Policy and Procurement: prolonged, passive, but some promise?

Line of Defence Magazine, Spring 2018

The Edda Fonn. Image courtesy kees torn.
The Edda Fonn. Image courtesy kees torn.

The Government needs to clarify its view on China following strong Defence Strategic Policy Statement language, and explain what it will spend retrofitting its recent naval purchase, MV Edda Fonn, writes National Party Spokesperson for Defence Mark Mitchell.

Since my last contribution to Line of Defence, the Government has embarked on a couple of decisions in the Defence portfolio which I’m pleased to be giving consideration to in this column.

The Defence Strategic Policy Statement released by the Government in July introduced a range of goals for Defence, and a far stronger rhetoric on certain issues such as climate change and international states than we have previously seen. I welcome the introduction of specific defence principles, but note these were all expectations of Defence under the previous Government, as shown in our Defence Assessments, White Papers, and Government rhetoric.

This Defence Strategic Policy Statement uses stronger emotive language than we’ve seen in the past, particularly with respect to China – though this appears in line with the current Government’s foreign policy outlook. The Government needs to clarify what its view of our relationship with China is because at the moment it’s difficult to tell.

The Deputy Prime Minister has indicated the Government wants a Pacific reset for our foreign policy, and this Defence policy statement reinforces this. But a Pacific reset cannot and should not come at the expense of other strategic relationships and security arrangements.

We can’t afford to approach issues around defence or foreign policy as an ‘us v them’ scenario – it’s important we cooperate. New Zealand has long held a robust and independent foreign policy, which balances interactions with other states well. It’s important these relationships are maintained.

Climate change is real and we know its impacts are most severe on low-lying countries. Disaster relief is a big focus of the Defence Force, and will become heightened as more freak weather events affect the Pacific, so the Defence Force needs to be prepared for that.

The policy statement greatly emphasises the threat of climate change and subsequently the capabilities required by Defence in order to deal with the challenges posed, particularly in the maritime space. We welcome the priority placed on climate change, and agree the global strategic environment has changed since the release of the Defence White Paper 2016 and the Defence Assessment 2014.

Our Defence Force is required to operate in the largest Search and Rescue zone in the world, and needs to be operable in sub-Antarctic temperatures, right through to the tropics of the Equator. If sea levels continue to rise, there will be an impact on some islands affecting the resources of those islands, and that will need to be dealt with as it happens.

New Zealand is prepared to respond and help mitigate or deal with those impacts, as are other countries in the Pacific including our neighbour Australia. We have seen footage of record wave heights blasting our patrol vessels in the Southern Oceans, ice caps melting at record speeds, in addition to having seen significant natural environmental disasters such as cyclones and flooding in the Pacific Islands, and it’s important our Defence Force is able to assist across the board.

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New Zealand has a proud history of humanitarian response, and that is one of the primary areas of Defence in which we operate. The response the Defence Force has to the threats posed by climate change will be in some part an extension to this humanitarian response, and we have already seen it in action.

If the Government is as committed to combating climate change as it has indicated in this policy statement and other documents produced by the Government, it will procure the right assets for our Defence Force, and increase Defence expenditure. It remains to be seen whether long term the two marry up.

In the short term, I’m hesitant to conclude the two will correspond. There have been two significant defence procurement decisions made in the last quarter, with one ensuring our Defence Force is equipped to bring us into the 2040s, and the other more or less contradicting the Government’s commitment to better resourcing.

I strongly welcomed the announcement of the procurement of four Boeing P-8 Poseidons in July. This procurement decision will bring expanded capability to our Defence Force and ensure we retain interoperability with our partners.

The previous Government had put a lot of work into this, and had the process well advanced, so it was pleasing to see that this Government made the right decision, albeit after a bit of a delay. The P3 Orions have provided our nation with an incredible and reliable service for over fifty years, and they have earned their retirement.

The procurement of the P8s sends a positive signal to our allies and partners, showing that we will remain a capable Defence Force, and are well equipped to play our role on the international stage, alongside providing support to regional security arrangements.

With our Defence Force being responsible for the largest search and rescue area in the world, the P8s will make a major contribution to search and rescue operations and towards the policing of our wider Exclusive Economic Zone. I look forward to the P8 Poseidons being brought into service.

On a different note, however, August saw the Government commit to doing something the Defence Minister criticised in Opposition – making compromise purchases of defence assets that weren’t built to do the jobs expected of them. This is a Government with a now proven fiscal hole, and that is starting to impact the investments it makes, including long-overdue upgrades to Defence assets, in particular the replacement dive and hydrographic vessel for our Royal New Zealand Navy.

The 85 metre Norwegian vessel Edda Fonn will come to the Navy already 15 years old. It is a survey and light construction ship, not the dive, hydrographic and mine clearance vessel approved by the former Government for purchase in 2016.

The Government will need to retrofit it at an as-yet unspecified further cost to taxpayers on top of the $103 million purchase price. The Edda Fonn is not the sort of Littoral Support Vessel the Defence Force made a strong business case for to replace the now retired vessels Resolution and Manawanui.

Only recently the Defence Minister said there ‘had been too many examples in the past where procurement decisions have been the wrong decision, where we have taken a commercial option only to find that it doesn’t work there in the military role. He went on to say ‘In fact, some of them don’t even work in a civilian role. We’re not going to cut corners’.

During that interview Mr Mark must have known that he was on the verge of signing off the purchase of a commercial survey and light construction vessel that was going to need to be expensively overhauled to turn it into the dive and hydrographic vessel the Navy needs.

Mr Mark needs to explain how much this process will cost, and whether all the specifications in the business case approved in 2016 will be fitted to the Edda Fonn. If the converted ship cannot undertake all of the functions in that business case, Mr Mark will have delivered a compromise solution of the sort he criticised in opposition.