NZ military switching to a Pacific focused amphibious strategy | Pacific Beat

NZ military switching to a Pacific focused amphibious strategy

NZ military switching to a Pacific focused amphibious strategy

Updated 13 September 2013, 11:37 AEST

New Zealand's military is moving towards an amphibious based strategy as it shifts its focus to the south west Pacific.

By 2015 the Defence Force aims to have a Joint Amphibious Task Force, with much closer cooperation between the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, the Chief of New Zealand's Defence Force, told Bruce Hill the Pacific faces many potential threats, and the military has to change the way it works in order to be able to operate effectively in the region.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Speaker: Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, New Zealand Chief of Defence Force

JONES: Yes the aim is to get people to start thinking about joint operations right from their first days in the military and to say they know army, navy or airforce could operate by itself, but we've got to be able to work together. So it starts off with having our forces structured to be able to work together, so our army unit's designed to be packed up and put inside aircraft, and our ships and the aircraft practice and used to loading, transporting, off-loading and supporting their army resources, or air and navy forces working together.
HILL: Back in the 18th and 19th centuries every Royal Navy ship would have a detachment of royal marines aboard it, we're sort of getting back to that sort of thing of making sure that soldiers learn how to live aboard ships and that soldiers and sailors almost to some extent are interchangeable?
JONES: Yes to some extent it is like that, and even more deliberately kind of army-navy joint operations were quite a scene around the turn of the late 17th to 1800s, so military forces have always worked together. But marine corps forces in terms of a far more capable design of equipment and their style of operation are really coming to the fore now.
HILL: What kind of missions would the New Zealand defence force undertake if it's got this joint amphibious taskforce? What kind of threats might the defence force be expected to operate against in the South Pacific region?
JONES: In the strategy that we're developing we recognise that there are two major areas of operation that have different requirements. In the south west Pacific region that's where New Zealand really has an obligation to react and to support the Pacific Island countries to work in partnership with them to try and solve issues, mainly disaster relief or humanitarian assistance. And in that regard where it's quite feasible that New Zealand may act alone, or we may be the lead nation for this and other nations are contributing to this. We have to have everything in that machinery of operation to be able to conduct an operation. So for our south west Pacific region we need to have everything that we need for that, be it logistics, command and control, the transport ships, the forces that will go ashore to do the support operations. But if we're operating further afield where perhaps the level of threat or the type of operations are a bit more sophisticated, then we will actually be a little bit more choosy as to what we send. And it's not necessarily an integrated package we'd send, but it might be for example our infantry operating off an Australian amphibious ship, or our helicopters operating off an American or a Singaporean ship, or our frigates operating in support of an Australian-led naval convoy. So as long as we understand how to work in that amphibious environment at a much higher level, then our individual pieces can contribute to that. But the bottom line is the things in our south west Pacific where it's mainly national support, disaster relief, we need to be able to provide everything in that contingency.
HILL: The New Zealand defence force has a lot of experience working with humanitarian relief in the wake of cyclones, tsunamis and other disasters. What about actual potential military threats in the south west Pacific?
JONES: There's very little threats at the moment. If there is a military contingency it's more to evacuate people from places rather than to go and fight. Although there are contingencies that we need to be aware of, they are pretty low probability. So we need to be able to do those but they're not going to be high end high sophisticated military operations, they're more stability operations, constabulary style operations and support of law and order. And so our ability to deploy an amphibious taskforce, we'll have to be able to do that to support governments rather than to fight military conflicts in the region. If something more deadly or more sophisticated arrives, then we'll be working with a coalition of other countries as well.
HILL: If I give you a case in point about how sometimes even talking about military operations or sending military units to do one particular job can be misconstrued, I'm remembering in particular 2006 when the Australians sent a ship up towards Fiji for the potential task of evacuating Australian civilians if the coup turned nasty and unforeseen things happened. Everyone I've spoken to in Fiji interpreted that as some kind of a threat, and they simply didn't believe that it was a very potential humanitarian evacuation mission. So even talking about these things can sometimes be misinterpreted as more aggressive than they're actually meant can't they?
JONES: Yes they can and that's where the politics of the military is quite sensitive. But one of our major platforms, our strategy platforms is to work in partnership with the Pacific Island countries. So a good example of how we're doing that is we're running a series of exercises over the next few years. This year we're running one called Southern Katipo where the Tongan and Papua New Guinean military are participating in that. So they start to understand how we operate, we can then get them engaged in our military mechanisms so that they can be part of an e-task force in the future, and they also understand well we're not here to create a force that's designed to impose our will on other countries. We're designed to work with other countries to handle the real situations that they are facing, which are mainly the law and order or nation building, nation systems, their ability to be able to control their territories or react to disasters in the region. So you're having that familiarity about what we're doing and building up the trust by continual operating with militaries, but mainly police forces or customs forces in the region. It does get that greater level of understanding and remove that uncertainty or that mistrust.
HILL: A modern military needs a lot of very expensive technical equipment and it needs to position itself and organise itself in such a way that it's effective, but the bottom line of a modern military is almost people skills, because you've got to do public relations, you've got to do people-to-people work, a lot of it's not straightforward just military stuff and shooting people, it's about dealing with humanitarian disasters and lots of civilian people. And the bottom line for that is you've got to have the right people, not just the equipment. Is this something that the New Zealand defence force has learned from deployments say to East Timor and Solomon Islands, that people skills are just as important as equipment?
JONES: Yeah and a large part of our philosophy is that the people skills are the core that differentiates us from other militaries, I know many other militaries have that same view, but I think for a small country like New Zealand we can't bring mass large forces to a situation. So the quality of our people, both in the training, but also the affinity to the problem or the ability to relate to those and the population of the countries we're moving into is very important. That's something I think New Zealand can be proud of that we do pretty well. And it's also part of our wider strategy, it's not just about having a reaction force that deploys from New Zealand and goes somewhere. The amphibious taskforce is part of a wider strategy about routine day-to-day engagements in the region. So we understand people, we've got personal links, but we also understand the environment and the nature of the culture, and that's always going to be important no matter where we operate, in the Pacific, in central Afghanistan and Africa in a UN mission. That's really primary to how we operate as a military.
HILL: Does the New Zealand defence force have a good relationship with the Pacific? Does it understand the Pacific pretty well?
JONES: Yeah we have a good relationship. We've had to focus elsewhere to a large extent for our army for the last decade. But our navy, airforce and army have been in the Pacific, in the Solomon Islands and further afield in East Timor. We do regular exercises through the region, Tropic Twilight is an exercise we have every year, which is about nation building, so we put engineers or medical people throughout the Pacific. We work with the Americans in other countries with a Pacific partnership exercise, which is mainly medical relief. So year we've got a good presence in the Pacific, but we can always improve and we always strive to improve. And we always are very keen to work with and learn from those Pacific militaries or police forces that are far more professional or are dealing with those circumstances on a day-to-day basis.


Bruce Hill

Bruce Hill


Bruce is one of the Pacific’s most experienced journalists with nearly 20 years covering the region and has won several international awards.

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