In March 2022, the Report of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee on the 2020/21 Annual Review of the Ministry of Defence and the NZDF, noted in the section headed ‘Strategic competition in the Pacific’ that, “We heard that there will not be a white paper in 2022. However, Defence will be recommending to Ministers terms of reference that look at the development of defence policy settings in a more proactive approach, and the force structure that would support those settings.” Does this mean that there might be a new white paper in 2023, will we see another government defence policy statement, or will there be a revised defence capability plan?
The Ministry of Defence website notes that Defence policy settings in New Zealand's are reviewed on a regular basis, and that “The results of these reviews, Defence White Papers and Strategic Defence Policy Statements, are the highest-level expression of Government's Defence policy settings.” It notes that, “these policy documents will present an assessment of New Zealand's strategic environment and set out at a high level the range of activities the New Zealand Defence Force must be prepared to undertake” before adding that “[t]he most recent formal expression of New Zealand's Defence policy is the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018,” which was released by the Labour-led Coalition Government.
It did however make the point that “Cabinet will decide on replacing the Defence Force’s P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft capability.” In the same month that the SDPS was released, July 2018, the Government took the opportunity to approve the acquisition of four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to replace the Orions. The total estimated cost for the project was $2.346 billion.
The following year the Defence Capability Plan 2019 (DCP) was released. As I argued at the time, the Capability Plan provided perhaps the most comprehensive and clearly articulated argument for investment in the Defence portfolio in modern times. Not only was there a commitment to maintain the $20 billion in capital investment that had been indicated in the 2016 White Paper out to 2030, but beyond that the Plan also provided indicative investments out to 2035. This was “to allow for considered, long term planning for the Defence Force’s future needs. These capabilities will be reassessed ahead of the 2022 Defence White Paper” (author’s emphasis).
Amongst the near-term investment decisions that were planned, the first to be mentioned was Future Tactical Air Mobility, the replacement of the current C-130H Hercules. A year later, on 5 June 2020, the Government announced that a fleet of five C-130J-30 would replace the ageing fleet of C-130H Hercules at an estimated project cost of NZ$1.521 billion.
The need to provide Protected Mobility for Army, replacing the armoured Pinsgauer, was another near-term decision that was signalled in the DCP. The decision to purchase a new fleet of 43 Australian-designed and built Bushmaster NZ5.5 was announced on 8 July 2020. At the time Defence Minister Ron Mark noted, “The age and lack of protection offered by the old fleet make this another investment in New Zealand Defence Force capability that must be made in order to protect our service people” Funding of $102.9 million was to be committed to the project at this time, though the indicative capital cost for the whole project was between $300 – 600 million.
By this point then, the Government had already committed $4 billion to new capability acquisitions, yet more investment decisions were planned for the near future. Of note in the Capability Plan these included the Enhanced Maritime Awareness Capability project and the Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel (SOPV).
The Enhanced Maritime Awareness Capability project was intended to “support the Government’s civil maritime security strategy, providing air surveillance capabilities that enhance all-of-Government maritime domain awareness in New Zealand and the Southern Ocean.” A number of capabilities were to be considered, including smaller manned aircraft, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or satellites, at a cost estimated again to be between $300 – 600 million.
The Maritime Security Strategy 2020, officially launched on 17 June 2021, highlighted that “Cabinet has agreed to bring forward the investment in complementary air surveillance capability to ensure that delivery coincides with the arrival of the P-8As in 2023.”
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic though, had by this stage already made itself evident. The following month, July 2021, Defence Minister Peeni Henare told the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee that whilst projects had not been cut from the Defence Capability Plan 2019, it would be redrafted to align with Government priorities because of fiscal constraints due to the cost of the pandemic. The Select Committee highlighted in its report that the Minister said he was working with the Minister of Finance on reviewing the plan, and expected to have an idea of what a redrafted plan would look like by the final quarter of 2021. “We are not cutting back on the DCP. We've made it very clear that we want to be able to have a look at the DCP, review it but also looking to align it with Government priorities,” Thomas Manch reported the Minister saying.
It was clear though that major projects were being affected. There are now no details of the Enhanced Maritime Awareness Capability project available on the Ministry of Defence website. An Official Information Act request to the Ministry elicited the following response on 4 March 2022: “The EMAC project is at an early stage and some of the information you have requested does not exist”, then adding “it is necessary to withhold existing information in full, as release would … prejudge Cabinet’s future decisions on the project”.
The Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel project has also been affected. The need for the SOPV was first raised in Defence White Paper 2016, whilst Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018 said the project to acquire an ice-strengthened ship was already underway. The Defence Capability Plan 2019 affirmed that the “Acquisition of a Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel will occur in the mid-2020s.” The price was likely to be in the region of $500 million.
However on 22 March 2022, Reuters reported that Michael Swain, Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, had confirmed further work on purchasing a Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel had been suspended. “Due to the impact Covid-19 has had on the fiscal environment and emerging personnel pressures from other projects, this work has been deferred” he said. The Ministry’s website notes that, “The Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel project will continue to be considered in coming months.”
Another major development signalled in the DCP was the intent to grow the size of the Defence Force, with the wish to grow uniformed personnel by 1500 – with 1000 of these new troops increasing the size of the Army to 6000 by 2035. Perhaps not surprisingly there has been little movement here, and much has been made of the impact of Defence personnel having to serve in MIQ. In June 2019 Army had 9328 in uniform - by April 2022 that had grown by 150 to 9478.
In an interview with the author on 17 May 2022 the Opposition Spokesperson for Defence, Tim van de Molen, indicated that he wanted to see Defence numbers grow in the future much more substantially than the 1500 outlined in the DCP. He went on, “I want to see a new Defence White Paper. With the acceleration of the impacts of climate change in our region and challenges to the global order, we need to re-assess what capabilities the Defence Force requires. We are in a very different strategic environment than we were even two years ago.” This was clearly the message of the Defence Assessment 2021, released last December.
At the same time, as my colleague Professor Robert Ayson commented, Minister Henare’s “principles and a matching set of underwhelming priorities were rolled into the release of New Zealand's 2021 Defence Assessment.” The Priorities were to guide Defence through an ongoing COVID-19 environment. They are:
People –we will ensure our people are safe, well-trained and effective. Defence will also lift its focus on culture and diversity.
Infrastructure - ensuring our personnel can live and work in buildings that are healthy, safe and fit-for-purpose
Pacific – Assist Pacific partners to address security challenges to their livelihood, security and well-being, such as climate change and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.
Despite the 2022 Budget announcement of a funding boost for Defence, a nominal increase of 4% overall will severely limit what can be achieved, and few details have been provided about how these issues will be addressed.
In a world where Russia is at war in Europe and China seeks ever-greater influence in the Pacific, what does this Government now identify as the capability priorities for Defence? As raised at the beginning of this article might there be a new white paper in 2023, the first Labour Defence white paper since 1987? Will we instead see another government defence policy statement, or a revised defence capability plan? Or, in a foreshortened election year where the Government is still dealing with the ramifications of a Covid-affected economy, will there be nothing at all?
Peter Greener is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.