WELLINGTON, New Zealand ― Ron Mark, 64, serves as New Zealand’s minister of defense and minister of veterans.
Before he took on these responsibilities, he served in the joined the New Zealand Army as a mechanic, having joined the service in the early 1970s. In 1978, he became as a second lieutenant. Refused permission by his corps to join the New Zealand Special Air Service, he went on to spend more than four years with the special forces unit of the Sultan of Oman’s defense force.
He entered Parliament in 1996 and has remained a New Zealand First party politician. When the News Zealand First party, the Greens and the Labour Party formed a coalition government in October 2017, Mark was appointed to his current ministerial duties.
Defense News caught up with the minister, who manages a 14,500-strong force, to discuss major military systems, regional security and budgetary priorities to ensure the country’s security.
When you became minister, what startled and surprised you?
The New Zealand Defence Force is not the same organization that I left in 1985. Getting my head around new acronyms and new structures and organizations was a first step; being confronted with my first Cabinet paper, which talked about $109 million blowout in the Anzac frigate upgrade project was probably not the most ideal way to start off my time as the minister of defense.
You have been critical of defense spending.
I’ve been probably the harshest critic of successive government for the last 20-odd years over military procurement and projects and the way in which they’re managed. Probably the big one for me was the light armored vehicle replacement project, which started at around $92 million and ended up in the region of $540-$570 million.
[Now] I get to play a role in restructuring and shaping our defense force for the next 30-40 years.
I would like to provide the men and women of our defense force with equipment that doesn’t let them down and a funding stream that is as politically secure as I can possibly make it. So if there’s a change in government, there will not be a fundamental shift from the plan that we lay down.
What needs to happen regarding defense procurement?
We signaled in the coalition negotiations, [that] we have a commitment to a $15 billion capability plan. For that to happen you have to re-look at the 2016 Defence White Paper and [confirm] that the strategic picture that we’re focused on is accurate. A whole bunch of stuff has happened since [the whitepaper] that should give us cause for greater concern.
One thing is glaringly obvious and that stood out for me when I visited Antarctica in December 2017 — climate change. It astonishes me that probably we haven’t really looked at what climate change means for defense. From a military perspective, we need to be aware of what it is going to do to New Zealand’s infrastructure and the economy.
What does a rise in the sea level mean to our naval facilities? Anything or nothing? If we’re looking at relocating our ships, what do we have to factor in? We know there is going to be a heavy impact on the [South Pacific] island nations. The number of unpredictable catastrophes requiring us to deploy on eight-hour operations is increasing, and it is only going to increase.
You are now having to start thinking about internally displaced people and internationally displaced people. What are the risks that come with that? All I see is more resources, more money, more deployments, more personnel, more platforms and increased capability. If nothing else, that underlines the importance of maintaining the capabilities we have today and improving on them.
It’s not just from a war-fighting perspective; increasingly it’s going to be in the civil-assistance and disaster-relief space. If we’re not kitted for it, then people lose their lives and the road to rescue and recovery will be a hell of a lot harder, longer and more costly.
We need to ensure that we have the capability to deliver projects on time, in budget, to spec. In terms of project management, we’re half a light year ahead of where we used to be, but we need to be better. I want to know that we are not flying off on a tangent, introducing into service something that looks good, is priced well, but in actual fact in terms of its whole of life is a damned disaster and, by the way, is an orphan child and isn’t interoperable. It may not be the prettiest tool on the block, but it damn well better be the best.
Two reviews are in train right now. We’re looking at May to finish [reviewing] the whitepaper; the Treasury-led review is August, and then the capability plan in October.
You have previously suggested a strategic review for every four years, rather than every five years.
Well, whitepapers should be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still current. The world is changing fast. Not a day goes by when we are not reminded of our vulnerability to cyberattacks. Maybe four years is too long in hindsight.
You have frequently advocated doubling the defense budget to 2 percent of GDP. Are you still promoting that?
It’s New Zealand First policy, has been for many, many years. Labour’s fully aware of our view on defense expenditure, but right now we have a coalition agreement which commits to the capability plan within the context of the $15 billion, and I am going to take that as a win!
What are your priorities?
Right now, this whitepaper review. And there were some things that had to be dealt with very quickly. The Anzac frigates upgrade had to be dealt with immediately; the first frigate is in Canada now, so that project’s kicked off. Unfortunately that meant we also had to address the littoral capability, and I’ve sadly just attended the decommissioning of the [diving and mine countermeasures support ship] Manawanui. We already have a solution to restore that essential capability.
