On 24 May 2021 the Secretary of Defence delivered a speech to the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs on the role of the Ministry of Defence and Secretary of Defence.
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.
Good evening and thank you for your warm welcome and for inviting me to be a part of this gathering of the Auckland Branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.
It is a real privilege to be here and to be able to talk about my reflections as the Government’s lead civilian adviser on Defence matters.
I won’t be talking about the Government’s defence policies today, because that is for the Minister of Defence to do going forward. But what I like to talk to you about is some of the personal observations I’ve made since taking up the role nearly two years ago. In particular I would like to talk about:
A. the work of the Ministry of Defence; and
B. what it really means when we talk about our role as the Government’s lead civilian advisor on Defence matters.
And finally I would like to finish with some observations from my term as Secretary so far.
I just want to start off by briefly saying that while I have been in the public sector for what seems like a thousand years, I have found in this role, as opposed to others, is just how phenomenally complex Defence really is. I think it’s something that is difficult to understand and to be honest it’s not something I truly understood when I came into this role. I will come to this later on in my presentation.
But I think whatever way you look at it, whether you look at it from a policy lens or a capability lens, Defence is really complex. It’s an area that I would say (with my background as a policy person) needs a lot more attention, understanding and study.
The work of the Ministry of Defence
So what does the Ministry of Defence do? Well it doesn’t have a huge profile but I think that is appropriate, because the profile should go to the incredible women and men of the New Zealand Defence Force, who ultimately execute the function of defence and put their lives at risk while they pursue the goals of New Zealand in the international arena, and more recently in the national arena in the Managed Isolation Facilities.
The Ministry of Defence is an organisation of about 170 people, currently staffed by professionals who have both public and private sector experience largely in the areas of project management, policy, corporate management and finance.
Over half of our staff are responsible for leading and delivering multiple multi-million dollar projects, to acquire military capability for the Defence Force. Currently, they have approximately $5.6 billion under active management and that includes the acquisition of capability ranging from the P8A Poseidon Aircraft and CJ130 Super Hercules Aircraft, to the Bushmaster vehicles, as well as modern communications systems for land force units. It really is a huge array of capability, from the hugely large to the small. And all are complex by nature.
We have a small staffing and financial baseline compared with other Government departments, but a disproportionally large capital budget, responsible for a substantial material component of the Government’s capital programme. Our baseline for the Ministry itself is around $20 million but the actual capital spend is $5.6 billion.
The Ministry’s authorising environment is set out in the Defence Act 1990, which sets out my role as the Secretary of Defence and the roles and functions that we as an agency are to perform.
At its very essence the Ministry of Defence is a civilian led agency.
The role of the Secretary of Defence, as set out in the Act is the principal civilian adviser to the government. It stipulates that the Secretary must formulate defence policy advice in consultation with the Chief of Defence Force, and submit “from time to time” a Defence Assessment to the Government.
This means a lot of our work is collaborative, forward-looking and strategic. When we talk about civilian control of the military, what we mean is Government Ministers. It is the appointed Government of the day that controls the Defence Force. Ministers decide where they go and what they do.
So, when we provide advice to Ministers, the Chief of Defence Force and the Secretary of Defence work as equal partners. Of course, I’m advising with a civilian lens and the Chief of Defence with a military lens. It’s not one dominating the other in any way. So what we aim for is that Ministers receive both sets of advice in relation to a particular issue, and then bring together the advice and their judgment there, in the Beehive.
Today I would particularly like to focus on our policy advisory and capability acquisition roles.
The Act stipulates that the Secretary of Defence is to undertake Defence Assessments every five years or so. We are currently writing a Defence Assessment, which will look at the broad strategic challenges facing New Zealand from a Defence lens, so we can inform Government of the strategic outlook from a Defence perspective.
While this work is not complete, it would be fair to say that many of the themes referred to in the 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement will remain at the forefront, and in particular climate change and geostrategic competition. The impacts of COVID-19 will of course be new, but play into the broader themes of resilience and small state vulnerability.
Trends of this kind place greater pressure on the Ministry of Defence and New Zealand Defence Force to balance resourcing, policy and capabilities, and to ensure the Defence Force is sized and equipped to deliver on the Government’s defence priorities. In looking at the broader strategic environment the Defence Assessment will examine the implications for defence policy settings, and provide a basis for a future analysis and decision on force structure. So the Defence Assessment will cover broadly: What are the challenges; What is the environment that Defence faces further down the track, with a more practical lens; And what does this mean for the Defence Force structure and capability, if required to respond to the challenges?
