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By Mr J.J. Corlett


The strategic interests of New Zealand span across the globe, and align closely with the economic and political goals of successive governments. The NZ Army is a scarce resource, which must be cautiously and efficiently employed to achieve maximum strategic effects, while balancing competing priorities and limited resources. A significant tension since 2001 has seen the organisation balancing support to New Zealand’s regional neighbourhood of the Indo-Pacific and Antarctica, against contributions further afield in global peace operations.  In the context of the past twenty years that balance has been well struck, but must now change to meet an evolving trend of insecurity and competition closer to home.

The regional and global spheres

The regional interests of New Zealand centre on the confluence of the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans. This area, referred to as the Indo-Pacific, encompasses many cultures and political systems, swathes of natural resources, and critical shipping and trade lanes. The use of the term Indo-Pacific is in resurgence, popularised by current US foreign policy discussions – use of the term as a US policy focal point serves to highlight where our partners are shifting their attention.

Beyond the Indo-Pacific region, New Zealand maintains significant interests on the international stage. As a small trading nation, it is in our interest for global trade routes to remain secure, and for other nations to engage productively and cooperatively in diplomacy and economics[i]. As such, we have regularly commited military forces to the global region to protect our interests and maintain stability.

How have we balanced our effort to date?

It is difficult to quantify the balance of efforts and resources against geographic deployment areas in an organisation such as the NZ Army. The platform-based tasks of our Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) and Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) counterparts are simpler to observe – identify where our ships and aircraft are operating, and one can quickly gain a crude sense of where those organisations weight their focus. By contrast, the key platform of our army is in fact the soldiers that serve within it. It is the individual soldier that forms the basis of every effect we seek to render in the battle space. Analysing the volume of personnel contribution to a given theatre is therefore a rough measure of the New Zealand Army’s priority of effort. Before determining where that effort should be placed in future, it is worth acknowledging where the organisation has focussed in the past.

Since 2001, the New Zealand Army has rightly supported a high tempo of operations in the Middle East. These deployments have seen us advance New Zealand’s standing as a good global citizen, and strengthened our ties with natural partners. In terms of personnel contribution and training focus, global operations have undoubtedly constituted our main effort for the past two decades. Conversely, following the draw-down of deployments in the Solomon Islands and East Timor, the organisation underwent a clear shift away from major deployment and engagement in the Indo-Pacific through the early 2000s, that persists today. Despite conducting semi-regular low-scale engagement exercises, and responding reactively in a humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) capacity, the volume and frequency of these tasks has paled in comparison to our Middle Eastern missions[ii]. As such, the Indo-Pacific has, for the past twenty years, appeared to be a secondary effort for the NZ Army.

How have we been told to balance our effort in the future?

The Strategic Defence Policy Statement (2018) clearly directs the NZDF to reorientate and focus upon regional operations in the Indo-Pacific theatre. It states in part that ‘…the highest priority for the NZDF is the ability to operate in New Zealand’s territory (including in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)) and its neighbourhood, from the South Pole to the Equator.’[iii] New Zealand’s foreign policy goals under the recent ‘Pacific Reset’ reaffirm New Zealand’s ambition to remain a leader in our region, and a key supporter of regional stability and prosperity[iv]. It serves to highlight that while our global interests are still important, the tensions closer to New Zealand are far more pressing and within our direct control.

The political and economic logic behind this reiteration of policy direction is sound. Between climate change, resource shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing tension over territory and trading lanes in the South China Sea, it is clear that the Indo-Pacific is becoming less secure than we have previously enjoyed[v]. The Indo-Pacific is rapidly becoming a new zone of resource competition and territorial friction, to the extent that existing powers such as the USA and Australia are contending for influence with the emerging powers of China and India. The policy direction of our traditional partners also highlights a clear change in focus among the international community – in a 2011 speech, US President Barack Obama directed his national security team “…to make our presence and mission in the [Indo-Pacific] a top priority.”[vi] Those who share our interests evidently appreciate the threats and opportunities that this region presents this century, and we ought to recognise that adjustment.

The way forward – a regional focus.

Our focus on global operations through the period of 2001-2021 was justified, particular under the context of the global effort to counter terrorism in which several of those deployments occurred. However, evolving government policy states that we need to draw our eyes closer to home. The previous dynamic of deploying relatively large numbers of personnel globally into the Middle East, and individuals and small teams regionally, must reverse if we are to meet that higher intent. Our recent drawdown of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions, combined with our current focus on OP PROTECT tasking, represents a significant opportunity to transition and regenerate towards this new main effort.

Maintaining some global operations in support of United Nations (UN) and multinational peace mandates such as those in South Sudan, Israel and Egypt will remain relevant into the future. Our contribution of key personnel to these operations is critical in building upon our reputation as a conscientious global partner. However, the current lower tempo and volume of operations in this area will be far more sustainable than our commitments prior to the drawdown of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is especially so in the upcoming period of regeneration beyond Op PROTECT. With an increasing need to react and interact in the Indo-Pacific region, it is appropriate for large-scale deployments to the likes of the Middle East to cease. By reducing our footprint globally, we increase our ability to engage meaningfully and regularly in our own regional back yard.

