The Government of New Zealand recently released a refreshed Defense Capability Plan designed to deliver a more integrated defense force and a series of new defense capabilities to the nation’s armed forces. For a geographically isolated country with a population of just four and a half million, New Zealand’s defense planning presents challenges. While the new plan does not set any new policy directions, it enumerates the capabilities required to help meet the nation’s existing and future territorial, regional, humanitarian, economic, security, internationally cooperative, and foreign policy goals.
Covering more than four million square kilometres, New Zealand has one of the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zones. Its size puts a premium on the maritime surveillance of rich fishing grounds located to the north of the country and stretching all the way south to Antarctica, where New Zealand has a permanent scientific base. The island nation’s search and rescue region, which covers some thirty million square kilometers, is also one of the world’s largest. As a nation overwhelmingly reliant on trade for its economic well-being, New Zealand has an active interest in secure sea lanes. The most critical of these connect the country to major markets in Asia, primarily, as well as the Middle East. By better securing this economic access, the new Defense Capability Plan will help ensure New Zealand’s economic future.
On the regional front, residual constitutional links with the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau include responsibility for the defense of these South Pacific countries, which lie a considerable distance from New Zealand’s nearest coastline. There is also an expectation across the far-flung island countries in the region that New Zealand, along with Australia, will be a primary responder in the event of the all-too-frequent natural disasters or other contingencies that necessitate external help of a humanitarian nature.
New Zealand’s defense interests, however, have never been confined to the South Pacific. More than 60 years of contributions to Southeast Asian regional security are currently expressed through continued active participation in the Five Power Defence Arrangements, which center on Malaysia and Singapore. New Zealand has also recently taken over the co-chairmanship of an expert working group on maritime security under the framework of the recently established ASEAN Defence Ministers + 8 forum. New Zealand had, until early 2014, co-chaired the forum’s Expert Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations.
The island nation has also demonstrated a longstanding commitment to United Nations-led or -mandated peacekeeping operations. Since 2000, this has manifested through a major and lengthy commitment in Timor Leste, more than a decade of contributions to the Afghanistan mission, and, closer to home, the Regional Assistance Mission that restored stability to the South Pacific nation of Solomon Islands.
Over the past fifteen years, successive New Zealand governments have made efforts to substantially upgrade a defense force that had been struggling with increasing obsolescence. This process has been especially aided since 2011 by the country’s rapidly growing economy, which has shrugged off the twin impacts of the global financial crisis and a devastating earthquake that destroyed large parts of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city. The most recent Defense Capability Plan updates the previous plan, also published in 2011, in terms of maritime, aerial, terrestrial, and joint materiel and operations.
On the high seas, the acquisition of a purpose-built logistic support ship filled a significant capability gap and now plays an important role in supporting disaster relief operations and humanitarian assistance missions in the South Pacific. New offshore patrol vessels were acquired for more regular patrols in the South Pacific and in the waters south of New Zealand. A fleet of upgraded Seasprite maritime helicopters equipped with modernized anti-ship missiles will also enhance the ability of the Navy’s frigates to meet contemporary maritime threats.
In the air, new NH90 helicopters are replacing the 1960’s vintage Iroquois and providing a much-improved troop lift that includes a self-protection capability. A Lockheed C-130 life-extension program will upgrade the aircraft’s electrical equipment as well as its communication and navigation systems. The maritime surveillance workhorse, the Lockheed P-3 Orion, has been refitted with modern sensors along with communication, data management, and navigation systems.
On the ground, the Army has been re-equipped with Light Armoured Vehicles and several land combat support projects are underway. New Zealand’s 2011 plan treated command and control, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as separate capability sets. In the new plan, they are categorized as a single capability set to better support defense assets, including land forces during the conduct of both independent and coalition operations.
The new Capability Plan also continues New Zealand’s emphasis on upgrading its existing defense infrastructure and retains the expeditionary character of its defense force security policy. The theme of “jointness,” developed over the past dozen years to orient maritime, land, and air services into a Joint Task Force, is central to the new plan. The capability prescriptions set out will enhance combat and combat support operations of all three military branches and joint missions so that the defense force can continue to be a credible contributor when operating alongside international partners. Although the latest plan focuses on enabling the Joint Task Force to conduct and sustain operations within New Zealand’s maritime zone and across the expanse of the South Pacific, these capabilities can also be made available for operations further afield.
The operational readiness of the Special Operations Forces, elements of which are frequently deployed overseas, will also be enhanced through a new battle training facility currently under construction. An infantry company is to be held at a higher state of readiness for short-notice contingencies, including the provision of support to special operations. To give the Army greater agility in responding to rapidly changing threat environments, replacement land combat weapons, the development of a network-enabled Army, enhanced armoured mobility, and a new land transport program are all features of the new plan.
Naval capability enhancements include the frigate systems upgrade now underway to restore naval ships’ ability to defend against current air, surface, and underwater threats. The plan also identifies the need to replace the Navy’s aging replenishment vessel with a ship capable of both refuelling and sustaining the Joint Task Force while at sea. A littoral operations support capability is also planned to replace three ships that have either been taken out of service or have short remaining operational lifespans.
Replacing the aging Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Boeing 757 fleet to ensure that the defense force retains an adequate strategic lift capability is one of three major issues confronting the defense force in the 2020’s. Though significantly upgraded in recent years, the Orion maritime surveillance aircraft will also need replacement in the next decade, as will the Navy’s two frigates. These issues will undoubtedly be a focus of the next Defense Capability Plan. New Zealand’s future defense planning must also take into account greater strategic uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region, which has resulted from shifting power balances, increasing maritime tensions, and the malign intentions of non-state actors, if the nation is to play an influential security role in the future.