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The NZ Defence Force and extreme fire events

Written By: - Date published: 6:08 am, October 7th, 2020 - 19 comments
Categories: climate change, defence - Tags: , , ,

Last week the current NZ Defence Minister Ron Mark, released Extreme Fire: a changing thread landscape and implications for New Zealand Defence (PDF), a NZ Defence Force (NZDF) Assessment on Extreme Fire Events relating to climate change within NZ. It is an interesting assessment outlining current trends in regards to extreme fire conditions in New Zealand, but also what happened last year in Australia in conjunction with the NZ Government (NZG) and NZDF response to the Australian Bush Fires.

To the untrained eye the NZDF appears to have the situation in hand at the moment or does it?

Well in the short term I would say yes for the moment, but taking into account the medium and long term trends associated with climate change not only within NZ but within the greater South Pacific, then the NZDF is not in a position to support concurrent operations both at home or within greater South Pacific, and other mandated tasks the NZDF is required to do over the NZ Summer period.

Since the 90’s the NZDF has been in managed decline, losing capabilities both in terms of manpower and equipment not being replaced in some cases, or the false sense of equipment upgrades like the ageing RNZAF C130 Hercules aircraft in the early 2000’s, with a complete lack of investment across the broad.

What equipment that has been brought since ’91 has either been by the cheapest bidder, or with a complete lack of strategic direction at Government or within the NZ Ministry Of Defence/NZDF. The long term impacts of CC related events in regards to disaster relief or the use of lethal deadly force/warlike conditions due to diminishing natural resources being the worse case scenario.

Because the NZG, the political classes and the NZ taxpayer doesn’t want to spend a lot on Defence for various reasons. Only the bare minimum has been brought, without any thought to long term over-utilisation of equipment due to increasing deployments of both equipment and especially manpower. Mental health, including in that family/marital issues, and ongoing medical costs via Veterans Affairs if one is medical discharge, are also an issue.

The other big show stopper is the ability to concurrently do two jobs at once. The mantra of all military forces is ‘Raise, Train and Sustain’ while conducting ongoing operations while also training & preparing.

So where do I see a short fall in the NZDF preparedness for Extreme Fire Events resulting from climate change?

Firstly the lack of numbers especially in the Army’s Regular & Reserve Forces in particularly those within the South Island which has been the hardest hit since the 90’s in terms of:-

  • Army Engineers (there is currently an Engineer Squadron not being manned to due a lack of funding and equipment),
  • Logistics,
  • the two Reserve Infantry Assault pioneers,
  • Reserve Depots being closed,
  • the withdrawal of the RNZAF’s Rotary Wings Assets from the South Island.
  • Then there is the lack of equipment due to numbers in personnel, or the NZDF has the bare minimum in order to do one job at a time.

So how would I fix this?

Firstly address the manning issues. Folks – this is our greatest capability. Manning in the NZDF has been vexed issue. The Reserve get stung twice with tax, Income Support screws Reserve members via the stand-down or docking welfare payments, and there are lack of pay and conditions issues for Defence civilians compared to other public sector employees like health, education and Police.

The other is addressing equipment shortfalls. I would add an additional four NH90 helicopters to fleet, increasing it to a fleet of 12. Therefore I can deploy four overseas, four for training, two for short notice Ops within, and two in maintenance. Cost €36.6m/ USD 52m per unit 2013

I would move the current A109 Mako helicopters to the Central Flying School and ask for a business case at purchasing a dozen twin engine UH-1Y Venom Huey helicopters similar to the ones that US Marine Corp and the Czech Republic uses. These can be deployed via the new C130J Hercules and they can be also deploy by ship as the Huey’s have been design to operate in a Maritime environment. USD 26m Flyaway cost 2014.

For Fixed Wing Aircraft I would purchase nine C295 transport aircraft in a six vs three format, six Transport versions and three Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Transport version 28m 2013

Probably one of the best Defence buys has been the MAN Trucks with the Multilift Load Handing System. I would purchase additional modules/pods which can be built in NZ to Aus/NZ standards (Trade & STEM training) and possibly more Trucks. The additional Pods would be water tanks, bulk fuel supplies including Aviation Fuel Pods and other assorted bulk delivery pods to be stored at either of the four main centres and various reserve depots.

This would ensure flexibility, some redundancy to the NZDF, a quicker response time and above all the ability for the NZDF to mount concurrent Fire Operations in Extreme Fire Events in NZ supporting our neighbours such as Oz, and other current operations such as Peacekeeping or HADR.

