MAPP: Responding to Disaster: Is the NZDF sufficiently resourced to carry out the tasks ahead?

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2023

Royal New Zealand Navy Anzac class frigate HMNZS Te Kaha. Image: Public domain.

Cyclone Gabrielle has highlighted the need for action on a range of big-ticket personnel and equipment issues, and a quicker paced Defence Review would help, writes Wayne Mapp.

Cyclone Gabrielle has wrought the most destruction that New Zealand has faced since the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. It is not surprising that a National Declaration of Emergency has been required. This has enabled to full resources of the NZDF to be bought to bear.

NZDF personnel have done an impressive job, with the essential skills of working as a well-disciplined team in adverse circumstances. The NZDF have been able to bring a range of capabilities into play that no-one else can. Robust communications not dependent on mains power, heavy helicopters, water purification plants, trucks able to operate on broken roads, plus command and control.

In some ways this disaster presents a more challenging set of circumstances than did Christchurch. The damage is more widespread. Basic services have been destroyed right across the East Coast and Hawkes Bay. Many more of the NZDF resources have been required.

The question arises; is the NZDF sufficiently well resourced, both in terms of personnel and the equipment to carry out the tasks asked of them?

This is particularly pertinent when the effects of climate change indicate that this type of disaster will become more common in the future. The risks of climate change have been well signaled in various defence reviews and planning documents going right back to the beginning of the Clark Administration in 1999.

The Defence Assessments made when Ron Mark was Minister highlighted climate change as a major risk, though this was primarily focused on the NZDF role in the South Pacific. More importantly for the last quarter century humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) has been seen as a core task of the NZDF.

In the 24 years since 1999, how much has actually been done about HADR preparedness and understanding the significance of climate change?

Probably the major equipment change was the development of the Project Protector fleet which was acquired instead of a third frigate. HMNZS Canterbury is the centerpiece of the Protector fleet. The acquisition of the NH90 helicopter has also bought a new medium to heavy helicopter into national service. More recently, HMNZS Aotearoa has vastly more capability than its predecessor HMNZS Endeavour.

With the exception of HMNZS Aotearoa, which was in heavy maintenance, all of these assets have been pressed into service along with more traditional capabilities such as Army trucks and the frigate HMNZS Te Mana.

In the aftermath of the disaster it is appropriate to ask whether more needs to be done. In short, is the current shape of the NZDF sufficiently well suited to dealing with more events of this scale?

In my view the answer is “no”. More needs to be done.

This is not to forecast a radical redirection. Rather a build-up of existing capabilities, both in terms of personnel and equipment, is required. The upcoming Defence Review could set out the plan.

One of the glaring shortcomings is simply the lack of personnel. More skilled people are required, both within the Regular Force as well as the Reserves. To take the Reserves first.

The Reserves have been rundown for over 20 years. I share some responsibility for this. At the turn of the century there were still over 3,500 army Reserves. Today the figure is about half that. Rebuilding the Reserves would mean more NZDF personnel throughout the regions, particularly in those places where natural disaster risks are quite high.

A credible goal would be to rebuild back to 3,500 personnel, perhaps over a five-year period. Some of the rebuild could be done by offering attractive terms to permanent NDZF personnel who will be leaving during the next five years. Getting new people will also mean more community recruitment and more full time training intakes. Achieving this will require better conditions of service, with a decent retention payment for people who reach three years efficient service.

In terms of the Regular Force, achieving the recrement targets set by Ron Mark, that is 6,000 personnel, would be an excellent start. Clearly more attractive inducements will be required. One of the questions that could be asked is the focus of the training of the new entrants. Maybe we need more people in Logistics and Military Engineering.

That brings us to equipment. In the Army, a greater depth of engineering equipment. Highly mobile heavy lift equipment and more bridging capability would be a good start.

This is not just an Army issue. The other two services can also be made more robust.

The Air Force NH90 helicopters have done an impressive job, with much greater capabilities than the UH1 Iroquois. But is eight enough?

The Australian Army is about to sell their version of the NH90. It would be an ideal opportunity to acquire at least a dozen of these aircraft, just as we did with the Australian Seasprites. This should not wait for the completion of the Defence Review. The Minister and senior officials will need to be fleet of foot to achieve this.

The Air Force used to have a medium lift aircraft, the Andover, in which I did my basic para course. Retired Air Force Officers say that the Andover could land in many more airfields than the C130 Hercules and would have been able to bring substantial payloads to isolated communities, provided of course there was a suitable airfield. Given the relatively short distances in New Zealand, it is arguable that more HN90 helicopters could readily fulfil this role.

The Navy will soon have to deal with the renewal of the Project Protector fleet. Much has been learned from the employment of the current fleet over the last 15 years. The IPVs were found to be of limited utility. However, the OPVs have been excellent. Somewhat larger patrol ships would be better still. There is quite a discussion going on whether this role could be fulfilled by a de-specc’ed version of the likely next class of frigate.

HMNZS Canterbury has proven to be a highly useful ship. It would have been better still if it had been a military class ship with a well deck. One of the issues is that the Navy only has one such ship. Two would provide essential resilience. HMNZS Canterbury was invaluable during the Christchurch earthquake. Similarly, with various disasters in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, it was not immediately available after Cyclone Gabrielle. With two ships, this gap would be much less likely to occur.

The upcoming Defence Review is an opportunity to seriously consider these issues, and arguably the Review could be bought forward. Many of the personnel in the Review, particularly the Chair Sir Brian Roche, have already done a Defence Review, and know the issues well.

Cyclone Gabrielle has highlighted the need for action. Spending years thinking about it is not necessary. It is time to increase the tempo of completing the Defence Review so that decisions can be made that will have effect within five years, rather than the more typical time frame of a decade or more.


1 Comment

  1. Disaster relief capability requirements cannot be viewed in isolation from the combat capability requirements driven by current geopolitical reality. We must play our part in deterring aggression and defeating the efforts of revisionist powers to overturn the international rules based order. In addition, the UN member states have agreed a high seas treaty which aims to establish marine protected areas over a third of the world’s oceans. Disaster relief has to be integrated with all these considerations. It cannot be considered in isolation.

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