Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal, Kevin Short

In a surprisingly frank admission yesterday, the Chief of the Defence Force said only three elements of our armed forces were capable of being deployed to what he called “high threat environments.”

His comments about the limitations of New Zealand’s defence force came in front of a Parliamentary Committee which had just been told that the Russia-Ukraine standoff was one of the most significant risks to international security since the end of the Cold War.

“The Defence Force has three high-end military capabilities with which to respond in what I call a high threat environment,” Air Marshal Kevin Short told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee.

“One of those is obviously the frigates; one of them is the P-3 Orion, and the other is the NZD SAS.”

But only one of the two frigates, Te Kaha, is fully operational at present, with the other, Te Mana, undergoing a refit in Canada and not expected back until July.

Short said the rest of the Navy’s fleet were not really warfighting ships.

“They don’t have the systems onboard for redundancy and fighting in what I call a combat zone or damage control,” he said.

“And so our other ships are very good for patrols, presence and delivery of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief;  but they can’t go into a high threat.”

Short said the frigates would also be needed to protect HMNZS Canterbury, which can transport troops and helicopters.

“For instance, on a deployment where you could have hundreds of soldiers and airmen providing helicopter support and landing systems, you would have a vulnerable ship unless it had that protection from a frigate.

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“For me, it’s a very important platform for allowing us to operate when we want to operate.”

The 2019 Defence Capability Plan calls for decisions on replacing the frigates to be made in the 2030s, but last August, the Secretary of Defence told  the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that some projects in the plan might need to be “pushed out a bit.”

Short’s comments yesterday would seem to underline a  concern that there may be a reluctance on the part of the Government to apply any urgency to replacing the frigates, which plainly he believes are the critical element in the country’s defence force.

The Air Marshal cited the deployment of Te Kaha to South East Asia last October as an example of the role the frigates played in supporting New Zealand’s foreign policy.

“It showed our presence and willingness to look at the security issues that go with Southeast Asia,” he said.

“And it’s a fighting platform which is called on by not just the Five Eyes, but it’s respected as far as providing security and in the South-East Asia region.

“We made sure that the upgrade meant that it had a very good offensive and defensive capability that would see us working alongside any of our partners.

“And that’s really important for showing a willingness to play a role in global security and international laws.”

The Air Marshal made his comments on global security after the Committee had been briefed by the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Chris Seed, on the current international situation.

And Seed emphasised that Defence and the Ministry were “joined-up” when it came to providing the Government with security advice.

“Ultimately for the advice that the New Zealand system puts to ministers and then cabinet around national security issues. There are strong expectations and lots of architecture which supports that being very joined up,” he said.

“So to use the example of the recent defence assessment, we as a Foreign Ministry were closely engaged with our defence colleagues and understanding the views that they got to in providing advice to Government on where the assessment landed and discussing with them and with ministers how that would be communicated to partners both traditional and new.

“Obviously, agencies don’t always have precisely the same view of the world, but that is the benefit of the system we have.

“We’re able to bring a diversity of view, and ultimately ministers can make decisions about where they land in an operational sense.”

Seed said the Russia-Ukraine standoff was one of the most significant security challenges and risks to international peace and security since the end of the Cold War.

New Zealand had been pursuing a range of diplomatic activities to try and understand the situation there.

“The Prime Minister has spoken to the president of the European Commission,” he said.

“The foreign minister has been conducting a range of engagements, the last one only last night (Wednesday) with the UK secretary of state and she’s spoken to her Australian colleague; her Canadian colleague; her Japanese colleague and her Ukrainian colleague.”

Seed said the Ministry was seeking a (virtual) meeting between Foreign Minister Nanaia and the Russian foreign minister.

“We’ve spoken to the Russian ambassador here; we’ve sent our ambassador in Moscow in (to the Foreign Ministry), and we’ve sent our ambassador from Warsaw to Ukraine.

War in Europe of any sort was of no benefit to New Zealand, he said.

But the events in the Ukraine and the franks comments from the Chief of the Defence Force were a reminder to the Committee that the stakes in foreign policy are very high — even for New Zealand.