Also you will note, I haven’t made provisions for the RNZAF to have a Roll on/Roll off Airborne Tanker System as I believe the current system of single engine (Ag Aircraft converted to Fire Bombers or purpose design Fire Bombers) and the use of Helicopters to be more effective.

They can also achieve a far greater turnaround than a medium to large Aerial Fire Bomber, providing the necessary Logistical support is close to the Fire Event. There are a large number of public and private airfields/airstrips in NZ to support a private fleet of Fire Bombers.  Most are close to a water source or a high pressure water supply for a high pressure single point refill tank fitted to most Aerial Fire Bombers, which can be operated by a single person while refilling the tank.

My Background: I’m a former Department of Conservation High Country Fire Team Fire Fighter from the North Canterbury Area (ie  Christchurch). Former NZ Scots Light CAV Reconnaissance operator RNZAC and I almost know every goat track and Airfield/dirt air strip from Christchurch to Riverton in the south.

Ex RAAF Ground Defence Specialist with a wide area of operational expertise including including CBRND warfare with four main overseas deployments, with the last 3-4 yrs of service in a Ground Defence doing Training, Plains ie looking at long term future developments like climate change and the likely effects. Operations planning current peacetime mandated Tasks to contingency planning of short notice moves from Defence Aid to the Civil Community and up to Non Warlike HADR.

Currently a retired veteran on a medical pension still fighting for his entitlements and a member of the Dundee Bushfire Brigade of NT Bushfires in the Nth’ern NT.

~ The Scud

19 comments on “The NZ Defence Force and extreme fire events ”

  1. Ad 1

    Scud, thankyou for your service and dedication to New Zealand over so long.

    I've written before about the need to turn NZDF towards climate change response. So I'm fully with you.

    The Twizel fire was a signal, the Ohau fire is a hit, but the Australian NSW/Victoria fire earlier this year was the most important emergency signal we have had.

    The NZDF control of our borders for COVID19 response has been effecient and effective. That shows the benefits of NZDF/MoH and NZPolice interoperability. It has also given the government a real fresh sense of what NZDF when called upon and tasked.

    That's the kind of interoperability we need to see between Civil Defence and Fire and Emergency and NZDF. I sure hope there's a decent Ministerial review of this fire that can bring some of those issues out.

    • Scud 1.1

      Thank you for those kind words Ad,

      There is already a degree of interoperability between CD, FEMNZ (Fire Emergency Management New Zealand) NZDF, smaller Government Depts such as DoC and or various NGO's like Red Cross etc. The real issue is those smaller Town & Regional Councils who don't the that degree of interoperability because-

      A, They have a very small CD team or teams,

      B, The local NZDF (mainly NZ Army) Reserve Depots have closed due to the massive Defence Cuts in the 90's and further closures under the Labour/Alliance Government for operational reasons due to the East Timor deployment in 99 early 2000's which never reopened. Before the 91 Defence Cuts the Army Reserve Numbered just shy of 11,000 pers and today its just above 2,500 pers.

      Which these towns are my greatest concern due topography, population in relation to CC weather events and we look at these local council emergency plans, some of these councils are in struggle st. Due to cuts in Defence aka the Reserves, the exodus of people to the bigger centres, peoples work patterns have change since the 91's as well and lets not forget the stand down requirements etc from Income Support or whatever they are these days where a lot i know literally stop attend various organisations because of the crap from Income Support or the IRD.

      • Ad 1.1.1

        That local government interoperability tension is a finding that came out of the Christchurch Port Hills fire a couple of years ago.

        I was very impressed with the media stories I saw of the very longserving firefighters who worked on the Ohau fire. Couldn't fault them for speed or commitment, nor for the locals having a plan and following it.

        I sure hope there's a decent inquiry into this one – with some pressure in particular from the insurers to force greater cohesion. Also like emergency works in floods, there needs to be powers to call on local contractors who can deploy people and machinery for firebreaks, extra water tankers, and the like.

        • Scud

          The Local Fire Control Officer has a lot of reserve powers he or she can use and probably a lot more since the stepping up of FEMNZ after the Port Hills Fire.

          Usually what's meant to happen is that where ever the fire breaks out the in a particular area/ boundary the local fire control officer is in charge with the Regional Fire Control Officer having the powers to move assets from outside the area to the fire event to assist with johnny on the spot. But in the case of the Port Hills fire this didn't happen for a number of reasons which were addressed in the resulting inquiry.

