New Zealand Military

15 September 2009

Imagine if the Greater Toronto Area was called upon to form and fund its own military forces. Would its 5.5 million people be willing to field a nine-ship navy with five helicopters; an air force equipped with 11 propellor planes, two jet transports and eight helicopters; and an army with two battalions and a special forces unit?

This is precisely what New Zealand, with a population of just over four million, is doing today. Under the banner of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), this country has about 11,000 professional soldiers in its three branches; funded by a military budget of NZ$1.887 billion in 2008. (1$NZ roughly equals 75 cents Canadian).

Based on New Zealand government figures, its 2008 GDP was NZ$115.624 billion, so the country spends about 1.63% of its GDP on defence. According to the CIA World Factbook, this puts New Zealand’s spending in terms of GDP percentage on par with the Netherlands, Togo and Uruguay. Canada, by contrast, spends 1.1% of GDP on defence.

Considering that New Zealand has no real enemies nor potential military threats to speak of, 1.63% of GDP is quite respectable. “We’re surrounded by thousands of kilometres of ocean from the nearest land point,” explains Dr. Robert Ayson, a New Zealander and director of studies with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Canberra’s Australian National University. “As a result, our major concern is not defending our shores from external threats, but rather helping other South Pacific nations deal with their internal military challenges. This is why the NZDF has deployed in countries such as East Timor and the Solomon Islands.”

NZ Military Policy
Since 2000, New Zealand’s military role has been clearly defined by its Defence Policy Framework (NZG 2000). At the time this article was written, NZG 2000 was undergoing governmental review. However, given the historic continuity in NZ defence policies since 1970, it is unlikely that any new policy will substantially shift the country’s current alliances and interests.

In general, New Zealand is concerned with patrolling its coastlines and keeping its sea lanes open. With no tangible military threats to worry about, offensive capability is not a priority.

“The NZDF is a standard defence force, concerned mostly with the security of our country and its well-being,” says NZDF Colonel Colin Richardson, defence advisor at New Zealand’s High Commission in Ottawa. “Since New Zealand is an island trading nation, it is in our interest for the world to be a stable, safe place to trade with.”

Self-interest is not the only element guiding New Zealand’s military policy. Much like Canada, New Zealanders believe in peacekeeping, and using their military forces to provide humanitarian and moral aid to other nations. This explains the NZDF’s current role in 14 international peacekeeping missions, ranging from East Timor and the Solomons to a 150-strong contingent in Afghanistan.

In fact, there are no clear defensive reasons for New Zealand’s presence in any of these theatres. Rather, the impetus behind the missions is to use military resources to do humanitarian and political good, plus provide support to Australia and other western allies. When you have no enemies to speak of – let alone any within striking range – it is safe to deploy your military in this manner.

Kiwi contingent arrives at Bamyan PRT on RNZAF C-130.

Order of Battle
The NZDF’s roots stretch back to 19th century New Zealand wars between various Maori groupings opposing British colonial settlers and those Maori who supported them; the last of these ended in 1870. New Zealanders formed colonial units under British command during the Boer War, with the country’s forces gradually becoming independent during the run-up to the First World War, which was fully ­formalized by the Second World War.

After that war ended, New Zealand and Australia offset the discredited protection of the British Empire by forming the ANZUS alliance with the United States. Some years later, New Zealand’s refusal to allow U.S. nuclear armed/powered ships into its ports in 1986 led to its suspension from the ANZUS pact. Today, New Zealand relies on its ties with Australia for defence, although its participation in Afghanistan signals its continuing informal alliance to the United States and other western powers. Despite New Zealand’s ‘no nukes’ policy, its relationship with the United States is cordial and constructive.

“New Zealand is such a valued partner,” commented U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on 7 April 2009, following a meeting with New Zealand Foreign ­Minister Murray McCully. The two had met in the White House Treaty Room, for the official signing of the U.S.-New Zealand Arrangement for Cooperation on Nonproliferation Assistance agreement. Aimed at preventing the illegal transport of nuclear products, the agreement sees New Zealand spending NZ$685,000 in support of U.S. nuclear material monitoring efforts at Kazhanstan’s borders. “In Afghanistan, its elite Special Air Services troops distinguished themselves early on, and New Zealand’s leadership of the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team has been a model for other nations,” Clinton told reporters. “The U.S.-New Zealand relationship is the best it has been in 25 years, and we look forward to building on the progress we have already made.”

In recent decades, the NZDF (formed in 1990 from the merger of the air force, army and navy) has seen its capabilities change radically. In particular, the former air force has no real strike/air defence ­capability ­following the retirement of its 21 A-4 ­Skyhawks in 2001 and the then-Labour government’s decision to cancel an order for new F-16 fighters.

