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Opinion: Defence strategy reveals new priorities and tensions 

New priorities and tensions feature in New Zealand's new defence strategy policy, says Dr Wil Hoverd (photo/Wikimedia Commons)

by Dr Wil Hoverd

From safeguarding regional Pacific security to the protection of Antartica and now climate change and cyber threats – the just-released strategic defence policy statement highlights the new and emerging priorities for our national security.

These reflect an alignment with the new government’s Pacific reset and ongoing challenges, including how to balance the combat capability central to our defence forces while delivering humanitarian and disaster relief to the Asia Pacific region as well as these new transnational threats. Addressing the plethora of security issues as promised also requires us to consider what tensions and divisions could erupt over competing demands for resources, training and funding.

At the release of the strategy last Friday, Defence Minister the Hon Ron Mark clearly came across as a strong advocate for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and demonstrated a strength of commitment to it that perhaps was less evident in former governments. As a policy document, we should understand that this new one updates the former 2016 Defence White Paper in such a way that it aligns the NZDF to the new government’s foreign and fiscal policy. In practical terms, this means aligning the NZDF to the Government’s Pacific reset and providing funding for defence acquisitions focused on future challenges in our geographic spheres of influence to maintain therules-based international law system. 

The Strategy document outlines three changes in the international threat environment that might impact upon the NZDF operational capabilities for the future:

  • Great power competition between the US and China
  • Climate Change 
  • Cyber and Space domains 

All three reflect emerging contexts of defence interest that drive much of the document’s capability and strategic discussion  – and they point to important new avenues of future thinking for the NZDF. 

The deployment of resources to Antarctica is also an important part of the document – the unsaid part of the Antarctic discussion being that New Zealand needs to be seen to be exercising its shaky territorial claim to that continent, a sovereign claim that other nations will contest if they can.

Rationale for defence force status quo off the agenda 

There is a strong commitment to maintaining a combat capable defence force to provide combat effects on land and at sea to enable the NZDF to defend NZ’s sovereignty. This signals that this government is not going to have a conversation about whether we actually need all these capabilities in the first place.

These are expensive capabilities and the rationale for why we need offensive capabilities is not contested. Neither is the radical thought that we could move to a stabilisation force structure rather than a combat capable force structure. There will be no radical restructuring under this government. A  restructure into a primarily maritime force, a sell-off of frigates, inshore patrol vessels and light armoured vehicles, or a discussion about why we still need separate naval, air and land capabilities are not going to occur under Ron Mark. While this provides reassurance to the NZDF, these still remain important future defence questions.

This leads into the ongoing challenge of how the NZDF balances a combat capability focus and delivering a humanitarian and disaster relief to the Asia Pacific region? I would suggest that this challenge creates an internal balancing tension when it comes to planning doctrine, training, the allocation of resources and future acquisitions – a tension that must be negotiated by defence decision makers from Generals right down to those serving on the front line. 

Greater transparency promised but will it eventuate?

Of particular interest, was that Ron Mark made a commitment to making the NZDF more open, transparent and that it would improve trust and confidence with the New Zealand public. This is clearly necessary. The NZDF is excellent at generating strong public relations when on deployment. It is not so good at public relations when it comes to the ethics of the political fallout over widespread water contamination or reassuring the public that operations in Afghanistan were legal and humane. 

It is promising that the Minister made overtures to improve this space. But his words need to be backed up by action, and there is little in this document to reassure the public that significant action will occur. Public release of current inquiries underway or the development of an oversight mechanism such as that provided by the office of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security would be welcome instruments to improve NZDF transparency, trust and confidence.

Missing in action? – the people

This is a document about strategic direction and capability, but a focus on personnel and personnel development is missing. In a nation (and arguably in our armed forces), where people are our greatest asset this is an unwelcome omission from the 2016 White Paper which had previously focused on the Defence Workforce. 

Retention, training and workforce diversity are ongoing challenges for the NZDF and ultimately we can have all the ships, cyber capabilities and aircraft in the world, but if we lack the personnel to deploy them, these platforms offer no utility. Notably, at the policy statement release there were maybe as many as 100 senior officers attending. They were mostly aged, primarily Pākehā and only one uniformed woman was present. I sincerely hope that this is not the future of the NZDF workforce. The NZDF needs to always be vigilant that it places its workforce and equity in the forefront of everything it does – this should be enshrined in all its policy.

Overall, this document offers practical reassurance to the NZDF that the coalition government sees distinct value for the capabilities of that organisation as a tool of foreign policy and domestic emergency management. There will be money for platforms. There will be a focus on the Pacific. 

There is also clear evidence that bigger questions about the role and purpose of the NZDF have been settled for the near future and under this government there will be no substantive change to the organisation.  This means that tensions around how best to balance combat capability and humanitarian disaster relief capability will remain an ongoing challenge. 

Hopefully, there will be more NZDF transparency under this government, and Mark’s words will deliver reassurance mechanisms. 

Lastly, the defence workforce is the lifeblood of the organisation. A diverse, happy workforce which represents all the demographics of our society is the best way to fulfil NZDF’s new principle of embodying and promoting New Zealand’s values.

Dr William Hoverd is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University’s Wellington campus.


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