The Government has signed off the $1 billion-plus purchase of five new C-130J aircraft, bypassing a tender process, but citing the need for "proven" reliability in a "critical" defence capability.
Defence Minister Ron Mark made the announcement alongside the release of New Zealand's Defence Capability Plan, which lays out more than $20 billion in planned spending - detailing timelines and expected budgets for major new pieces of military hardware.
The like-for-like replacement of the ageing C-130 Hercules aircraft - with its latest reincarnation - is the most urgent priority in the plan. The airforce operates five C-130 Hercules. It took delivery of the first three Hercules in 1965, and a further two in 1969.
But the move to purchase without tender could face criticism, given the size of the spend and the C-130J was only one of several potentially viable options.
National Party defence spokesman Mark Mitchell said he disagreed with the move to bypass the tender process, however the Capability Plan was broadly a good one.
The Lockheed manufactured C-130 aircraft are used by the defence force, for passenger and cargo movement in support of combat, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations. It's used across the Pacific, Antarctica and further afield.
Those planes were expected to be in service by 2023, and the Government would enter into negotiations with the US Government to determine a price.
A BIGGER, MORE AGILE, DEFENCE FORCE
But it was only one purchase in the new Defence Capability Plan, which lays out the Government's planned spend out to 2030, against New Zealand's defence priorities in the Pacific, Antarctica, New Zealand's own territory and overseas military deployments.
The plan also signals moves to bolster the army with a total of 6000 infantry men and women, by 2035. That signalled the defence force's expectation it would be required to respond to multiple incidents at once - more likely as a result of climate change, than any other reason.
But the Government's purchasing intentions also pointed to rising tensions between competing super powers, resource competition and plays for military dominance in the region and further abroad.
New Zealand's military had to be able to meet international obligations with coalition partners, and the Government expected the defence force to operate in the South Pacific on the same level it does in New Zealand territory. It would be a key plank of supporting the Government's Pacific Reset.
New Zealand has one of the largest exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the world - covering 11 per cent of the Earth's surface. Together with Australia, the territorial responsibilities of both countries spanned 20 per cent of the world's surface.
Mark said significant investment in Navy equipment would see the purchase of an Enhanced Sealift Vessel to complement HMNZS Canterbury.
An additional vessel scheduled to replace Canterbury would be purchased in the mid-2030s at a cost of more than $1b - maintaining a two vessel sealift fleet.
To complement recently confirmed P-8A Poseidons planes, the Government would also invest in maritime satellite surveillance in 2025, and "Long Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" - or military drones - after 2030.
Replacements are also planned for the Maritime Helicopter and Offshore Patrol Vessel fleets in the long-term. Plans to replace the frigates, which near the end of their life in the mid-2020s - have been pushed out to to the 2030s, having recently undergone a costly systems upgrade.
With the new equipment, and also a stronger emphasis on space and satellite capability, there would also need to be a boost to intelligence personnel and cyber security and support capabilities.
The army was set to get a range of new vehicles, including replacements for the roundly criticised LAV III combat vehicles, and the light operational Pinzgauers.
The Capability Plan also indicated a shift in priority to protect New Zealand's burgeoning space industry, and plans for a "Wide Band Global Satellite Communications" - or GPS - post-2030.
The release of the capability plan comes just a day after the Prime Minister announced a phased drawdown of troops in Iraq; New Zealand just has 95 non-combat troops at a US military base at Taji, who are now expected to be brought home by June 30, next year.
New Zealand has had a joint-training mission in Iraq with Australia since 2015, all part of the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve.
New Zealand's presence in Afghanistan would remain for at least another 18 months, although with a new focus.
The number of NZDF personnel deployed in Afghanistan will decrease from 13 to 11, comprising six personnel deployed to the Officer Academy, two personnel within RSM Headquarters and potentially up to three focusing on Women, Peace and Security and reconciliation and reintegration.
"This plan maintains the envelope of $20 billion of investment in the Defence Force out to 2030, with $5.8 billion having already been committed since 2014," said Mark.
"However, we have significantly recalibrated the Plan to provide the capabilities necessary to meet the challenges identified in the Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018.
"It also identifies priority investments to support the Coalition Government's foreign policy objectives relating to the Pacific Reset and the impacts of the climate crisis."
At it's heart, it was a "humanitarian plan", Mark said.
"It readies New Zealand to lead in the assistance of our neighbours, and to contribute to the security of our friends in the Pacific."
The capability plan is a key document laying out spending, strategy and direction to 2030 and slightly beyond. But it is largely in keeping with its predecessors; the 2016 Defence White Paper and last year's Defence Strategic Policy Statement.
PURCHASES IN THE BAG
Tuesday's announcement of a new fleet of C-130J aircraft may not be surprising, but questions have been raised over whether the purchase should go to tender.
However, the plane's reliability is well-known and the need for "inter-operability" with other partners is also a consideration. Australia has flown the C-130J since 1999 but has only extended a maintenance deal to 2024.
The aircraft are used by the defence force, for passenger and cargo movement in support of combat, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations.
Mark said the C-130J had necessary range and payload capability "as well as fully meeting NZDF's requirements".
While the competing Brazilian-designed KC-390 could travel further, faster and carry more, it was a new aircraft and not yet tested.
"We need a proven performer, and this aircraft is tried and tested. We cannot take risks with what is one of our most critical military capabilities," he said.
No final contract decision has been made however, on either platform numbers, detailed costs, or funding and Budget implications. A Project Implementation Business Case for the C-130J would go to Cabinet next year.
In July last year, Cabinet signed off the purchase of four new P8 Poseidons - maritime surveillance aircraft capable of taking out submarines. They would replace the to replace surveillance aircraft P3 Orions. This year's Budget set aside $2.3b for that purchase.
Among various roles, the Poseidons would support maritime surveillance, humanitarian aid and disaster response, and resource protection around NZ and in the South Pacific.
They would also be capable of participation in global peace and security operations. A large focus of New Zealand's foreign policy and defence policy is supporting the international rules based order.
And last week, The Prime Minister commissioned a $100 million 85-metre diving support and hydrographic survey vessel, into service. Mark said it was one of the most technologically advanced ships of its kind, in the Southern Hemisphere.