Preparing for a Changing Future: An interview with the Secretary of Defence

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2020

Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman
Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman. Image: NZ Ministry of Defence.

In this exclusive interview with Editor-at-large Dr Peter Greener, Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman talks priorities, First Principles Review, maritime helicopter replacement, international engagement and future challenges.

PG: Since taking up your post on 1 July 2019 what have you identified as the greatest challenges facing you in your role?

AB: There are three things in particular that I would note. The first is delivering on the Government’s priorities, which include a significant capability programme. Second is gaining a sense of the Ministry as part of the broader defence and security sector, and building a relationship with members of the Defence Force and others in the sector. Finally, developing a deeper appreciation of the Ministry of Defence and my role as Chief Executive, and how strategic policy links in with defence capability and international engagement.

PG: What are your most important priorities?

AB: Delivering on the Government’s Defence policy; with the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018 the Government were very clear about their concerns and priorities. These priorities were underscored with the subsequent release of The Climate Crisis: Defence Readiness and Response and the Advancing Pacific Partnerships 2019 assessments. The Defence Capability Plan 2019 provides the Government’s road map for how we will develop the capability to respond to future challenges. 

My second priority is engaging with domestic and international stakeholders. I’ve already visited our counterparts in Australia; attended the Women Peace and Security Summit in Samoa in August, which New Zealand co-hosted; travelled to Singapore for the Singapore-New Zealand Defence Minister’s Meeting, and visited the United States at the end of December.  I have also visited NZDF deployments in the Middle East.

The purpose of these visits was to get the views of our close partners on defence issues, and understand how deployments operate. We can’t lose sight of the Ministry’s role in advising the Government on deployments.  We need to understand how deployments are going, and be supportive of the personnel being deployed.

My final priority is focusing on the Ministry –our capability and culture, and how we enhance and deliver outputs.

PG: The Defence Capability Plan 2019 (DCP 19) did indeed signal that a significant range of new capabilities would be introduced in the near to medium term. In the Ministry Statement of Intent for 2019-2023, you identified that a range of improvements to the capability management system had been implemented to ensure the delivery of this expanded portfolio. Can you tell us about some of these changes?

AB: As you know there have been a lot of changes within the Capability Management System. The system has now been reviewed by Sir Brian Roche and this provided a robust assessment. The review found the procurement process to be robust, and that the Defence Capability Change Action Programme is making a big difference to the way Defence manages its capital projects. 

It’s early days yet but there has been a huge investment in getting things right. A number of years ago we had an uplift in funding to invest in a specialist workforce, particularly those with commercial expertise.

The governance system is really important in this system. We now have a Capability Governance Board, co-chaired by the Secretary and the Chief of Defence Force, which ensures that both entities are on the same page. The Board provides strategic governance across the military capability life cycle, focused on portfolio-level risk management and decision-making. 

We then have individual Project Boards which include independent members to ensure contestability and transparency. Within the Ministry we have integrated project teams led by the Ministry of Defence but with NZDF staff. This is to maximise the opportunity for quality and minimise risk. NZDF brings the military specialist skills, and the Ministry brings acquisition, finance, and public policy skills.

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PG: Investment in space-based systems, including the use of satellite surveillance has been identified as a priority in the DCP 19. Given also the global developments in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems, how challenging is it for the Ministry to recruit appropriate subject matter experts? 

AB: An organisation the size of the Ministry of Defence can’t have experts that cover everything. We employ skilled generalists who can readily get up to speed.  We may also look to bring in specialist skills through secondments from other government agencies, or hire specialist contractors.  The rate of technological change is no different for Defence than for other industries.  

We are fortunate that we get very, very good candidates applying for positions because of the intrinsic interest in the work, whether that be in policy or in acquisition. Capability work is attractive because of its scale, policy work because of the depth of challenge. The quality of our staff is really impressive.

PG: The DCP 19 Cabinet Documents noted that almost all Navy ships will come to the end of their life in the period out to 2035, and that this presented an opportunity to better manage block obsolescence. What might this mean in terms of future naval acquisitions?

AB: DCP 19 indicated the renewal of platforms by the mid-2030s.  It includes the new tanker HMNZS Aotearoa, extending the life of the frigates and enhanced sealift vessels.  There is plenty of time to avoid block obsolescence. A new Defence White Paper has been signalled for 2022 and that will be a good point to look at the strategic outlook.  It will provide a key opportunity to link the strategic environment to capability. 

PG: In the Spring issue of Line of Defence the Commander Joint Forces noted that “quantity can have a quality all of its own”.  For Navy the replacement of the maritime helicopters has been brought forward, with the current eight to be replaced by nine in 2026. Although primarily a combat helicopter, how important is it that these new helicopters have a complementary capability to the RNZAF’s eight NH90s?

AB: Ultimately it boils down to what helicopters are needed to meet Government policy. Undoubtedly the specification will require a range of capabilities in the new maritime helicopters; a combination of sealift, patrol and combat capabilities. The question will be just what is the best combination of capabilities to complement the NH90?

PG: Given the increasing size of ships that Navy will be operating, how involved is the Ministry in providing advice on future port and dock facilities?

AB: The First Principles Review of the Defence Estate Footprint, which the Minister announced in July, is already underway. It’s important to ensure that when we look at capability we also look at the infrastructure necessary to support it.  It is a real strength of the Integrated Project Teams, and can be seen in the new infrastructure that is being built to bring the P-8s to Ohakea. The Ministry is contributing to the First Principles Review.  The Ministry’s focus is on what do we have now, and what do we need to support future capabilities.

PG: Alongside capability development and policy advice, the Ministry undertakes international defence engagement activities that support broader defence, security and foreign policy objectives. Can you tell us a little about the Ministry’s International Defence Engagement Strategy?

AB: We have a joint Ministry of Defence / New Zealand Defence Force engagement strategy which looks at how we can maximise our international engagement to further our defence interests and relations. We need to be very conscious about where we put our efforts and we have a focus on multi-lateral engagements. In the region these include the Shangri-La Dialogue and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting + (ADMM+). It is a heavy engagement programme, which bodes well for New Zealand.  People want to engage with us and are interested in our views.

PG: What do you see as the major challenges for New Zealand’s defence and security for the future?

AB: I think the central challenges have been well captured in the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018. Quite rightly that document focuses on the Pacific and highlights the challenges of climate change, transnational crime, resource competition, and the increasing importance of spheres of influence. The international rules based order is under pressure, and it is in our interest to maintain it.  The pace of change with these issues may be faster than we thought, and there is empirical data that supports this in regard to climate change.

I believe the strategic settings that have been identified are absolutely correct. The question is how do we respond to these challenges in a practical way? 

PG: Any final comments?

AB: It is a real privilege to be in this role, and it is a fascinating job to be involved in.  I’m hugely impressed with the staff that work in both in the Ministry and the NZDF, particularly the work that Defence Force personnel undertake for long stretches of time far from home.