Into the Blue – an interview with AVM Tony Davies, Chief of Air Force

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2018

Chief of Air Force, AVM Tony Davies
AVM Tony Davies, September 2017. Photo: Royal Canadian Air Force.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force is in the midst of the greatest modernisation of its fleet since the time of Air Vice-Marshal Morrison over 50 years ago. At this time of significant change and development Dr Peter Greener, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies (VUW), asks Chief of Air Force, AVM Tony Davies, what are the most important challenges that the RNZAF needs to address?

PG: You recently issued an updated Mission Statement for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Can you say what this is and why it has changed? 

TD: The new Mission Statement is “The RNZAF will provide New Zealand with relevant, responsive and effective Air Power to meet its security interests.” The new statement focusses clearly on the value our operations deliver to NZ. There is a lot more to conducting military air operations and delivering Air Power effects than simply the visible element of aircraft flying.

The future depends on our people, on a joint focus, and a broader sense of air operations including the use of space and remotely piloted systems. While military air operations remain our core task, the attitude and behaviours that get us there are embodied in our values and air warfighting ethos.

PG: Having the right platforms and the right people is central to the RNZAF being able to fulfil its mission. Traditionally when thinking about Air Force personnel, aircrew and engineers come to mind. Today however, there is a growing need for intelligence analysts to make sense of the enormous amount of data that airborne systems can gather. How challenging is it to recruit and retain the right balance of personnel? 

TD: Yes, your observation about the importance of analysts is correct, but there are challenges. The Air Force is about much more than just aircraft.

We need to ensure that our people know where they fit in the overall matrix; as people come through the gate each day they need to be clear about the value that they add. So many of our trades and branches are STEM-related, that is, they require qualifications in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

We need to attract highly competent people and we’re competing with the other Services; with the Police; with other high tech companies like Rocket Lab. Nevertheless our recruitment intakes are good.

PG: Women currently make up about 17 percent of the workforce, yet the aim is for that to be 25 percent by 2025. What initiatives are underway to help this happen? 

TD: Perhaps one of our most successful initiatives is the “School to Skies” programme which began in 2017. This programme aims to attract those young women who are STEM-focussed and in their final year at school, to consider a career in the Air Force.

We began last year with inviting Year 12 and 13 students to our first four-day programme held at Whenuapai. This year we decided to invite 48 Year 13 students from all over New Zealand to Ohakea. I’m delighted with the response we’ve had and with the high percentage who are following-through with our recruitment team.

With regards to overall recruitment, I’m pleased to say that currently 18.7 percent of our force are women and last year some of our intakes were around 35 percent women. Retention is the challenge, and that requires a complete look at our policies, ensuring we look after families and facilitate a supportive after-childbirth return to work.

Women in senior positions are also important as role models.  As you are aware the current Warrant Officer of the Air Force is Warrant Officer Toni Tate and we have an increasing number of women as base, squadron, and mission commanders – all of whom, like everyone else in the organisation, have got there on merit.

There are also a number of initiatives underway supporting purposeful recruitment and retention across the diversity spectrum. It is worth noting we are the number one ranked military in the world for GLBTIQ + inclusiveness and that we have peer to peer support networks for Maori, Pasifika (in its infancy), GLBTIQ +, women and multiple religious groups etc. most of which are user or community generated and led.

Everyone is free to be their authentic selves with support readily available if needed. This creates an environment where being outside the mainstream is a non-issue as much as is possible and people can focus on their performance and their jobs.

There is opportunity to influence policy outcomes directly affecting these arguably underrepresented groups, and on all fronts, we pride ourselves on being an inclusive Air Force where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

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PG: As the New Zealand population and the potential pool of candidates diversify, what further opportunities do you see for recruitment?

TD: Diversity is celebrated and its strength is fully recognised throughout the NZDF.  We also know the value and the importance of representing the changing face of New Zealand. This means ensuring that we have a diversity programme that is equitable and where gender, ethnicity, sexuality and religious beliefs pose no barriers for a career in our organisation.

For example, at this year’s Pride Parade we had senior officer representation and we provided a very visible Hercules fly-past to support those marching. Our attention is on ensuring we increase the number of women in the Air Force, as well as other diverse groups.

PG: How important is it for Air Force to now have a permanent Marae?

TD: We refer to it as the RNZAF Turangawaewae or ‘standing place’ rather than a Marae, and this is out of respect for other local historical Marae. This project has been a huge success, and over 2,300 people have been received by the Turangawaewae so far this year.

Army and Navy support was there from the start and Army Engineers played a significant role in construction. Through a series of open forums across the Bases our people decided the kawa or protocols which are very traditional. The Tūrangawaewae truly reflects who we are as New Zealanders.

PG: When it comes to platforms, the RNZAF is in the midst of the greatest modernisation of its fleet since the time of Air Vice-Marshal Morrison over 50 years ago. The helicopter fleets have already been renewed and the first new fixed wing aircraft, the T-6 Texan trainers, are fully operational. Can you say how this already impacts on air power capability?

TD: The NH90 provides an amazing range of capabilities. Whilst it had initial challenges, our people have developed a number of ways to enhance the aircraft in operations and maintenance. Our helicopter squadron operates across a greater number of roles and tasks than many others, from battlefield support to counter-terrorism to search and rescue. Of the fourteen operators globally, New Zealand has the highest rates of aircraft availability.