We’ve got decisions around the P-3K2 Orion replacement to make, and we will focus on that. But for the bigger picture, the capability review is the one.
Are there plans to replace the defense headquarters broken by the November 2016 earthquake?
Yeah, that’s already in train, that’s being run by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, but there are big issues there around real estate regeneration. It disappoints me to be walking through the Ministry of Defence barracks that I was in as a 20-year-old soldier that still look exactly the damn same.
When you consider the expectations of young men and women these days, particularly the military where they are going to be accommodated by their employer, their expectations are a lot different [than] when I was a young guy. I didn’t have all of the toys that young people like to accrue for their hobbies, all the stuff that they would have at home. The living conditions that they enjoy should be enjoyed. They shouldn’t be a burden, they shouldn’t be onerous, they shouldn’t be archaic, they shouldn’t be falling apart.
We’ve still got some barracks that were built for the Second World War; they do not measure up to the new earthquake standards. Some of the reticulation systems that feed and support those barracks and messing facilities are falling apart.
We’re looking at $1.25 billion in terms of addressing our real estate issues. We need to find that, we need to visit that, we can’t ignore that forever: Things only last so long.
It’s a pretty simple formula really, isn’t it? Recruit the right people, pay them appropriately, ensure that there’s a contract between the Crown and them that’s understood by the government and accepted. We bring these people into Army, Navy and Air Force, expecting them — in the worst case — to lay down their lives for us. They accept that for the next 20 years they’re going to serve their nation, they’re going to be paid a certain amount of money, [and] they expect that their nation looks after them, looks after their family.
I’m basically lucky in that I’ve got the minister of defense portfolio and the veterans affairs portfolio, and as far as I’m concerned, a person’s a veteran from the day they sign. The day they are attested and sworn in, they become a veteran.
Is the government going to replace the P-3 Orion with the P-8?
It’s making sure the process which leads to the decision is a good process, is appropriate, that it withstands scrutiny; it’s about the integrity of the process. Whatever piece of kit drops down on to the Cabinet table, I will put my hand on my heart and say: “This is what we should buy, prime minister.“
You don’t want to buy a piece of kit and find that five years down the line you can’t get parts for it or there’s no evolutionary development. [It’s] being able to buy into a project where you’re guaranteed that the improvements that come from lessons learned by other operators become your property as well — and bring advantages.
The only personal preference I have is that we deliver to our men and women who are going to fly it a piece of kit that does the job they have been asked to do. We have the fourth-largest exclusive economic zone in the world that brings with it some very clear, specific requirements.
Is anti-submarine warfare going to be enhanced given the proliferation of submarines in the region?
One project that is expected to be completed this year will see replacement of the country’s underwater intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. This upgrade of our P-3K2 Orion fleet will enable the government to continue to offer a highly valued capability to international coalition operations.
Has the Air Force suggested what it would prefer to replace the Hercules and the 757 aircraft?
I’ve already had two Air Force pilots in a room debating the strengths and weaknesses of two different aircraft types, but it comes down, again, to the process. Run a thorough process, put it through the hoops.
What do you think of the Navy’s ships?
The inshore patrol vessels have become highly valued, particularly in Fiji where HMNZS Hawea performed very, very well [in combined maritime surveillance tasks for six months]. I’ve had nothing but praise for the way in which they operated. We’re deploying them again for operations in the south Pacific, complete with offshore patrol vessel.
Governments cut their cloth to what they can afford, and there are advantages and disadvantages to buying commercial designs. Were we to buy a replacement for the multirole ship Canterbury, it would look different. Where we to buy an OPV, knowing it will deploy to the southern ocean, the design would be different, it has to be. And likewise, if we were to buy more IPVs, the design, clearly, would be based on the experience gained with the operation of these vessels.
And I hope that we take those lessons and maximize the learnings.
Your election manifesto mentioned restoring an offensive capability to the New Zealand Defence Force.
A new modular assault rifle system has been introduced across the NZDF, and new vehicles introduced for our special operations forces. A strategic defense policy review is underway, and a review of the capability plan for defense is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The outcomes of these will be used to inform future investment decisions.
Are their plans to introduce remotely piloted vehicles?
At this stage, no technologies have been excluded from consideration for the NZDF.