As a small nation a long way from most of the world, self-sufficiency and resilience are essential. It makes sense then, for New Zealand to hold a substantial war reserve – what the NZ Defence Force calls the ‘Contingency Reserve Stock’. The Ministry of Defence and NZDF are currently working their way through the Defence Capability Plan Review which is scheduled to be briefed to Ministers this month and taken to Cabinet in December this year. (I had to ask the Ombudsman for assistance to get this scintillating snippet of information).
Whenever there are substantial re-equipment programmes for Defence, the outgoing big-ticket items are transferred from NZDF back to the Ministry for disposal (which is why I pitched the war reserve questions initially to the Ministry). The story that is embedded in many people’s memory will be the disposal of the air combat force with white plastic-wrapped Skyhawks sitting on the apron at RNZAF Base Woodbourne for years. That gives rise to the question – Should we be getting rid of all our old stuff?
It’s obvious that some equipment is beyond further use and should be scrapped. That’s not the case for everything, however, or we wouldn’t be able to find willing international and domestic purchasers for it. Perhaps the MoD or NZDF already has a stash of gear sitting in warehouses in case the balloon goes up? Regrettably, I already knew the answer to that but thought it worth confirming via an official information request.
So there it is. If you were wondering whether there are tanks, trucks or rifles sitting around in case of invasion – there isn’t. The Army museum at Waiouru and a few private collectors have more battlefield hardware than the NZ Government. That wouldn’t be the case if we had a coherent national security strategy instead of leaving these choices up to the Defence Force.
For a start, we are totally reliant on open sea lanes for ammunition. When I last checked, ammunition ships only come to NZ twice a year. A colleague of mine, who was an Ammunition Technical Officer, made himself notorious for telling Prime Minister David Lange, on a camp visit, that we only had enough ammo for 48 hours of fighting. There was a sudden one-off injection of cash for ammo reserves. But ammunition degrades and must be used or destroyed. An ongoing ammunition reserve stock funding programme by Government is needed.
Why isn’t the NZDF maintaining a combat equipment reserve? Because, it can’t afford to. It requires real estate, people and maintenance funding to operate a war reserve effectively. While you can ‘pickle’ a rifle in grease and vacuum seal it for the future, you can’t do that to a truck. Putting aside serial under-funding, the Government’s accounting rules are such that they guarantee the NZDF will not store equipment. That’s because, in addition to the storage and maintenance costs coming off its operating funds, it must also pay capital charge and depreciation on the items. It’s time that these accounting rules were removed from Defence as they are incentivising perverse decision-making which is ultimately not in the interests of our national security.
It’s important to also consider war reserves in a much broader context and the number one item is fuel. We are dependent on fuel tankers getting to NZ on a ‘just-in-time’ cycle. Considering those tankers travel in the South China Sea, the Panama and Suez Canals and the coast of Africa, it’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ trouble comes visiting our supplies. However, there is no substantive discussion of this in either the Defence Assessment 2014, the Defence White Paper 2016 or the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018.
At a broader departmental level, there is some progress and discussion on fuel reserves. Japan has undertaken to sell to us from their fuel reserve if our supply is disrupted. However, a disruption to us is probably going to affect them too. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) produced a discussion paper in 2012 on NZ’s Oil Security. Domestic stocks are commercially based – the government has no intention of building its own storage capacity. International supply resilience is based on our membership of the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Australia has similar concerns. A government advisor in 2016 noted that, without fuel arriving on schedule, the country would be unable able to deliver food, water and medicines in a matter of days. It’s fair to deduce the same applies in NZ.
Thinking more laterally, why are we even sending scrap metal offshore? Our experience in WWII found a lot of it coming back to us ‘free’ and at high speed. Raw materials will become scarce during conflict and these now include rare earths and the elements needed for new technology such as lithium and cobalt. If the government is intent on stopping mining, how do they plan to keep manufacturing going when the ships don’t arrive?
‘Ka mua, ka muri’ is a Māori proverb that involves an image of a person walking backwards into the future. The past is clearly visible but the future is not. Let us look back for clues to the way forward, but also understand that the future is unwritten. As we (hopefully) enter this period of major re-equipping of Defence, I encourage the Government to consider carefully the past, the old kit and other new items for a national security reserve.