The T-6 has just recently produced its first Wings Course with a pass rate of 90 percent – a very high rate. We are seeing excellent results. We are also in the process of taking delivery of our new King Air KA350s, a King Air that will allow us to undertake a wider range of roles.

This aircraft will allow us not only to undertake the customary multi-engine conversion training, but it also means we can conduct our own Air Warfare Officer training, which was previously provided in Australia. Two of the aircraft are also being fitted with sensors and systems to conduct basic surveillance missions.

PG: In turning to air surveillance, the Briefing for the Incoming Minister indicated that recommendations for the replacement of the P-3K2 Orions were to be made, and that Cabinet would need to consider the maritime patrol component of the Future Air Surveillance Capability (FASC) during 2018. In the contemporary strategic environment, how important is it for New Zealand to maintain such a capability?

TD: It is of crucial importance given the nature and range of activities that require response from the NZDF. Our exclusive economic zone is the 4th largest in the world, 15 times the size of mainland New Zealand and our search and rescue (SAR) region covers about 30 million square kilometres of ocean around New Zealand, stretching from the South Pole to the Equator.

Maritime Patrol missions, whether they are immediate searches to save lives or resource protection tasks in support of partner agencies, can stretch from Antarctica to the Pacific Islands. The P-3K2 Orion is our first responder following a cyclone, tsunami or earthquake.

From SAR to fisheries protection to high-end Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, we really need to better tell the story of how important the maritime patrol capability is to New Zealand. The P-3 is a tremendous platform, but ours are over 52 years old and they don’t make them anymore.

Whatever replaces the Orions will likely have to last another 50 years. In that regard the Boeing P-8 Poseidon is being viewed as a viable contemporary replacement capability. All the work on its development and refinement has already been done by others and importantly, given our focus on working as part of a wider coalition environment, we will be operating within a large P-8 user community.

There is no doubt in my mind that FASC is the most important security related  decision the current Government is likely to have to make.

PG: With a renewed focus on operations in the Pacific and Antarctica, how important is the Future Air Mobility project?

TD: While the P-3 is feeding back information about a disaster area, the Hercules are being loaded up with relief supplies. New Zealanders have an expectation that we will respond with airlift to a range of situations, and are always ready to be on our way. Our Air Mobility fleet must be a “Jack or Jill of all trades”.

The decision on replacing the Hercules will need to be taken in conjunction with replacing the Boeing 757s, which provide us with a faster, longer range capability, be it for transporting personnel to distant deployments, supplies to Antarctica or taking Government delegations and trade missions overseas.

Whether NZ goes for the tried and true, or for something faster and more modern, the decision will be a well-considered one.

PG: The Briefing for the Incoming Minister also noted the work underway on the Singapore proposal to base F-15 fighter jets at Ohakea. What opportunities might this provide not just for the RNZAF, but for the NZDF as a whole?

TD: New Zealand has a long history of working alongside the Singapore Armed Forces, and exploring the Singapore-Ohakea F15 proposal is an extension of that relationship.

The proposal is still under consideration, but opportunities we would want to explore with Singapore include the chance for F-15s to facilitate JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) training with the New Zealand Army, and possibly maritime strike training with the Royal New Zealand Navy. Although we currently carry out this training with other partners, there could be an opportunity for this to be more accessible if the Singaporean jets were based here.

All of these issues are yet to be discussed with Singapore and would be part of the discussion if it were to go ahead. Government is yet to make a decision on the proposal.

PG: In looking to the future, what contribution might remotely piloted aircraft be able to make?

TD: Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) are a part of the future, particularly as ISR platforms, be they battlefield or long-range, high altitude or long endurance platforms. Satellite coverage over our area of responsibility is currently challenging and RPAS could make a real difference here in the future. It will be considered in conjunction with FASC.

I look forward to our Defence Industry colleagues helping provide solutions to the problem once it is more clearly identified. Perhaps there’s a place to focus on long-range high altitude RPAS for the wider NZ region?

PG: Looking out further, and noting that the Royal Air Force has just taken over responsibility for UK military space operations, what opportunities might there be for the future uses and benefits of New Zealand space power?

TD: New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes Combined Space Operations and as such has gained valuable insights into the challenges of military space operations. We also recognise how highly integrated and co-dependent military and civil/commercial space operations are in terms of developing resilient and responsive space capabilities.

Hence, in the last three years New Zealand has put in place legislation to enable a responsive space launch industry with Rocket Lab from the Mahia Peninsula.  The RNZAF has a close working relationship with Rocket Lab and we have a few staff revolving through their projects, particularly in the avionics area. We offer Rocket Lab access to our facilities and I see some really exciting possibilities here.

Southern locations in New Zealand also present significant opportunities for the ground segment of space systems including Space Situational Awareness. In summary, the New Zealand government has a highly integrated approach to managing the benefits and risks of space and the NZDF is playing a forward leaning role in those developments.

PG: What do you see as the major challenges for the RNZAF out to 2035?

TD: We are challenged by some of our 1930/40s infrastructure, which is being addressed. Enhancing our diversity and inclusivity, which is progressing but not fast enough. School to Skies Programme is a start that we must build on. We need to be better at interacting with the public and telling the story about what we do for New Zealand’s security and wellbeing.

However, the future also looks very bright. Our capabilities are being renewed one-by-one and our people are technologically skilled and orientated. Operation Respect, a program specifically in place to improve workplace safety for our people and respectful behaviours by all, is starting to have a positive effect. The overall attrition rate is the lowest it’s been in a very long time and morale is good. This is a very exciting time for the Air Force.