Continued investment in Defence Force needed

Line of Defence Magazine - Winter 2020

Op Protect
Linton-based soldiers tasked with helping local iwi alliance. Image: New Zealand Army.

With spiking infantry attrition rates raising questions over morale, writes Opposition defence spokesperson Hon Mark Mitchell, continued delay to the Defence Estate upgrade needs an explanation. 

Since my last contribution to Line of Defence, the nation has faced an unprecedented lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now in Level One, we are getting used to what the new normal looks like and focusing on our economic recovery. 

I would like to acknowledge the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) for the significant role it played in the relief and recovery efforts throughout this stressful time of uncertainty. I know their efforts positively impacted many communities and was greatly appreciated by Government response centres, Emergency Coordination Centres, community groups, Ministries and the NZ Police alike. 

Approximately 638 personnel were assigned to regions to help support the NZDF response to Covid-19 and about 80 personnel were assigned to support central agencies. During this time, Operation Pacific Relief was also set up to provide Cyclone Aid to our pacific neighbours, Fiji and Vanuatu. 

I have received a lot of feedback from members of the public about their continued confidence in our Defence Force, knowing that they were organised and ready to be deployed during the early stages and throughout this time of national crisis. I am very proud of our Defence Force for the way in which they have responded to Covid-19.

I welcome the confirmation of five Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules transport aircraft to replace our 1950s era C-130 Hercules aircraft. It is a long overdue investment and a purchase National would have made – it correlates with the Defence Capability Plan we released in 2016. 

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. New Zealand must be prepared to respond and this investment will allow the NZDF to do so, both regionally and internationally, including our interests in Antarctica. 

In July 2018, we also welcomed the Government’s purchase of four Boeing P-8 Poseidons to replace the six 1960s era P-3k2 maritime patrol aircraft. The procurement phase of these aircrafts was in their advanced stages under the previous Government and it was absolutely the right decision for this Government to confirm this investment.

These two purchases see our heavy air lift and search and surveillance areas finally covered off and modernised. These investments show we will remain a capable Defence Force and sends a positive message to our partners and allies that they can have continued confidence in our Defence Force, and that we can meet our obligations on the international stage and provide support to regional security arrangements. 

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With our Defence Force being responsible for the largest search and rescue area in the world – approximately 11 percent of the Earth’s surface – the upgrade of our heavy aircraft will contribute to our service men and women’s ability to undertake search and rescue operations. I am very pleased to see this investment in our Defence Force, especially given that the previous Government saw the need for large scale upgrades and put a lot of work into our Defence Assessments and White Papers.

But it is extremely disappointing that the current Government has called for a further review of the Defence Estate and after 2.5 years we are still yet to see any funding commitment or work started on improvements. This Government inherited a $1.5 billion Defence Estate Regeneration Plan that National would have started to implement in the 2018 Budget.

While Defence Estate spending isn’t sexy or popular, it is no less important to those in the Defence Force. During the Defence Force Estimates hearing held in early June, Defence Minister Ron Mark acknowledged that the Defence Estate is substandard. The Minister needs to front up and give a full explanation addressing why commitments have not yet been made and when work will begin on any Defence Estate upgrades. 

Also questioned in the Estimates hearing was what caused attrition in the infantry to spike in the past year. In the first full year since the new Government took office, the attrition rate for infantrymen with less than two years’ service suddenly spiked to 33 percent. The trend seems to be limited to 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, which had attrition of almost three times that of 2/1st Battalion.

Under the previous Government, Defence Force morale was at an all-time high and attrition rates were at an all-time low. The impacts of the lack of spending on Defence Estate are now becoming evident. 

We need to start asking the important questions: with the Government’s self-imposed 20 percent net debt target truly blown by Covid-19, and the unemployment queues growing, will the Government start implementing the long overdue work to bring the Defence Estate up to scratch? It would have dual benefits. Jobs for New Zealand tradies and others; and a fit-for-purpose work and living environment for our 13,000 + Defence personnel. 

Notably however, there was no explicit mention of the Defence Estate in the Budget 2020, despite it having been previously identified as a major fiscal challenge for Vote Defence Force.