The Interview: Andrew Bridgman, Secretary of Defence

Andrew Bridgman
New Zealand's Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman. Image: Ministry of Defence.

In this exclusive interview with chief editor Nicholas Dynon, Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman talks Defence Assessment, Defence Capability Plan review,  international engagement, and the Ministry’s key priorities in 2021/22.

ND: A new Defence Assessment has been in progress for a while now. Will there be an unclassified version of that available and when might we expect to see it?

AB: The Defence Assessment is being worked on. We’re at the final stages of preparing it and we hope to be putting it up to Ministers for consideration over the next quarter. 

What I can say is that we really continue the themes of the last Defence Assessment, which is around climate change and geostrategic competition. It endorses the work that went into the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018. In that sense it is thematically the same, but it will have different emphases.

There are two key things about the document. One is that it’s the view about the challenges for New Zealand from a Defence lens. That’s important because government has a number of instruments of statecraft that they can use at any one time, whether it be diplomacy, trade, or aid, and defence is one of them; so we’re very conscious that this is our view of the world. 

The second is that the Defence Assessment for us is important in that it feeds ultimately into capability decisions. It’s about, “Here are the challenges that we think New Zealand faces through a Defence lens, and here’s the role that Defence could play, and here are the capabilities it needs to undertake the tasks that Government asks of it.”

ND: The Minister indicated that the DCP was being reviewed, but that “We are not cutting back on the DCP [Defence Capability Plan].” When are we likely to hear the outcome of the review?

AB: There are two aspects to this. The first is that the Ministers are looking at the Defence Capability Plan in light of the fiscal constraints that have occurred due to the global pandemic since that plan was launched in 2019. Defence Capability Plans are always very long term; they are always 10-15 year plans and things change over that time. 

Governments always look at them at any point in time in light of what the situation is fiscally, and that’s what they’re doing at the moment.  I couldn’t give you a timeframe on that but the plan and the projects within it will be looked at in light of what other priorities Government needs to consider.

Ultimately, regardless of the fiscal situation, what people need to understand is that each purchase is presented to Cabinet on its own merits. You need to demonstrate the  overall value of capabilities like the P-8As, Bushmasters and the Hercules to Government. In one sense the Defence Capability Plan acts as a guidance mechanism.

The second thing – and this has probably gotten a bit lost – is that at the moment we have capabilities worth $5.6 billion under acquisition, with the critical ones being the P-8As, C-130Js, and the Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles, as well as the recently announced Consolidated Logistics Programme, which includes the building of a new engineering workshop at Linton Military Camp valued at around $47 million. 

So while the future of the plan is really important, our current focus is equally – if not more – about ensuring that our spending of the $5.6 billion is executed well.  

ND: In 2018 and again last year, the importance of Closer Defence Relations between Australia and New Zealand was emphasised. In a post-Covid 19 economic environment how important is it that we continue to work together to deliver capability in the most cost-effective way?

AB: The short answer is that it’s extremely important. Australia is our only formal ally. By geography we logically have similar objectives, and by the numbers we are critical to each other. Even if you look at our respective defence forces, we are relatively small but we are material. 

Interoperability and capability with Australia is really critical, because we have to operate together. We have operated together historically and we operate together now if you look, for instance, at the recent evacuation mission to Afghanistan. If you look at our focus on the Pacific and the broader Indo-Pacific, our operations won’t always be joint but there will inevitably be a joint or at least strongly coordinated component to many of them.

The P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft is an example of a joint capability, in this sense. We’ve also both got the Hercules, and we’re acquiring the new Bushmaster fleet from an Australian company – and the Australian Defence Force also use them. These capabilities make it really easy to operate together – and if I look at those three capabilities they make it easier to operate together in places like the Pacific.

This interoperability also creates opportunities for businesses on both sides of the Tasman. We’re using an Australian defence apparel company that has set up a distribution centre in Palmerston North to provide uniforms for the New Zealand Defence Force, and that will create around 16 jobs in the region. A Wellington company has secured a contract to supply small unmanned aerial vehicles to the Royal Australian Air Force. We should be constantly looking at how we can provide our industry with opportunities in Australia, and vice versa. 

Despite this, we’ve also got to be aware of the reality that theirs’ is a $44 billion industry and ours’ is roughly a $3 billion industry, so we’re on a different scale, and inevitably they will be focusing on capabilities that we won’t be focusing on. But it’s a case of looking out for opportunities, being agile, and making sure where we can that our industry is positioned to take advantage of opportunities in Australia and New Zealand.

ND: 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 how the Ministry’s International Defence Engagement Strategy has had to change since the onset of Covid 19?

AB: It has had to change. The reason for that is that there is no question that the ideal is face-to-face, but what we’ve learnt through Covid is that there is actually a lot that you can achieve with telephone calls and through Zoom or MS Teams meetings. And what we’re more inclined to do now – which I think is very good for relationship building – is to pick up the phone or organise a zoom call and have a conversation that previously we may well have left for a more formal dialogue. I’ve had a lot of contact with my Pacific partners via phone or Zoom that I probably otherwise would have left for those formal, twice a year dialogues. That’s been very beneficial.

The Ministry has managed to continue with a lot of big formal dialogues via Zoom, including the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus meeting, and various other meetings, where you’ve got a large number of countries ‘around the table’. These have continued along with more informal dialogues, but ultimately it will be beneficial to get back to face-to-face meetings when it is safe to do so.

