WELLINGTON, New Zealand — You fight with what you have, and the New Zealand Defence Force’s firepower is limited.
There are insufficient personnel to operate all the weapon systems in its inventory. Ships are mothballed, and although the first batch of new Bushmaster armored vehicles were delivered May 25 to Trentham Military Camp, Maj. Paul Napier of the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps told Defense News that the Army lacks drivers.
“Recruits often do not have a driving license,” he said. New Zealand law requires those old enough to drive a vehicle to have at least nine month’s experience before the government issues a full license.
But training isn’t the only challenge. On May 7, 2018, then-Defence Minister Ron Mark told Defense News that the barracks he stayed in as a 20-year-old soldier still looked “exactly the damn same.”
“They were built for the Second World War, [and] we can’t ignore that forever,” he said.
Air Marshal Kevin Short, who began serving as chief of the New Zealand Defence Force in July 2018, discussed with Defense News several issues facing the military.
His military career began in January 1976 when he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator. Since then, he has flown more than 5,000 hours, mainly on the recently retired P-3K2 Orion.
As of June 2023, the force he leads has an end strength of 15,236. Regular forces include 4,268 in the Army, 2,390 in the Air Force and 2,068 in the Navy. There are 3,060 civilians serving the military, and reserve forces total 3,450.
In terms of materiel, the Army’s inventory includes 105mm light guns, eight-wheel drive New Zealand Light Armoured Vehicles armed with 25mm cannons, and the Javelin anti-armor missile.
The Air Force’s fleet includes four new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft; eight NH90 and eight SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopters; five C-130H Hercules military transport aircraft; and two Boeing 757-2K2 freight/passenger transports.
And the Navy’s fleet includes the 568-foot Polar-class sustainment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa; the 430-foot Protector-fleet amphibious and military sealift vessel HMNZS Canterbury; and two 387-foot Anzac-class frigates (the HMNZS Te Kaha and the HMNZS Te Mana).
This interview, from June 30, was edited for length and clarity.
New Zealand’s weapon systems used to be similar to those of Australia, but that capability gap is widening. How does that affect the New Zealand Defence Force?
The NZDF seeks to be interoperable with the Australian Defence Force, our allies and partners. This is broader than simply having the same or similar equipment; it’s about cooperating and integrating across strategic engagement, capability development, training, personnel and readiness.
Recent capability purchases such as the P-8A and C130J, the fleet replenishment ship HMNZS Aotearoa, and the recently signed army-to-army Plan Anzac agreement are a few examples of how the NZDF has already, and will in the future, work alongside Australia and our other partners.
What are the benefits of Plan Anzac?
The plan aims to reinvigorate longstanding army-to-army cooperation with the Australian Army. As close neighbors and allies, we have a mutual commitment to support each other’s security, closely coordinate our efforts in the Pacific, and maintain a shared focus on the security and stability of our wider region.
This plan ensures our armies can continue to effectively contribute to that. The plan will balance the enduring characteristics of the Anzac relationship, such as close integration in capability, training and readiness, as well as retention of sovereign capability and capacity to act in support of independent joint force operations.
Is entry to the NZDF as open as it could be? What do recruiters tell you?
The New Zealand labor market is strong, and there is strong competition for young people. The defense recruiting organization continues to work hard to get enough recruits in the door to meet our targets, but we acknowledge that it is tough.
I believe entry criteria are appropriate, and I don’t think standards should be dropped. We need to be better at getting applicants in the door before they look at other options.
Does the Navy risk having another ship alongside due to too few sailors?
It is possible, but the government recently increased remuneration, which on top of NZDF and Navy initiatives may help to arrest the attrition rate. At the moment, the Navy has three vessels in care and custody due to crew limitations.
Should maritime interests and affairs take precedence over the Army?
