OPINION: Josh Wineera is a recently retired lieutenant colonel from the Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery. He is a former military attaché, Massey University lecturer in defence studies, and is an expert in training foreign military forces.
“Talk softly and carry a big stick,” said United States president Theodore Roosevelt, referring to a foreign policy of peaceful negotiations but having military strength should things go wrong.
In Ukraine, things have gone wrong and three months into its war against Russia, military power is the chosen stick to repel Vladimir Putin’s invasion force.The New Zealand Government’s decision to send an artillery team to train Ukrainian forces is a big-stick option – indirectly.
The previous support of logistics, liaison, open-sourced intelligence, and monetary donations were no doubt very welcome to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Both he and his commander-in-chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, would be further appreciative of the artillery training his land forces will now receive.
As a previous commander of a mechanised brigade, Zaluzhnyi would be well versed in combined-arms fighting with armour, infantry and artillery. The Ukrainian artillery strike that destroyed a large Russian force attempting to cross the Siverskyi Donets River earlier this month is a stark example of this intense firepower. When conditions are right, the Ukrainian strategy will turn from defence to offence, a deliberate counter-offensive to push back the Russians in occupied territory, which will most definitely feature artillery.
In terms of foreign and defence policy, this deployment is a smart move by the Government. The contribution of a training team on hard-power military equipment, located in the safe United Kingdom, has no risk to the soldiers themselves, yet elevates New Zealand’s standing as a serious defender of international rules and sovereignty.
Nato and the US will be pleased by this latest contribution and both Defence Minister Peeni Henare and Chief of Defence Force Kevin Short will enjoy the praise from counterparts.
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A sensible question would be how adept is the New Zealand Defence Force in training foreign military forces? The answer is very, and for more than 70 years.
Most recently, in 2015, a different prime minister, supported by a different defence minister and a different Defence Force chief, announced a non-combat training mission to Iraq, to build Iraqi capacity to combat Islamic State. By any measure that mission, alongside the Australian Defence Force, was a success, with IS defeated and more than 47,000 Iraqis trained.
In Linton Military Camp, there will be a buzz for those who have been selected to deploy. There would have been no shortage of volunteers. After two years of essentially being security guards at MIQ facilities, the opportunity to pivot back towards war-fighting tradecraft is immeasurable.
As stoic professionals, the army will be sending its top team, with both technical gunnery and cultural competency skills. There would be quiet satisfaction among the ranks, too, that occasional calls to disband the army’s artillery L119 howitzer capability have been resisted.
Long term, however, Henare and his ministry will need to assess whether the Budget 2022 allocation to the Defence Force is sufficient to maintain the country’s artillery capabilities. The howitzer was designed in the 1960s, fielded in combat in the 1970s and clearly remains a critical capability even today.
So what next for New Zealand’s support to the Ukrainian fight for survival? Is there a next step? That will depend on the proceeding phase of combat and any further requests to the Government.
For now, the settings are about right. The evaluation of the artillery training by the Ukrainian armed forces in their forthcoming battles will be the only measure that counts.