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Capability Delayed is Capability Denied

In writing, once again, about the New Zealand Defence Capability Plan Review, I’m reminded of a TV advert that used to run for Christian Children’s Fund. The script went like this… “As America rushes off to work – a little girl waits…” It flashes between frenetic images of first world problems and a little girl sitting alone on a hillside in the third world. It ends with asking the viewer to do what they can and support one child for just 80 cents a day.

In the same genre, while politicians and officials rush around thinking about how little they can get away with spending on our Defence Force and how they are going to ‘spin’ the story of the Defence Capability Plan Review – a young serviceperson waits. They wait for the equipment that is as old as their grandparents to be replaced. They wait for the new capabilities they need to do their job safely that have been promised by senior officers and politicians for every year they’ve been in uniform. They wait for a sign that they are valued because, as frustrated as they get, they can’t go on strike like doctors and teachers. They just have to keep sailing, driving and flying and hoping their luck doesn’t run out.

The Defence Capability Plan is a standard feature of the defence strategy cycle. A 15-year plan was signed off by the last Government in 2016. The incoming Government decided to review the strategy and consequently the capabilities required to enact it. All done by the end of 2018 they said. That became early 2019 and still we wait. What is known is that the work was substantially complete late last year. What is holding it up is political games between the three parties in power – Labour, NZ First and Greens – as well as the usual Treasury gamesmanship that has, regrettably, become a standard feature of Defence planning.

I asked a set of very specific Official Information Act Requests to see exactly where the underpinning documents i.e. the Cabinet Papers were.

OIA Questions re Defence Capability Plan Review Cabinet Papers
OIA Questions re Defence Capability Plan Review Cabinet Papers

The response is as follows:

OIA Response from Minister of Defence re Capability Review docs to Cabinet
OIA Response from Minister of Defence re Capability Review docs to Cabinet

Here’s my analysis of what has taken place based on these dates. Defence has presented a Cabinet Paper in early 2018 which would have been substantially the same shopping list as existed in 2017. First to the GOV Cabinet Committee and the following week to Cabinet as per usual. Cabinet has rejected a blanket signoff. The Greens want a very small Defence Force and Labour needs money for its socialist schemes. NZ First hoovered up all the spare money with its other coalition demands. However, if the strategy doesn’t change, the capability requirements won’t either. Enter the Strategic Defence Policy Statement of Jul 2018. Climate change is now the enemy and you can’t rescue people from rising sea levels without ships and tactical airlift. That was coupled with a ‘take it or leave it’ option on four P-8 Poseidon aircraft as replacement for our six P3 maritime surveillance aircraft as Boeing intends shutting down the production line. NZ took the option in mid-July.

New strategy buys the Minister of Defence, Ron Mark, six months while the Ministry of Defence and NZDF double check everything in the Capability Plan is correct. Surprisingly, there’s little to change. The C130 aircraft are still ancient, we still need a whole heap of intelligence and cyber technology and half the Navy fleet is still at end of life or halfway there. We still need protected mobility and the Defence Estate still requires billions to bring it out of WWII level conditions.

On 24 September, another Cabinet Paper went up indicating minimal change and was sent away to do more homework. There is a possibility, given that this paper didn’t go to GOV that it related to one or more specifics such as the C130 replacement or the Defence Estate.

The paper that went to GOV and Cabinet in early November should have been the end of it but it would have landed right in the middle of the bidding war for Budget 2019. Unsurprisingly, a bid as expensive as Defence’s would have been sent away to sharpen the pencils once again. While all this is going on – a young service person waits. Five months later (April 2019), another Cabinet Paper arrives at GOV followed by Cabinet the next week.

I hear that it was signed off then (although I remain skeptical and believe there will be many deferments on the capability plan) and Ron Mark’s office is deliberating when to release it. I find that incredulous! The dance of the seven defence veils now involves whether to peel off another layer before, as part of or after the 30 May budget announcements. The spin doctors in the Beehive will be weighing up their options. If they announce before the Budget, it could skew expectations in other sectors. Likewise, as part of the Budget, anyone that doesn’t get what they expect will be making noise about Defence expenditure. After the Budget carries similar risks and further accusations of delay being indicative of a Government that is weak on Defence.

Let’s be clear, there are not many more times that the Defence Minister can say that “we just want to check that everything is correct” and still maintain any credibility. They’ve had 18 months to check. Without a substantive Defence capability announcement soon, this Government will definitively be ‘big on words, short on action and soft on Defence.’

I anticipate that the shopping list will be shorter, cheaper and some big decisions will be delayed. In the context of rumours about cost and time overruns on some major projects, this doesn’t bode well for refreshing the NZDF.

While New Zealand politicians think about their polling results and next list placement – a young service person still waits.

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