There are malevolent states and groups within the Indo-Pacific who seek to exert increasing influence over our traditional partners and neighbours, to achieve ends contradictory to our own. The NZ Army can have a tangible and significant role in deterring that activity, by leveraging our centre of gravity – our people. New Zealand is inexorably linked through both familial and cultural ties to our partners in Tonga, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, among others[vii]. Many people that originate from those nations serve within our ranks, and represent real, people-to-people links to our regional partners. Increasing the frequency and scale of New Zealand Army interactions and engagements across the Indo-Pacific contributes to the Vaka Tahi (“one boat”) strategic initiative, and creates a more resilient regional community. Doing so must be our focus moving forward[viii].

How will this change the way the Army looks, thinks and trains?

Regional security, humanitarian and stability operations must now become the main effort of the New Zealand Army in terms of both training and capability. This transition represents a mindset shift in our training approach, from the high-end warfighting that we are accustomed to practicing. However, that is not to say that those skills are now irrelevant or non-transferable. The New Zealand Army faces a significant challenge of remaining relevant in high-threat environments, whilst also acting proactively in low and medium threat arenas to achieve strategic goals. From a capability perspective, it will be difficult to maintain a range of response options against a variety of threats globally, while keeping our focus regionally. It will be increasingly important to prioritise equipment, vehicles and weapons that are effective and resilient in an amphibious littoral setting, where we are far more likely to operate[ix]. The NZ Army needs to build its ability to conduct littoral light infantry operations based off marinized light vehicles, small boats and amphibious platforms as the norm – we are now far more likely to operate in close country, complex terrain and coastal environments, where heavy armoured vehicles can quickly become irrelevant and ineffective[x]. Our current vision of a light and agile New Zealand Army goes some way to adopting this attitude and approach, which brings our thinking out of the Cold War and into the littoral, island-to-island operations we should be training to conduct.

Adhering to this new regional focus will also allow the New Zealand Army to further enhance its viability in the eyes of Government and society. It is easy for the public and government to draw a clear link between investment in a Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel, and its role in protecting our fishing zones, for example. By contrast, it can be harder to discern the direct value for money of maintaining a standing army of land-based capabilities, for an audience not conversant in its utility. By more regularly integrating with and operating within the Indo-Pacific, the NZ Army can demonstrate the strategic and tactical ‘return on investment’ that soldiers – as its key platform – can provide.

Achieving the intent of greater personnel presence as a small army in the Pacific requires a range of initiatives, and will necessitate more sustained and long-term engagements with partners. This could leverage our Middle Eastern experience, and greatly enhance our current commitment to training alongside and developing our counterparts in Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea in particular. The delivery of training teams in Iraq highlights how just effectively New Zealand soldiers can relate to, build rapport with, and instil skills and knowledge in multinational peers. By effectively switching our organisational main effort more locally into the Indo-Pacific, greater resources can be applied to achieving our regional ends at an individual soldier level. In real terms, this would need to see a marked increase in the frequency and volume of deployment, exercise and postings within our region. A parallel uptick in the availability of language and cultural training could be a natural consequence, maximising our person-to-person impacts when deployed therein. By ensuring that every soldier has access to a centre of excellence in language and cultural training, the popular analogy of a ‘Strategic Corporal’ will apply on every atoll and in every village that we interact with.


For much of its history, New Zealand has enjoyed a false sense of security by distance. The geopolitical conflicts of the world were far enough away for us to feel relatively untouched, and allowed us to deploy, or not deploy, military force on our own terms. The growing issues of the twenty-first century seem set to dissolve that fallacy, and it is becoming clear that the Indo-Pacific will play host to a wide range of direct and indirect conflicts in the coming decades. In order to remain a relevant force that advances the strategic objectives of New Zealand, the NZ Army must prioritise operations in our region as its main effort, over those operations deployed globally. Developing regional resilience to withstand growing friction, and to react with decisiveness should a situation deteriorate, presents a compelling challenge. If we fail to reorientate ourselves appropriately, we will fall behind our partners and risk allowing insecurity and instability to take hold in our own neighbourhood.



[i] Mark, S. ‘New Zealand’s public diplomacy in the Pacific: a reset, or more of the same?.’ Public Diplomacy (2021).

[ii] Ministry of Defence. Strategic Defence Policy Statement (2021).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wyeth, G. ‘New Zealand’ Pacific Reset: Building Relations Amid Increased Regional Competition.’ The Diplomat (2019).

[v] Jones, B. ‘A New Era in Indo-Pacific Security.’ Noema Magazine (2021).

[vi] Obama, B. Speech given at Tokyo, 16 Nov (2011).

[vii] Ayson, R. ‘Pacific Reset for the Defence Force? That Depends.’ Victoria University (2018).

[viii] Ministry of Defence. ‘Advancing Pacific Partnerships’. (2019).

[ix] Dean, Peter J. ‘Amphibious Warfare: Lessons from the Past for the ADF’s Future.’ Security Challenges 8, no. 1 (2012): 57–76.

[x]  Vaughn, Bruce R. ‘The United States and New Zealand: Perspectives on a Pacific Partnership’. (2012).