Everything we do is built on relationships, and like any relationship if you’re meeting twice a year it’s probably not going to be as beneficial. But if in the meantime you’re adding Zooms or phone calls you’re still building relationships, so it’s shown us a new way and one that’s very complementary to the old way.

ND: The Maritime Security Strategy published by the Ministry of Transport in December 2020 states that “Cabinet has agreed to bring forward the investment in complementary air surveillance capability [Enhanced Maritime Awareness Capability] to ensure that delivery coincides with the arrival of the P-8As in 2023.” Are you able to provide insight into the current status of this project?

AB:  It’s still very early days in the Enhanced Maritime Awareness Capability Project. The project is focused on information gathering and it would be fair to say that we’re still looking at the options such as remotely piloted aircraft, satellite services, and small to medium size crewed aircraft. 

ND: When you were last interviewed for Line of Defence Magazine (Autumn 2020), in terms of the Capability Management System you mentioned that been a huge investment in getting things right.. From your perspective, how is the system performing?

AB: The new system was a big change, and I think it’s going really well. The current Chief of Defence Force Kevin Short and my predecessor Helene Quilter were instrumental in  the establishment of this system. 

Defence capability acquisition is incredibly complex and challenging, and it’s probably something that most people aren’t really fully aware of but it’s around the fact that Defence capability is unique – It’s a high-cost industry to enter – which is why there are in some cases a limited number of vendors for specific capabilities. Projects are often large and extend over long periods of time, where costs can change and there’s just huge complexity.

The Capability Management Framework provides a framework and formal process and governance system for the acquisition of major military equipment, and was designed to  mitigate the possibilities of things going wrong, as much as possible. Sir Brian Roche in his independent 2018 review of the system acknowledged that the very nature of defence capability acquisition makes it a risky business, and that you’ll never eradicate the risk completely but you can minimise it. There are three things I would say in relation to the system:

The first is that we’ve invested a lot of resources into it. In particular, people. There’s absolutely no question that if you’ve got a big undertaking you need to adequately resource it. 

The second is that we have our Integrated Project Teams, which are critical to the successful definition of a capability, acquiring it, and introducing it to service. These are teams where we have Ministry of Defence  and New Zealand Defence Force people working together on the delivery of a particular capability, combining the necessary military and civilian expertise. I think that gives you a robustness as you’re going through the process.

The third is governance at various layers (i) in relation to the actual project itself, (ii) broader governance over the whole system at a management level, and then (iii) Capability Governance Group, which is chaired by Chief of Defence Force and myself.

In our case, there has been turnover in a number of senior roles since its introduction in 2017, and yet this system remains as vigilant and robust as it’s always been. I think the key thing there is the culture of the two organisations and their people. We firmly believe in the system’s value, so when Helene left and I came in, things didn’t change.

Ultimately, it’s about consistency of purpose, and discipline. The system and its governance are utterly critical in ensuring that we manage the $5.6 billion we’ve got under management at the moment.  

ND: You’ve been at the Ministry of Defence for two years now, and this year you are also marking 30 years working in the public service, what are your observations about the Defence sector and Ministry of Defence?

AB: Defence is a fascinating area. It really is intrinsically interesting. From a public policy perspective – which is my background – it’s  fascinating because there are so many unknowns. It doesn’t have the same clear boundaries that other areas of public policy have. It is an area which is full of unknowns and full of complexity. 

When you do a Defence Assessment and when you read articles in defence journals trying to anticipate what geostrategic competition will look like and what the intentions of various countries are, it would appear that we’re all trying to anticipate the future, which is challenging in and of itself  That’s one area that I find quite fascinating and quite different, for instance, to Justice where I had worked previously. 

Then, in terms of capability, everything that you purchase in Defence tends to costs hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, so there are consequences of getting it wrong or significant benefits in getting it right.

The final thing I’ll add is that Defence is an area – understandably – that the public hasn’t historically had a lot of familiarity with, and I think there’s a real role for the Ministry to play in overcoming that. 

I think it’s up to us in the Defence sector to be able to explain to the New Zealand public why we need a specific capability, why it serves the interests of the public, and why it often comes at a significant cost.

Bringing New Zealanders back from Afghanistan is a good example of where the public can see the benefit of our Defence Force, as was the Christchurch earthquakes, and the more recent South Island floods, and of course the MIQ facilities. These help to explain the value of a Defence resource and, importantly, a contingent resource that needs to be there on standby. If it’s not contingent then you don’t have anybody to be able to do anything when you need it in an emergency.

ND: What are some of the key priority areas for the Ministry in 2021/2022?

AB: At an output level, the thing we talk about often is that we have about $5.6 billion under active management, and I cannot stress enough that we are very conscious of the obligation that we have to the government and the public to successfully manage that $5.6 billion and to deliver on what the government’s intent is for it.

The second priority is finalising the Defence Assessment. It is clear that there is more global challenges than there used to be. Being able to provide to government an updated version of where we think the world is at from a Defence perspective is going to be very important.

The third priority is maintaining engagement in the Covid world, and despite what I said before, it is intensive. You’ve got to maintain the momentum, you’ve got to maintain our efforts to engage with our partners and right now it’s more important than ever because we can’t do face-to-face.

The fourth priority is about supporting our people at the Ministry of Defence. The current situation is not easy for anyone. As a Ministry, first and foremost we need to support our people through this time. It’s an anxious time no matter what positive light you put on it. It’s challenging within an environment of significant uncertainty; we’ve all got family and friends and commitments beyond work. We therefore need to be spending a lot of time on supporting our people.