All the domains are important — land, sea, air and information. The fact is that when we, for example, deploy to the Pacific, that could involve personnel and equipment from all three services: for example, a naval vessel carrying Army engineers and aviation assets in order to respond to an emergency situation resulting from a tropical cyclone.
The Air Force’s four P-8As became operational on July 1. Can they provide the same operational availability as the previous six Orions?
Yes. Four P-8A Poseidons were considered in the business case as a viable option due to improvements in aircraft reliability, and by using flight simulators to further reduce flying hours to train aircrew. This improvement in reliability and the shift in training capability allow the Royal New Zealand Air Force to better use the P-8A for operational outputs and match the operational outputs of the now-retired P-3K2 Orion fleet.
Australia recently grounded its NH90s again. Norway and Sweden appear unhappy with their NH90s. How does the Royal New Zealand Air Force feel about its NH90s?
The New Zealand experience is different to other nations, largely due to our focus on the wider maintenance, supply chain and operational support system around the platform. Our maintenance team includes NZDF military, civilian and Airbus contractor staff, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force has the highest availability rates across the NH90 user community globally.
In June 2020, five C-130J-30 aircraft were ordered for delivery from 2024. Is that going to plan?
Yes, the aircraft delivery is still on schedule.
What lessons translate to the NZDF from the war in Ukraine?
The war in Ukraine has illustrated the importance to the NZDF of maintaining relationships and interoperability with partners and likeminded nations, and continuing our high-quality training of our professional personnel so that we’re ready and able to support the international community’s efforts when we’re called on.
As a specific example, the war in Ukraine has served as a reminder to remain cognizant of and train for all aspects of combat. Our infantry training teams, who are deployed to the United Kingdom to instruct Ukraine’s armed forces trainees in basic soldiering skills, have also emphasized in the training they do and the importance of team cohesion on the battlefield.
Another lesson from the conflict, and previously the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the importance of supply chains to a country’s armed forces. The NZDF is going to look at its “just in time” approach, and adjust to a “just in case” approach.
Last year the government commissioned a review of its defense policy to look at its defense strategy and force design. This is still in process. The “Defence Assessment 2021″ document had described a more challenging strategic environment for New Zealand than in recent decades.
In January 2023, the public was invited to comment on the forthcoming defense review. What happened?
The online public survey has closed, with more than 8,500 responses received. A summary will be made available publicly at a later date.
What is the future for uncrewed systems with the NZDF?
There is a future for such technologies in the New Zealand Defence Force. The NZDF already uses uncrewed underwater survey technology and explosive ordnance disposal technology, and continues to explore opportunities to further de-risk maritime operations as underwater, surface and aerial uncrewed capabilities continue to mature.
Within the next 12 months, the New Zealand Army is expected to receive three unmanned aircraft systems designed to operate over varied distances in order to add to its existing UAS capabilities.
What’s top of mind for members of the NZDF? What are they telling you?
Personnel raise many and varied issues with me as I visit camps and bases. These issues can range from pay and allowances to other conditions of service, such as accommodation. They may also raise issues such as deployment opportunities. I am constantly listening, as are other senior officers in the NZDF, to the matters raised by personnel. We are nothing without our people, and our people are our most important asset in the New Zealand Defence Force.
Former Defence Minister Ron Marks wanted to improve NZDF accommodation. Where does that stand?
Some work has been done in the estate area, but we acknowledge much more has to be done. Housing redevelopment announcements were made by the minister of defense as part of the 2023 budget, [in which NZ$85 million (U.S. $52 million) went toward improving NZDF housing].
How is climate change shifting the balance between fighting wars and carrying out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief?
The ability to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations is a result of our preparation for military operations such as combat. The NZDF is well aware that climate change-related emergencies are likely to be a greater part of our future activity — a conclusion that was referred to in the “Defence Assessment 2021″ document.
However, the main role of the Defence Force is to be prepared for combat operations, and this is unlikely to change.
Nick Lee-Frampton is the New Zealand correspondent for Defense News.