Defence Minister Peeni Henare says $525 million in new spending for ageing ships and aircraft will “keep the lights on” as the Defence Force rebuilds from the pandemic.
The Government allocated hundreds of millions in spending on defence assets, including buildings and infrastructure, as well as $90m to lift soldiers wages in the 2022 Budget, published last week.
The Defence Force has in the past year faced an “insidious” loss of capability, with aircraft grounded and ships mothballed due to maintenance requirements and insufficient staff. The issue has been compounded by a sharp rise in attrition, the result of a tight labour market and lengthy deployment guarding managed isolation hotels.
Henare said the spending in the 2022 Budget would “most definitely help ease the tension” felt by the Defence Force.
"We needed a strong regeneration plan. This year's Budget allows us to continue to be the force that we are, in response to HDAR [humanitarian and disaster relief] and other matters as we have over the past year or so.”
The Budget included $525m in new operational funding, spread across five years, to help maintain the existing fleet of aircraft and ships, as the Defence Force transitions to new Orion and Hercules aircraft that will arrive in the coming years.
"It is to keep the lights on, it is to make sure that they're serviced and serviceable, in order to allow our people to do the deployments that we ask them to,” Henare said.
A further $137m was allocated for depreciation expenses for defence buildings and infrastructure – some of this was to be spent on defence housing, Henare said.
Military families, facing a $100 a week rent hike in 2021, publicly complained about mouldy, damp, and leaky homes.
"It's going to be an improvement. But I'm very realistic about this, that's going to take time.”
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He said soldiers were not paid enough. The Government allocated $90m, spread across four years, to increase wages and retain “necessary skills”.
"Look, we're the Labour Party, and we want to make sure that those in our Defence Force are paid accordingly and appropriately.”
Henare had in the past year signalled the Labour Government would be seeking to direct funding towards rebuilding defence infrastructure and “grow our people capacity” – instead of pursuing major asset purchases.
An example of this came in March: the Ministry of Defence in quietly “deferred” the purchase of a Southern Ocean patrol vessel, expected to cost up to $600m and be delivered by 2027.
"If we look towards growing our asset base now and our platforms, we actually don't have the necessary skills and people to be able to man those assets,” Henare said.
“So it's important that we build it. And we've got to do that by improving pay conditions, and improving the infrastructure of our Defence Force to attract those people to be able to service these assets moving forward. And that'll be the case with any other future assets.”
A more sweeping rewrite of defence spending priorities appears to have been put on ice, however.
Henare had said the Government would need to redraft the former defence minister Ron Mark’s Defence Capability Plan, which laid out billions of dollars of acquisitions for the coming decades. It’s understood some policy work had been done on this.
But on Friday, Henare said there would be no new Labour Government defence capability plan.
“We’ve just had to look at it [the existing plan] with a different lens.”
China’s sought Pacific agreement
China has this week launched a major diplomatic bid to sign up 10 Pacific nations to a sweeping, multi-country security and economic agreement that could substantially alter relationships across the region.
Included in the agreement were provisions that would expand China’s involvement in humanitarian and disaster relief efforts in the region – a core part of the New Zealand Defence Force’s work.
Henare said he was yet to be fully briefed on developments as he had been travelling this week as part of the Government’s post-Budget roadshow.
He said New Zealand had proven capable at responding to humanitarian disasters in the Pacific, and regularly New Zealand spoke with Pacific countries to “reassure them that we’re here”.
The response to a volcanic explosion that rocked Tonga in December was a “classic example” of this, he said.
"We were the first ones there, by a long way, and we were hugely effective.”
China had claimed it was the first to respond to this disaster.