Defence Policy Review: Kicking the can down the road or fundamental reset?

Line of Defence Magazine - Update

Defence Policy Review
Roadmap for Defence Policy Review. Image: detail from Page 5 of Defence Policy Review Terms of Reference.

With the release last week of the Defence Policy Review Terms of Reference, writes Dr Peter Greener, will we see a Defence White Paper or Capability Plan prior to the next election?

In my article in the current issue of Line of Defence Magazine I asked the question, what will the future direction be for New Zealand defence policy and capability? With the release on Thursday 7 July of the Defence Policy Review Terms of Reference, we now have an indication of what the planned process will be for determining that future direction.

The Defence Policy Review will facilitate the development of a long-term and clear strategy for the defence of New Zealand along with, ultimately, a revised Defence Capability Plan. Of particular interest though in the Defence Policy Review Terms of Reference, is the observation that rather than publicly making available a Defence White Paper and Capability Plan at the end of the review process:

“The approach with the Defence Policy Review is more flexible…This flexible process allows for a variety of products which will be produced sequentially and surfaced for Cabinet decision, including for public release if Cabinet so wishes.”

Four potential products are identified for development, the first two of which have specified time-frames for delivery which will be within the lifetime of the current Government. These are:

  1. “A defence policy and strategy statement – an expression of Government’s defence policy interests, objectives and high level strategy, including indications of prioritisation.” This would be prepared and delivered to Cabinet for consideration by October of this year.
  2. “A set of future force design principles – an expression of Government’s intentions for future force structure.” This would set out a range of activities that might be expected of the Defence Force, along with possible force structures and capabilities that would be required to ensure those activities could be undertaken. This would be prepared and delivered to Cabinet for consideration by April 2023.

Once the defence policy and strategy statement is delivered, an indication would be sought from Cabinet as to whether a Capability Plan (Product 4) should be developed, and whether there would be a publicly available Defence White Paper (Product 3). The Terms of Reference document notes that a full Defence Policy Review would normally be expected to take up to two years. Given that it is already July 2022 it does call into question whether either of these two products would be produced before the next election.

In the Key Deliverables section of the Terms of Reference document, the dates for providing the Costed Options for a Defence White Paper, the Draft Defence White Paper, and Defence Capability Plan Final Costed Option have been – perhaps not surprisingly – redacted under s9(2)(f)(iv) of the Official Information Act.

The Defence Assessment 2021 suggested a policy shift from New Zealand’s overall “reactive, risk management-centred approach to one based on more deliberate and proactive strategy”. The Terms of Reference document notes that the momentum for an extensive review has gained urgency with the events that have occurred in the brief time since the publication of the assessment. It then adds in the penultimate paragraph, “The anticipated timeline takes into account the depth of the review in providing a comprehensive reset of defence policy” (my emphasis).  

Following the announcement of the review last week Tim van de Molen, National Party defence spokesperson, said there had been a thorough review process in 2019, and this latest review would only “kick the can down the road”. Will this be the case, or will we see a fundamental, comprehensive reset of New Zealand’s defence policy? And how much it will cost?