Sicilian Defence Chess Tactic

The Delaying Defence Tactic

Defence Minister Ron Mark’s rubber stamp has hovered so long over the previous government’s 2016 Capability Plan that the ink had almost dried on it by the time he finally lowered it in 2019. A few smudges are evident as is the obvious number of pages that have turned on the acquisition calendar (and, no doubt, prices). The tactical doctrine of delaying defence involves ‘buying time’ by trading ground and not becoming decisively engaged. This government has somewhat cynically engaged in the tactic while the Defence Minister hawkishly talks up what he’s ‘won’ for his portfolio. All that this process has achieved is delayed the inevitable replacement of some key platforms and added the tantalising offer of new capabilities that are mostly so far in the future that this coalition government will not have to worry about the decisions.

To some, this will seem an overly harsh criticism. However, previous statements speak for themselves.

“The DCP sets out some of New Zealand’s longer term procurement concerns. The country will have to replace its aging C-130H and Boeing 757 fleets ‘in the early 2020s.’ Additionally, ANZAC frigates and the highly versatile P-3K2 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft will also reach the end of their service life in the 2020s. It is vital that the NZDF has well trained personnel with the right equipment to deliver on the Government’s expectations. The Government is committed to investing in the NZDF’s capabilities by upgrading equipment and developing its workforce. A number of significant capability investments have been made in the past year, and further investment is planned.”

This may appear to be Ron Mark’s words but they’re actually National Party Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman on the release of the Defence Capability Plan 2014.

“Five areas have been selected for capability investment, according to the DCP, including cyber protection and support, intelligence support, littoral operations, operations in the Antarctic Ocean and southern bodies of water, and air surveillance.”

Likewise, this is an article about National Party Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee’s release of the DCP 2016.

In short, the words sound remarkably similar in 2014, 2016 and 2019. Why the hold-up? According to Mark shortly after he took over the portfolio, it was because the previous government hadn’t actually allocated the $20bn in funding.

Defence Minister Ron Mark said he had taken another look, and had yet to decide what future spending would look like. “That review might conclude that we need a little less than $20bn, it might conclude that we need more … if it means stretching it to 2035 to make it work and that’s the best thing, that’s what I’ll recommend.”

But despite the government’s commitment, Mr Mark said, National made no allowance in future years for the upgrade.

“Stupidly when we were in opposition we took them at their word – they said this money has been budgeted and this money has been allocated, $20bn out to 2030.

“And we get into government – wrong.”

Pot, this is kettle, over!  These are the first two paragraphs in the DCP 2019 Infographic.

Investment intentions out to 2030 are subject to individual business cases justifying the investment, and funding being available through the Budget process, taking into account other Government priorities.

Indicative investments planned for commitment between 2030 and 2035 have been included to allow for considered, long-term planning for the Defence Force’s future needs. These capabilities will be reassessed ahead of the 2022 Defence White Paper.

In other words, no money has been allocated by this Government for these projects except what has already been approved – the purchase of four P-8A Poseidon, HMNZS Manawanui, and a few smaller items. This is always the case for big capital purchases. It simply isn’t believable that Ron Mark has spent so many years in parliament and not understand this. This has been an 18-month delaying tactic to cobble together some agreement between the three parties in Government. The Minister’s own media release highlights this. While the primary role of armed forces is to defend New Zealand, the Minister says:

“This plan maintains the envelope of $20 billion of investment in the Defence Force out to 2030, with $5.8 billion having already been committed since 2014.  However, we have significantly recalibrated the Plan to provide the capabilities necessary to meet the challenges identified in the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018.

It also identifies priority investments to support the Coalition Government’s foreign policy objectives relating to the Pacific Reset and the impacts of the climate crisis.

At its heart, this new Capability Plan is a humanitarian plan. It readies New Zealand to lead in the assistance of our neighbours, and to contribute to the security of our friends in the Pacific. 

The Plan has been developed with full recognition of all of the priorities of this Government, and it will be delivered in a fiscally responsible, transparent manner. All proposed investments will be robustly tested, be subject to funding being available through the Budget process, and Defence will develop a sound business case for each planned investment.”

On the plus side, there are a few new items on the shopping list (any post-2030 are subject to 2022 White Paper consideration):

  • A second sealift vessel to enhance the capability offered by HMNZS Canterbury and a projected replacement for the latter. This is essential to the Pacific Reset so why wait ten years?
  • Maritime surveillance satellite (2023) and long-range UAVs (post 2030)
  • Increase number of Army personnel to 6,000 (by 2035)
  • Maritime helicopter replacement brought forward to 2028. The current Seasprite SH-2G(I) fleet (8 in service plus 2 spare airframes) was projected to still be in service in 2030.
  • Air navigation and communication upgrades – 2022

It’s encouraging to again see a section focussed on our defence industry which also appeared in the 2016 DCP. However, in a move that surprised many, the Government has announced the C-130J-30 as the preferred option for replacing the C-130H fleet without going to tender. As yet this is unfunded and the number of new airframes to be bought is not known despite some media speculation that it will be frame for frame – five. This has not been the case in other countries where the same replacement combination has been ordered.

On the negative side:

  • Getting rid of half the inshore patrol vessels (The whole fleet was on the block in DCP2016). The IPVs are only 10 years old. If the full-time Navy can’t use them, why shouldn’t the Naval Reserve have them back in their ports for training as was the case with earlier patrol craft?
  • Only one mention of the Reserve Force in an ‘apple pie’ statement
  • Reduction in planned spending in Budget 2019 on the upgrade to the Defence Estate
  • No mention of short to medium range utility aircraft

New Zealand needs to change the way it goes about planning and spending on national security. Without multi-party agreement that can traverse election results, we will find ourselves over and over again facing unnecessary acquisition delays that put service personnel at risk. We will continue to face devastating reductions in capability brought on by self-serving or cynical politicians as we saw with the destruction of the air combat capability and the reduction in the frigate fleet. The first step in a bi-partisan accord is the development of a national security strategy for New Zealand and its oversight by a statutorily independent National Security Advisor (as an Officer of Parliament) and Agency.

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