one, doesn't think the New Zealand plan is very different from the strategies Australia set out in last year's Defence white paper, which recognized that direct attack on Australia was unlikely and proposed increasing the size and readiness of the Army at the expense of other services. "Is New Zealand at the end of the slide Australia is starting on?" Woodman asks. "If you look at the price of defense technologies," he says, "even the U.K., which spends a lot more than Australia, is saying it can't keep up with the Americans."
Woodman says "much larger countries than Australia are actually going down this [more selective defense] path." It won't be much consolation to Flight Lieut. Barnes and the other men of No. 2 squadron, but Australia's defense force could soon look a lot like their own.