Under the Defence Act, the Ministry of Defence is also mandated to procure or repair major military equipment such as ships, vehicles and aircraft - Most of which is done in conjunction with our strategic partner the NZDF.
Indeed, at the moment we have a huge programme of capability delivery underway. Some $2.3 billion is being spent on the delivery of four P8 Poseidon aircraft, including a $250 million hangar and training facility. And another $1.8 billion on the delivery of five new Super Hercules, and a training facility and simulator. That’s just two examples of two big capability assets that we are working on. All of these projects are huge endeavours.
The complexity of these large scale projects is something that did take me by surprise when I first started in the Ministry. I cannot understate just how complex it is.
Defence acquisitions are full of complexity. It is an international phenomenon. There are volumes of writings about the unique nature of the platforms, and the very periodic tempo of the purchases. This is one of the challenges. Countries don’t often buy fleets of warships; or fighter planes; or Hercules every year. It is not like the car fleets they buy every year. Add to that the very limited number of vendors that can produce these high-end complex military hardware.
So because it is sporadic and not consistent these are some of the challenges. And because there is a small market, this contributes to why these capabilities are so expensive.
What we have done in this particular area of the organisation - capability acquisition – has been to look to amplify the aspects of civilian expertise that bring the disciplines of programme and project management, in order to minimise the risks of what is inherently a very challenging enterprise.
This has seen over a six year period a further professionalisation of our workforce, along with engaging more actively with industry and bringing on independent advisors to our Project Governance Boards, with extensive experience from the private sector. There are a number of layers in all of our capability acquisition programmes, culminating in a Capability Governance Board that is chaired by both the Chief of Defence Force and the Secretary of Defence. But through all of this, is a whole lot of project management and independent quality assurance, to minimise the risks of what is a very challenging project environment.
It is well known that better decisions are made when there is greater cooperation between organisations and sectors, with a broad range of skill sets and experience.
It is also the same for diversity in thought and knowledge, as it brings about stronger solutions and the changes that we have introduced in the way we manage large scale capability projects is evidence of this.
As part of an all-of-government “all hazards – all risks” approach, the Ministry also works closely with civilian agencies to make sure the defence equipment it acquires will be able to support and enable agencies when they carry out their functions. For example, when the Ministry writes a business case for a new ship, it is important we find out what the agencies might need in its design and capability. This is due in-part to the Navy and Air Force regularly supporting agencies, like the Department of Conservation or the Ministry for Primary Industries working in our Exclusive Economic Zone.
Projects of these magnitudes reinforce to me, in many regards, that the Ministry of Defence plays an important role in not only protecting and safeguarding New Zealand but also in advancing our interests overseas.
Defence advice to Government
I would now like to turn to the role we play in providing advice to the Government of the day for deploying Defence personnel and assets overseas on operations.
This past year alone, NZDF personnel have played a critical role in the national response to COVID-19, working tirelessly to secure our borders at managed isolation facilities across New Zealand.
They have also provided aerial surveillance of the damage done by Cyclone Harold to Vanuatu and Fiji, and delivered 30 tonnes of aid. In late 2019 they helped fight the Black Summer Bushfires in Australia, and worked with authorities to return the bodies of those tragically killed in the Whakaari White Island eruption to their loved ones. That same year, personnel delivered vaccines and other vital equipment to Samoa to support the measles epidemic response. And today, personnel are deployed in a number of operational theatres, from the Middle East to South Sudan and North Asia.
All of these New Zealanders are deeply committed to serving their country, working in peacekeeping, capacity building, intelligence, logistics, or maritime operations.
Their roles require skills, expertise, discipline, and equipment that the NZDF has at a size and scale I think unmatched by other organisations. In times of disaster, the NZDF is often called upon to support civilian agencies as they respond to these disasters.
The Government makes deployment decisions after considering advice from both civilian and military advisors. In this respect the role of the Ministry is very important – it leads on the analysis and advice to government on where our Defence Force personnel should be deployed to, why they should be deployed, and to what end.
The Defence Force also provides advice on whether they have the capabilities and resources to achieve the aims of the task the government is asking them to do. And there again you see the civilian and military split. As we would say, “The civilians say should we go, and the military asks can we go”.
