Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Military force structures in small states: Providing for relevant and credible military capability

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posted on 2021-11-23, 12:23 authored by Bennett, Vernon

Small states are perceived as lacking military power. Nevertheless, most maintain military forces. Given their shortfalls in power and capacity what choices do small states make about maintaining military forces and what utility do they gain from them? This issue is not well addressed in small state literature which considers the security of small states but focuses less on their defence planning or the military instruments they maintain. This thesis addresses that issue by examining how small states structure their military forces, why they do so, and whether they provide for relevant and credible military capabilities.  This is achieved by examining the structural balance of small state military forces; developing and applying a methodology to describe the process and priorities within the military systems of small states; and developing expectations for military forces in small states from small state literature and military theory as testable propositions to provide a basis for comparison of their military capabilities. The results of this comparison are then analysed with regard to the utility that small states may gain from their military forces and related to wider themes within the field of small state studies to ascertain the benefit that they may gain from them.  Four cases of small state military force structures are used. Ireland provides limited military capabilities to meet discrete tasks and roles within a benign strategic environment and its policy of military neutrality. New Zealand, like Ireland, does not face a direct military threat but it has a wide range of security interests. This is reflected in a broad force structure, albeit with modest capabilities based on utility and the benefits of its international partnerships. Norway, on the other hand, does perceive a direct military threat and functions within the NATO security alliance. It maintains forces that are able to operate throughout the conflict continuum as part of the NATO framework but, as a small member of the alliance, it faces the challenges of balancing defence concerns within the alliance framework. Singapore also perceives itself to be strategically and militarily vulnerable. However, unlike Norway, it does not participate in a military alliance and instead provides the most capable military forces of the four cases as it aims to be self-reliant in the face of perceived vulnerability.  The four cases possess markedly different military force structures as a result of their varying assessments of strategic discretion and differences in their approaches to the various security environments they encounter. All four face challenges with economies of scale, critical mass and fixed costs in providing for their military capabilities. However, the extent of these challenges differs between each of the four cases and they gain different utility and benefit from maintaining their military instruments. Hence while small states have some common military characteristics they cannot be considered as a homogenous group. This should affect the manner in which they, other states and international organisations perceive them.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

International Relations

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Centre for Strategic Studies

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Ayson, Robert; Capie, David