      • greywarshark 1.1.2

        This quote below is worth noting for a good treatment from a practical, hands-on left government. Even if we have to set up a permanent marquee on government grounds, where we camp till we get done what the past celebrity pollies have felt unable to tackle.

        Which these towns are my greatest concern due topography, population in relation to CC weather events and we look at these local council emergency plans, some of these councils are in struggle st.

        Due to cuts in Defence aka the Reserves, the exodus of people to the bigger centres, peoples work patterns have change since the 91's as well and lets not forget the stand down requirements etc from Income Support or whatever they are these days where a lot i know literally stop attend various organisations because of the crap from Income Support or the IRD.

        • Scud

          I would like to see happen in NZ is that over here in Oz. Is that any ADF reserve member or paid part time 1st Responder is that any pay or gratuities etc received is Tax Free and not subjected to any Centrelink (Income Support) payment that he or she is receiving as this is seen as a service to the Community or a form of National Service. Also Defence helps out in other ways for those reserve members who are on extended readiness ie who doing a 120days plus training and those who do the plain old 30 days training.

  2. Chris T 2

    Bit off topic sorry, but was watching footage of the helicopters fighting it a few days ago and the conditions.

    You couldn't have dragged me onto one of them.

    Must have balls of steel.

    Not counting the female pilots obviously, but can't think of a similar phrase.

    Just tough as.

    • Scud 2.1

      Recalling my days with the High Country Fire Teams, there were some exceptional pilots (the late Alan Bond from Mt Hutt) who could land just about anywhere and could do just about any job as long as its was in the limits of the Aircraft they were flying or wasn't weather a effected especially when the Canterbury Nor' Wester wasn't blowing up in the high country. The other thing was they were local pilots who knew the lay of the land, who knew where to drop a load of equipment or personal and water bomb an area.

      The local based RNZAF Huey crews out of Wigram were just as exceptional as they would fly when ducks are walking or able to night time ops with the use of Night Vision Goggles towards the later part of the 90's and again depending on where the fire was they also knew the lay of the land.

  3. greywarshark 3

    This seems to belong here – relating to fire hazard.


    Farmers are pointing to wilding vegetation as fuel for the fire. Federated Farmers High Country Committee chairman Rob Stokes said closing up land for national parks means the ground is not grazed by sheep and cattle and tussocks and grass are left to grow wild.

    But plant ecologist Professor David Kelly, from the University of Canterbury, told Morning Report that stopping grazing is an essential part of a long-term management plan for conservation department reserves….

    "Even the farmed areas here are still very flammable – there's grass and shrubs and so on. That's shown by the fact that there are quite a lot of fires there. There was one just north of Lake Ōhau Lodge 20 years ago.

    "The key is the least flammable vegetation in this whole area is the native beech forest, which is native to that side of the lake… and if you can get away from that long grass to either native shrubs or getting towards native forest you end up with a much less flammable landscape."

    We burnt out the huia habitat at the beginning of colonisation here. Now we are inadvertently following the same deadly path, and including ourselves now. The Ohau people are burnt out of their homes and connections to the past. We have to change, have to! Can we think and cope with new ways and agreements, or do we have to have dictatorial even military law imposed on us that may not ameliorate or solve anything in the long run?

    • Scud 3.1

      Having spent time in the Menkenzie Basin with the Army or fishing/ hunting. Its always been a dry area and it had to be treated with respect and caution. If you don't it will always bite you in the ass. With more and more people moving into the basin these days there seems to be a lot complacency creeping with a lot of people not even bothered to undertake basic preparedness as the climate slowly changes for the worst and, or bothered to donate time to join the local fire teams etc.

      State Of Emergency Laws should be use as a last resort or be dictated by the event as it unfolds, but in saying that with regards to the recent Covid19 Pandemic both here in Oz and NZ people seem to have a complete lack of commonsense these days and stuck up themselves with their individual rights/ freedoms without thinking about others in the community.

      • greywarshark 3.1.1

        Yes these days individual rights and being deserving seem to mix in a strange way. Comes out like its my right to go into the backblocks poorly prepared but with my cellphone that has roaming, and when I fall down and crack something or start to freeze, I'm deserving to call up a free service to come and collect me at risk to themselves, and at sacrifice of their personal plans and lifestyle.

