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Defence short-changed as decisions delayed

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2018

An RAAF P8 Poseidon. Source: Australian Government.An RAAF P8 Poseidon. Source: Australian Government.

 

Hon Mark Mitchell, National Party Spokesperson for Defence, writes that the recent Budget indicates major defence procurements, such as the P8 Poseidon programme, are facing an uncertain and slow-motion future.

 

When I came into Opposition I made it very clear to the Minister of Defence Ron Mark, that I would support him in making sure he advanced the critical investment that the Defence Force needs around capability and infrastructure requirements. 

We are in an increasingly complex and challenging global environment that places greater demands on our Defence Force, and we owe it to them to ensure they have the right equipment to do their job - whether that’s close to home here in New Zealand and the Asia Pacific region, or further abroad as we work with our partners towards stability in places like the Middle East and Africa.  

The key to ensuring Defence is able to deliver on the operations they are tasked with, is to continually invest in personnel, property, and equipment. The Budget should reflect this. 

National’s time in Government saw the development of a $20 billion Defence Capability Plan, which was supported by an almost billion dollar funding boost in Budget 2017/18. 

This included provisions for new initiatives including advancing a cyber security support capability, the Littoral Operations and Frigate Systems Upgrades, and wider investment into modernised and more efficient systems.

In contrast, this year’s Budget delivered little for Defence. Yes, there have been increases in operational funding for Defence, however much of this is routine and in line with forecasts, based on the expectations we have for Defence, and annual changes in personnel. However, what was noticeably absent in this year’s Budget was any provision for the much needed replacement of the P3 Orion. 

The P3 Orion has been an outstanding and reliable workhorse for our Royal New Zealand Air Force and our nation for over half a century. However, they are quickly reaching the end of their service life and all available upgrades have been exhausted. It’s time to give them an honourable and much deserved retirement. 

The American Congress wrote last year saying it was last orders for the P8 Poseidon under the military sales programme. The P8 Poseidon would be an outstanding replacement for the P3, as it would both increase our own capability and close the capability gap with our partners, in addition to providing the interoperability that we need when deploying and working with our partners overseas. 

As the former Minister of Defence, I had a comprehensive work programme underway with the objective of obtaining support within Cabinet to purchase four P8s. This had included formal meetings and briefings with the Prime Minister, Finance Minister, and Treasury officials to formulate a plan on how to book the cost; work was well underway. 

 

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Yes it’s a big investment and came a bit earlier than expected, however I was fully committed and confident we would procure the P8s.  

I want to acknowledge the support from our partners, including US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who ensured the working relationship between our respective Ministry’s was strong and gave both teams the space to develop a very good plan together. 

Unfortunately, the recent Budget indicated this process had stalled. We're now nine months into the new Government. This was a priority decision and should have been through the Cabinet process by March of this year, but was nowhere to be seen in the Budget. 

The absence was likely a huge blow for those in our Defence Force, who were no doubt anticipating seeing provision in the Budget for the procurement of the P8s. The personnel in our Defence Forces rightfully have the expectation that they will be supported by the Government and that they will be given the best possible equipment.  

It’s disappointing, but there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Mr Mark indicated at the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Estimates Hearing this month that he was now preparing Cabinet papers, and we should have an answer by July. 

When pressed on his level of confidence in being able to deliver a result, his repeated response was to ‘buckle up our seatbelts, put the phone on flight mode, and fasten the tray tables.’ This seemed more appropriate from an Air New Zealand flight attendant rather than the Minister of Defence. 

It does raise the question that if Mr Mark is delivering the inflight safety brief, who’s flying the plane? 

We should know the answer to that by July.

 

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