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Defence White Paper 2016 – What does it mean for future capability?

Line of Defence, Nov 2016

Airbus A400MAirbus A400M


Dr Peter Greener, Senior Fellow at Victoria University Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies breaks the New Zealand 2016 Defence White Paper down into possible capability purchases.


After a number of delays, the Defence White Paper 2016 was released on 8 June. In the main the White Paper received a good deal of cross-party support, with Labour’s Defence spokesperson Phil Goff commenting, “While the White Paper says there is no foreseeable military threat to New Zealand in the next 25 years, we nevertheless need an effective Defence Force. According to Goff, “much of what the Government is intending to spend is simply catch up.” 

Even Green Party co-leader James Shaw said that his party recognises “defence spending is expensive and a lot of our equipment is outdated and we want to make sure our people have the best equipment they can and that they are as safe as possible”.

However, there was criticism leveled at the lack of detail given about future capability with Goff saying, “The White Paper is essentially a series of general statements which add little to what we already know about the Defence Force.  In failing to disclose any real decisions about capital asset purchase or strengthening personnel, it adds little of value.”

Whilst the White Paper may itself have been short on detail about just what those capabilities will be replaced with, the Cabinet Papers released some two weeks later, coupled with the information from the previous Defence Mid-Point Rebalancing Review (DMMR), provide some significant clues as to what may be on the horizon.

Perhaps the clearest indication of what will be replaced is provided by the Capability Factsheet that accompanied the White Paper.

Looking here solely at the most expensive fleets that will need replaced, the first mentioned in the Capability Factsheet is the replacement of the strategic airlift capability, currently provided by the C-130 and Boeing 757 aircraft. Cabinet papers note that the air transport fleet will be replaced in the early 2020s with like-for-like replacements. This then rather limits what future fleets might look like.


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In considering a like-for-like replacement for the 757s, commercial customers in the United States - American Airlines, Delta and United - have been replacing their 757s with Airbus A321s, which have a similar capacity with lower running costs. There are a number available on the used market, often at favorable pricing. With Air New Zealand flying a fleet of A320s, maintenance issues may be easier than with the 757s.

When it comes to replacing the tactical airlift capability provided by the C-130s, it seems for many air forces that the best replacement for a Hercules is another Hercules.

Whilst the Brazilian aerospace firm Embraer had optimistic hopes for the future of its Hercules C-130J competitor, the twin jet-engine KC-390, it has yet to receive a firm order even from the Brazilian air force. The Airbus A400M cannot be considered like-for-like with the Hercules, with greater a capacity and price tag, though it was previously a possibility for replacing the B757s. However, with ongoing development problems and continuing delays in production, even existing customers such as France and Germany are considering buying more C-130Js.

Does this mean that C-17s are off the agenda? Apparently not. Cabinet papers note that “the C-17 is the only aircraft available that offers a proven capability to undertake Antarctic passenger and cargo flights without a ‘point of safe return’”, and officials are to review this capability at the time of the next mid-point review. Whilst there is now only one new ‘white tail’ aircraft available, two USAF squadrons of C-17s have recently become inactivated, leaving sixteen aircraft no longer in use.

Air surveillance is the next capability for renewal, and the Cabinet papers highlight that with the changes in the strategic environment the challenge of undertaking concurrent air surveillance operations at home and overseas had been underestimated in the DMRR. The decision made then is to have an enhanced air surveillance capability, which will be highly valued by our security partners.

With Australia having been an integral partner with the US Navy during the design process of the Boeing P-8 Poseidon from its inception, and now having committed to purchasing fifteen aircraft, this would seem one area where New Zealand might join Australia with such a purchase.

Replacing the frigates is the last major multiple purchase, with Defence Minister Brownlee suggesting that a decision wouldn’t need to be made on these before 2025. The Australians have already shortlisted three European designers, BAE (Type 26), Fincantieri and Navantia, for their nine future frigates, but each of their designs is around 6,000 tonnes, almost twice the size of the ANZACS.

The Meko A-200, an enhanced version of the current ANZAC, could be a possible alternative.

There is however, now a new alternative. Whilst the Royal Navy was to have had thirteen new BAE Type 26 frigates, budget constraints have reduced that to eight. ‘At least’ another five light frigates are to be purchased, currently designated Type 31. A design the size of BMT’s Venator 110 (4,000 tonnes) has been mooted, and BAE has also produced concept proposals.

This is a ship type that could meet New Zealand’s needs for a combat frigate at substantially less cost than those proposed for Australia, with a timeline that could work. With both New Zealand ANZACs having just had a significant Platform Systems Upgrade, and each about to receive a major weapons enhancement, aiming for replacement around 2030 would seem quite possible.


Dr Peter Greener is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University Wellington. He is also an Honorary Professor and was previously Academic Dean at the Command and Staff College of the New Zealand Defence Force.


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