        Is it a free service? Is there a set fee? Per hour, multiplied by the number of units? Is there koha? Does someone get sued – often it’s only paying over money that will cause the penny to drop! But nothing can replace the hours spent in the search and rescue over difficult terrain, and hard on the body if you aren't fully well.

        What has to be remembered is that climate change, and bad planning, mean that human lifestyles have to change whether people show commonsense or not. The forecasts are dire, and I know people who are very capable and practical, but they can't bring their minds to the size and certainty of the problems fast moving to impact on us.

        If there is one thing we should all know, is that even experienced people make mistakes, and the rest of us dorks are unlikely to get 100% for preparation and resources. Some people won't learn at all, some try but don't have a proper list, or forget replacement batteries etc.

        And many times things aren't properly explained. I never realised that a fire, or even a contained barbecue, after water had been poured on it and it seemed out, could have a long-lasting minute spark that could be freshened and lifted out by a wind gust and go onto huge fire damage.

  4. RedLogix 4

    A well laid out post Scud. It proves what I often say that it's the people doing the job who often best understand how it should be done. Sure top brass may be best positioned to define the goals, but way too often you see management wasting a huge amount of knowledge and competency by ignoring the people under them.

    The NZDF only makes sense as a stand-alone operation when considering matters of internal security, routine border protection, SAR, and emergency responses to natural events like fire, earthquake and flood. These tasks should be it's primary goal.

    In terms of response to external threats to our sovereignty however, the NZDF can only realistically function in alliance with Australia and our wider alliances. In this respect our contribution has to be framed in terms of skilled people and interoperability. This goal needs to be carefully negotiated and defined as a broader, but secondary priority. Important, but not urgent.

    It's my sense that the NZDF and the people who serve under it (often with far less public gratitude and support than they deserve) would be better served if our political masters were more honest around these two overarching goals. Clarity around this would bring expenditure priorities into better focus.

    Reading your OP Scud I get the impression the NZDF is being run without clear vision or purpose. It's being kept hanging around because while no-one knows quite what they want it for, they know they can't just kill it off either. Maybe that overstates the case a bit, because I'm sure there are plenty of white papers that have been banged out over the years … but apparently with little to show for them.

    • Scud 4.1

      I would like to say thanks Lynn and Weka for their support and editing, as this piece almost turned into a War & Peace Novel.

      I think its actually the other way round, that the various NZG's since the end of the Cold War have lacked the necessary strategic direction of where they want the NZDF to head or do. The lost decade of the 90's under which was driven by cuts and the decade 2000's under the Labour especially the first 3 yrs with it politically driven ideology towards the Defence Force without any regards to what was actually happen in the regional at the time or the lessons learnt from Bosnia and East Timor were kicked into touch on purely cost grounds.

      Ron Mark in his capacity as the NZ Defence Minister is only now in acting those lessons learnt from Bosnia, Timor- Leste and when he has also the added effects of CC to NZ and the Regional the Strategic Picture long term is not looking good. It's no longer a "Benign Strategic Environment" but a dynamic changing environment which this Government has a hash dose of Strategic reality and hopefully finally woken the Greens up to the Strategic Reality of our great Regional is now at risk.

      • RedLogix 4.1.1

        Fair call, I'm not sure I expressed myself well above. Let me try again 🙂

        The two distinct roles I outlined for the NZDF above are both important in their own way, but at present they're being lazily conflated which leads to neither or them being done well.

        I'd imagine the NZ public would politically support expenditure directed toward the first goal, internal defense and emergency response quite happily. If a program of expenditure was laid out dramatically bolstering that capacity, I think it would get done.

        But most people are going to be very skeptical about expensive military equipment, that may well be very good kit, when everyone realises NZ would never have the depth of resource to ever credibly defend itself against an outside threat … on it's own.

        That latter problem is really quite a separate issue and needs to be treated as such.

        • Scud

          Sorry it could've been me Red,

          The NZDF does it NZG mandated Non Warlike tasks very well with the probable exception being the EZZ Patrols as we always seem to lack the equipment (Aircraft and Ships) especially the disbanding of the (NATS) Navigation Air Training Squadron at RNZAF Base Wigram in the 90's which gave the NZG an extra 3 Patrol Aircraft.