“The grounds the government gave for the decision were that the current attack jet, the A-4 Skyhawk, had little operational utility,” explains a 2007 report by Jim Rolfe, a senior fellow at New Zealand’s Centre for Strategic Studies. “The government argued that ‘the loss of the air-to-ground and air interdiction roles [for the Royal New Zealand Air Force] is not a major concern,’ because an air combat force ‘has never been, and is unlikely ever to be used.’ A ­further argument was that the money saved by not replacing the Skyhawks with more modern aircraft could be better spent on ‘rebuilding the remainder of the NZDF.’” 

Royal New Zealand Navy boarding party from HMNZS Te Mana in the Gulf.

With these changes, plus the ongoing retirement of its 14 UH-1 Iroquois helicopters (now being replaced by eight Eurocopter NH-90 helicopters), the NZDF’s air wing has been reduced to coastline surveillance; anti-submarine defence; and troop and materiel supply.

Currently, the NZDF has six recently upgraded P-3 Orions and five similarly upgraded C-130 Hercules, the aforementioned helicopter fleet in transition, and two Boeing 757 jet transports that have replaced two older Boeing 727s. One can only hope that the Labour Government was correct in its assumption that New Zealand will never need to defend itself from an air attack. Should this assumption prove false, the country will be a sitting duck.

Changes that decapitated the NZDF’s air offense were more kind to the navy and land forces. Today, the navy’s aging fleet of four Leander Class frigates and one replenishment ship, supplemented by seven Wasp HAS-1 helicopters (all 1960s vintage) have been replaced by two new ANZAC frigates and one replenishment ship; one multipurpose vessel and six patrol ships (two offshore; four inshore); supported by five SH-2G Seasprite helicopters. This larger fleet has given New Zealand more capability for patrolling its own coastal waters.

As for the land forces, the NZDF has beefed up its two infantry battalions (600-900 soldiers per battalion) by equipping one with Canadian-made LAV IIIs. In addition, it has added a reconnaissance LAV unit while maintaining its artillery regiment and special forces group.

In total, the NZDF has purchased 105 LAV IIIs (NZLAVs) from General Dynamics Land Systems Canada. “The NZLAVs were purchased to replace worn out Vietnam-era M113s,” says Ken Yamashita, manager of corporate affairs for GDLS Canada. “Like most militaries, their aim was to modernize their armoured vehicle fleet.”

Royal New Zealand Air Force Iroquois helicopters participate in joint exercise “Steel Talon 2007,” held at Lochinver Station near Taupo.

These changes have helped the NZDF meet its limited commitments in Afghan­istan – a place where LAV IIIs have unfortunately proven vulnerable to IED attack. The NZDF has also made improvements in personnel security by purchasing new radios, armour and night vision goggles; better defensive weaponry (anti-armour) and by improving troop training.

Even with these improvements, the NZDF’s many deployments have kept this force very busy; perhaps too busy for its capabilities. “In the current high tempo of military operations, the NZDF has 800 troops deployed worldwide,” says Col Richardson. “When you factor in those preparing to deploy or those who have just returned, this amounts to 2,400 of our people tied to immediate operations, or nearly a quarter of our forces. So yes, we are stretched, but this is what our government and our people want us to be doing.”

Taken as a whole, the New Zealand Defence Force has taken a balanced approach to the immediate defensive needs of this island nation (read: no real enemies) and the importance of keeping the world safe for international trade.

That said, the country’s decision to take this approach – and to back it with regular government funding and a clear defence policy – does rest upon a few gambles. Key among these is the assumption that New Zealand will never be attacked. Should this actually happen, the country would be unable to stop an air assault. Its long-standing alliance with stronger, larger Australia does give it a measure of security against this threat being realized. However, New Zealand’s 1986 decision to bar nuclear vessels has weakened its position with the U.S. Navy. “Our people are not against the ANZUS alliance; in fact they very much support it,” says Dr. Ayson. “But they are also opposed to allowing military nuclear materials into our ports. Frankly, I think New Zealanders thought they could have their cake and eat it too. They were not prepared for the U.S. response to our anti-nuke stance.”

The good news – from a gambling standpoint – is that the United States is unlikely to stand by and let New Zealand be overtaken by hostile forces. In fact, although New Zealand remains suspended from the ANZUS treaty, it is now on apparently good terms with the United States.

Internally, the NZDF’s biggest challenge is the loss of skilled soldiers to the commercial sector where pay and working conditions are better. “We are experiencing shortages particularly in the rank brackets from corporal to warrant officer and captain to major,” says Col Richardson. “It makes it hard to continue to expand the army as planned, when faced with the loss of trained personnel to the private sector.”

Despite these issues, New Zealand remains one of the world’s most fortunate countries, militarily speaking. Lacking nearby rivals and prospective enemies, this country enjoys the privilege of using the NZDF to advance the country’s humanitarian goals in the South Pacific, and beyond.

James Careless is a freelance military writer.
© FrontLine Defence 2009