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Defending New Zealand: The Heart of the 2016 White Paper?

Line of Defence, November 2016

Image taken from cover of New Zealand 2016 Defence White PaperImage taken from cover of New Zealand 2016 Defence White Paper

Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University Wellington, argues that the New Zealand 2016 Defence White Paper provides for a projection of power beyond New Zealand’s maritime domain.


The 2016 Defence White Paper could just be the closest thing New Zealand has come to articulating a Defence of New Zealand strategy. That’s not something we can say about much of our previous thinking. This omission has set Wellington’s defence strategy apart from Canberra’s. Because over the other side of the Tasman, arguments for and about the Defence of Australia have been a recurring focus. Some would say this has almost been an Australian obsession.

When Australia and New Zealand forces came home over a generation ago at the end of the forward defence era they came home to different strategic realities. Under British and American leadership, forward defence had meant a parallel Australian and New Zealand commitment to Southeast Asian security in the 1950s and 1960s, including of course the controversial war in Vietnam.

Given Australia’s more precarious sense of its immediate strategic environment, including historical concerns about Indonesia, the Defence of Australia made good strategic sense. And this meant a much firmer commitment of defence self-reliance than has generally been possible in New Zealand.

Despite its many detractors in more recent years, the Defence of Australia theme  (albeit in many guises) has helped underpin Canberra’s investment in advanced combat capabilities designed to maintain an edge in Australia’s northern maritime approaches. If anything, Australia’s own 2016 Defence White Paper will accelerate this investment.

The twelve post-Collins Class submarines and the Joint Strike Fighters will constitute the two most expensive acquisitions in Australia’s defence procurement history. Part of the justification for this largesse are heightened Australian concerns about strategic tensions in East Asia: it is almost as if Australia’s northern maritime approaches now begin in the South China Sea.


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The New Zealand story has been quite different. When our forces returned from Southeast Asia there was no equivalent Defence of New Zealand strategy for them to come home to. It is perhaps symbolic that our army stayed on longer than its Australian counterpart in Singapore.

From Wellington, Asia’s fragility seemed much further away and the South Pacific environment seemed relatively un-strategic. Concerns about coups in Fiji and instability in Bougainville may have helped build a Pacific logic for the New Zealand Defence Force in the second half of the Lange years, but this did not last long.

The replacement logic of self-reliance in partnership tied to an ambitious notion of New Zealand’s global security interests foundered on the growing gap with the Bolger government’s limited commitment to defence expenditure.

The attempt to treat Australia as New Zealand’s next great and powerful friend after the break-up with Washington delivered two ANZAC frigates. But New Zealand had no real match for Paul Dibb’s variation on the Defence of Australia logic that set Canberra’s investment parameters from the mid-1980s.

Yet since the high profile abandonment of New Zealand’s air combat capability under Helen Clark’s government, which inherited a new and significant military commitment in East Timor, a sustained commitment to shaping the defence force for local conditions has taken hold.

The first Defence White Paper of the John Key years, published in 2010, confirmed that the demands of South Pacific missions would be a crucial driver of the defence force structure. And concern about New Zealand’s need to keep a close watch on its very large Exclusive Economic Zone, let alone respond in its even vaster Search and Rescue area, has been shared by both Labour-led and National-led governments in some of their recent capability decisions.

The 2016 Defence White Paper takes this logic a step further. To the South Pacific and New Zealand EEZ missions is added a third area of adjacent emphasis: the southern oceans and Antarctica.

This is reflected in the new determination to ensure that both the replacement tanker and a third offshore patrol vessel are ice-strengthened. Antarctic considerations will also factor into the government’s decision-making on airlift replacements for the C-130 Hercules and 757 aircraft.

That new emphasis on the colder parts of New Zealand’s strategic environment is partly a response to external factors. There is undoubtedly greater external interest in Antarctica and the southern oceans and the resources that lie under and in them respectively.

But it is also a clever piece of domestic politics. The Key government knows that neither Labour nor the Greens are likely to object to what has become a Pacific-New Zealand-Antarctic complex at the centre of an implied Defence of New Zealand Strategy.

That helps the government get wider cross-partisan buy-in for a good part of its defence capability initiatives. But some of the features of that $20 billion plan over the next dozen or more years, which comprise New Zealand’s largest defence capital program since the Vietnam War era, cannot be justified by these local preoccupations.

For sure, maritime surveillance is going to be needed for the Pacific, New Zealand EEZ and Southern Ocean missions. But not the level at which the P3 Orions are being updated (to say nothing of their most likely replacements in the form of P8s). Similarly while New Zealand may need ocean going vessels of a frigate size for some of these local missions, it is really only when one thinks about missions in Asian and global maritime domains that the current upgrades to the ANZACs (and any thought of replacing frigates with frigates) really make sense.

In many ways the Defence of New Zealand finally makes strategic sense for this country. To some extent the Pacific-New Zealand-Antarctic triumvirate is not unlike Australia’s northern maritime approaches argument.

But there is still a gap. Australia’s old maritime sweet-spot, enhanced by concerns about the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific, is readily available to argue for Canberra’s biggest and most expensive purchases. The same does not quite go for New Zealand’s advertised thinking in 2016.

Dealing with that tension will require ongoing attention beyond the Key government’s new White Paper.


Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, where he is based at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He is an Honorary Professor with the New Zealand Defence Force Command and Staff College.


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