New Zealand’s Defence stability in uncertain times

Line of Defence Magazine - Winter 2020

Harry DeWolf
Harry DeWolf Class Offshore Patrol Vessel. Source: Government of Canada.

Hon Dr Wayne Mapp notes that despite changes in governments Defence policy has continued to remain stable, and that Covid-19 presents both challenges and opportunities for defence spending.

It is tempting to use the Covid pandemic as an excuse to put things off. In recent weeks there were several letters to the editor in the major newspapers suggesting that the purchase of the new C130 and P8 aircraft should either be deferred or cancelled. Admittedly some of the authors were well known opponents of virtually all defence spending, but it was clear they were reflecting views more widely held in the community.

Anyone who has any knowledge at all about the state of the RNZAF major aircraft will know that the existing C130 Hercules and P3 Orions are already 55 years old and are towards the end of their serviceable life. Their replacement is critical to maintaining New Zealand’s defence capability. 

These particular aircraft represent more than most of the platforms within NZDF. They are at the core of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy. In times of emergency, the C130s are the capability that brings aid throughout the South Pacific. They are also New Zealand’s sovereign link to the Antarctic. 

The Orions are central to maritime and fisheries protection, not just in the New Zealand EEZ, but also throughout the South Pacific. If New Zealand did not have either capability, there would be little that New Zealand could do to assist the South Pacific nations or maintain a sovereign influence within the region.

The commitment in Budget 2020 to replace both aircraft types with new equipment shows that the government understands the importance of these capabilities – that it will not use the Covid pandemic as an excuse to abandon New Zealand’s core defence obligations.

The Covid pandemic has opened up opportunities for defence re-equipment. The two RNZAF B757s are nearly 30 years old. Airlines throughout the world, including Air New Zealand, are having to retrench. Many of them will be disposing of their older aircraft, and in fact some airline failures will release very modern fleets onto the market. 

The RNZAF should take the opportunity to replace the B757 with aircraft that are both more modern and have much longer range. Air New Zealand will be disposing of all of its B777-200s. It would not be surprising if B787s also come onto the market. These latter aircraft would be particularly suitable for the RNZAF.

The purchase of the C130 and the P8 aircraft fulfills the commitments of the Defence Capability Plan 2018. This Plan was built on the Defence Reviews of 2010 and 2016. In turn these two Defence Reviews were based on the 2000 and 2001 defence reforms of the Clark government. 

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In essence, New Zealand has had a stable defence policy for the last twenty years, spanning three different governments. There is no indication, from either of the major political parties, that New Zealand is going to undergo a deep and searching review of defence policy anytime soon. It is probable that for the 2020s, New Zealand’s basic defence policy is already set, irrespective of which political party is in government.

Sometime in the first half of the 2020s, the government will have to grapple with replacing the RNZN Project Protector fleet. These ships are approaching 15 years in service. They have around ten years life left. 

The Navy has already concluded the Inshore Patrol Vessels do not fulfil a useful purpose. These vessels should be transferred to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, as part of a Pacific Aid programme. 

The NZDF should already be planning for the replacement of the Offshore Patrol Vessels and the Canterbury. Ideally the replacements for the Offshore Patrol Vessels should be bigger and more capable, particularly to be able to operate in the Southern Ocean. 

Three ships, based on the Canadian Harry DeWolf design, perhaps the Coast Guard variant, would be ideal. They would be suitable for the Antarctic and would also have the size and capability to deal with the wide range of sovereign tasks, including disaster relief, within the South Pacific.

The next decade is likely to see New Zealand’s strategic situation come under increasing stress as the competition between China and the United States increases. It is highly unlikely that New Zealand will want to fundamentally change the strategic partnerships that have served New Zealand so well over the last century and more. However, it is probable that New Zealand will want to interpret its strategic obligations in a more flexible manner. 

Having a Defence Force that is primarily focused on New Zealand’s obligations within the South Pacific will make this easier. New Zealand need not be drawn into every flash point in the North Pacific. 

The current shape of the NZDF, including its new platforms, will give New Zealand sufficient options to be engaged with our partners to the extent necessary. But an appropriate naval re-equipment plan, based on the Harry DeWolf ships, will be a clear indication to our strategic partners where our principal interests lie.