Consultation with NZDF is critical across all of the above-mentioned roles, in order to ensure the government receives fully considered and developed policy analysis and advice.
I would also add that working in this role has required me to take the time to engage regularly with New Zealand Defence Force personnel, to better understand the business they are involved in (including learning a whole new set of acronyms!) and deconstructing at times very complex projects.
On a daily or weekly basis, I would meet with the Chief of Defence Force at least twice. Once for an hour-long meeting to catch up on things that are on our mind and key issues or projects we need to progress. And then once a week we meet before we visit the Minister of Defence. And then in addition to these regular catch ups we meet as needed, for more specific issues or reasons. The reason I’m describing this rhythm is to demonstrate the importance of working closely within the civilian and military partnership.
An important dynamic in this working relationship is constructive contestability and challenge, which helps to reflect the core principals of our public service: political neutrality, free and frank advice, open government, and stewardship.
Similarly, consultation with our international partners, and our colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the defence industry here in New Zealand and overseas ensures that defence policy advice draws on a broad range of perspectives.
Some personal observations
Finally, I would like to finish with some very personal observations in my short time in the role. They are in no particular order and, as stated in the beginning, because they are personal they may not have the coherency you are looking for, but I hope they will be thought provoking.
Firstly, our relationship with conflict – because at the end of the day it is the worst case scenario, and this is what the Defence Force is combat capable for. Conflict is complex and like many facets of humanity, it is untidy. There is something about the nature of conflict which I don’t think we fully understand. We don’t fully understand it, because we don’t want to spend time reflecting on it, because ultimately conflict is awful.
I think many people view conflict as the result of a total absence of maturity and ability to reason, to see and understand differences, in order to resolve tensions peacefully. But it is clearly not as simple as that. Conflict is problematic at a number of levels.
Firstly, its relationship with humanity. Conflict has been with us since Cain & Abel. As Margaret MacMillan, the Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Oxford noted, “War remains fundamental to questions about what it is to be human and about the essence of human society. Does war bring out the bestial side of human nature or the best? As with so much to do with war, we cannot agree.”
Secondly, conflict is a particularly problematic area in which to develop and formulate public policy. It does not have the evidence, hallmarks, and predictability of so many other areas of Government concern and responsibility. This is best summed up by Hugh White, the Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, when he said, “War remains one of the most puzzling and unpredictable aspects of human behavior… There are few hard facts to work with, so we must rely on our judgements about things that are at best uncertain, and sometimes quite unknowable.”
On this philosophical and historical dilemma I will conclude with two thoughts:
The first from Margaret MacMillan:
“We cannot ignore war and its impact on the development of human society, if we hope to understand our world and how we reached this point in history.”
The second is to say, regardless of how intertwined conflict is with the history of humanity, and regardless of how inevitable we may think conflict will be in the future of humanity, the primary goal of Defence must always be to pursue peace.
My third observation is about ‘friends’, and new friends.
Small countries need friends. It is an enduring principle of how small countries protect themselves. For New Zealand in WWII friends were very important.
New Zealand has long relied on its traditional friends of Australia, United States, United Kingdom and Canada and will continue to do so. But also an increasing group of friends in South East Asia. What I have found is that countries like Singapore, Japan and Vietnam in the North, and Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea in the south, provide hugely valuable insights into the strategic challenges that we face today. I have found their insights, reflections and nuanced views very helpful when navigating the world that we’re in.
Finally, I think the Ministry of Defence and New Zealand Defence Force are going to need to explain more clearly to the public, why we are here, what we do, how we add value, and when we deploy why we deploy.
New Zealand is one of the most isolated countries in the world. We are a trading nation dependent on freedom of navigation and the international rules based order. Therefore protecting our security interests can be done in a variety of different places right around the world. But what I think is important is that to retain and build on the social licence of New Zealanders, we need to put more effort into describing how Defence protects New Zealand.
And lastly tonight, I do want to pay tribute to the women and men of the Defence Force. I have had the privilege of meeting them and observing them in remote places such as Iraq, Sinai, Qatar, Bahrain, as well as at home in their camps. I am extremely impressed by their professionalism, their focus, their drive, and their selflessness. We can and we should be very proud of them.
Thank you for taking the time to come and listen to be this evening, I hope you have found it of some interest and value.