          As for the NZDF Warlike Tasks only Iraq and Afghanistan only get the mention. but nothing on Bosnia and East Timor which were the more high end of a Peacekeeping or the Solomon Islands with was low end of the Peacekeeping spectrum. All 3 were equally important to the moral & ethical ethos that NZ upholds and just equally as dangerous on the ground, air or sea for the troops deployed there. And yet there a lot of New Zealanders probably that the Germans were highly active in NZ waters during both World Wars sinking ships and laying Minefields around NZ or the German U-Boats out of Singers and Jap I-Boats (Marianas, Singers & Rabual) (submarines) patrolling NZ Waters in WW2.

          Because of NZ's complacency i.e at the arse of the world there is always this belief the NZ doesn't need medium to high military capabilities because we have identifiable threat in the short to medium term even though history and recent NZDF military deployments especially within our regional tells a different story.

          Yet trying to get half decent equipment is always going to be hard for the NZDF and maintain its Utility Of Force (Major General Rupert Smith's book called "The Utility Of Force is a excellent read), because the Peace Movement, Left of the NZL and NZ Greens have really no idea on the practical side and only on the idealistic/ theoretical side of Peacekeeping. Yet these same people scream blue murder about what is happening inside West Papua and for good reason i must say.

          But they refuse to understand what actually happen when the NZDF deployed to East Timor in 99 in regards to the ground threat even after my mate Lenny was KIA in 2000, the air and sea threat both surface and below? Yet we veterans and current serving members know very damm well West Papua won't be the walk in the park like a lot people on the left think will be and yet to maintain that "Utility Of Force" we get called every name under the sun when we require that particular kit or upgrade to maintain that Utility Of Force. The way i look at it, if i haven't the need to use it then its money well spent. But if i had used it, then we have a major policy fail from our Elected Governments and us as a human race which i had to do.

          Or as my late Grandmother Rosa Beaurepaire nee Balderstone who was a pacifist, who said to me "The Military is a necessary evil that we need to have just like home insurance, but when we have to use it. Then we ourselves have failed in humanity, but in some circumstances the Military may be our resort to stop crimes against humanity as words are just nothing unless back up with action. That my Grandson is why you joined the Military to do Peacekeeping the hardiest job to do, as any fool can shoot rifle to kill someone but it takes someone different not use a Rifle to kill someone but you have it case like everything else you require to do the job properly and that's why i get pissed off with the left within NZL". A life member of the NZ Labour party.

          • Draco T Bastard

            The way i look at it, if i haven't the need to use it then its money well spent. But if i had used it, then we have a major policy fail from our Elected Governments and us as a human race which i had to do.

            It is much better to have the capability and not need it than to need the capability and not have it.

            This is really where the Greens fall down especially but even National and Labour just don't seem to get it. More often than not they seem to think that someone else will do it for us (IMO, another example of failing to take necessary state responsibility so as to cut taxes).

        • Draco T Bastard

          But most people are going to be very skeptical about expensive military equipment, that may well be very good kit, when everyone realises NZ would never have the depth of resource to ever credibly defend itself against an outside threat … on it's own.

          IMO, I think most people would be supportive of NZ being able to defend itself from anything but the heaviest attack and be able to slow that down as well until our allies come in to help.

          But that position needs to be well explained and nobody's doing that.

  5. greywarshark 5

    I've been talking about fire fighting in NZ and how we have to improve it. It is also a problem of what is going to happen in Australia and how much of our resource we can send over there, and how much over here. They have a bigger, drier, more wealthy country than us. Just a thought about how we deploy our fire defences can't send our best people there, and have the locals trying to cope here.

    Then there is the matter of our Defence Forces and what they will have to be trained to do and face. Suitable civilians and Forces personnel down from the top need to have annual meetings where we talk over our problems without any foreign Forces people, observers or newspeople. It would be a report, a discussion on overseas trends and tensions, overt and underlying. How can we play the reluctant partner satisfactorily? And not be too reliable so the powerful automatically turn to us. How to be trained enough where it is important for our area and for humanity, but not to have men and women get vicious?

    • Scud 5.1

      It's a balancing act, with regions with a low fire risk are deployed vs those regions with a high fire risk. But as time goes on with CC there maybe no redundancy in the future. The Army's Engineers have the heavy plant equipment and are trained in bush fire fighting as are the RNZAF Fire crews. Apart for the Army's Logistics Corp which will provide the necessary support role, the rest of the NZDF can provide the necessary manpower to help up with the clean up like what happen with the Fox or Franz River floods on the coast and like the ADF did after the fires here in Oz.

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