There is a certain logic to a reshaping of the Defence Force that will compel the three separate services to "talk, think and breathe" joint operations. It is the culmination of decisions taken over the past decade, the thinking behind the 2010 Defence White Paper, fiscal restraints, and the need to retain military credibility. From 2015, all deployable parts of the Defence Force will have to be ready to join the new Joint Amphibious Task Force when and if required. This will undoubtedly enhance the army's ability to keep more people for longer in combat areas and be better prepared for peacekeeping operations and disaster relief. It will not, however, come without a cost.
The rivalry between the army, the navy and the air force has long been a catalyst for bringing out the best in all of them. An esprit de corps has flourished in each. That will now have to be subsumed. "We are moving away from an environment where each service currently focuses on its own environment, which has driven us in the past to have single ships, single aircraft and small unit operations," said the Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones.
To a degree, that has already happened, especially since the air force lost its strike wing. Shorn in size, it is now essentially a transport and maritime surveillance wing. In that context, it seems rational enough to bring it under a joint-operations umbrella. Those who drafted the Defence Capability Plan can also point to tensions between the services, which reached an unhealthy level as they competed for funding under the previous Government. Yet notwithstanding this, there will undoubtedly be some sorrow at the loss of the services' individual pride and purpose. An impact on morale cannot be discounted.
The capability plan suggests that the drive to create a more coherent and integrated Defence Force, with the Joint Amphibious Task Force at its core, will not preclude the deployment of individual components. But with the training and exercising required to make the force as effective as possible, it seems unlikely there will be as much latitude for such deployments. Would there, for example, be the same potential to dispatch the frigates Te Kaha and Te Mana to the Gulf, as occurred when they supported Operation Enduring Freedom?
The 2010 Defence White Paper was significant in its abandonment of the idea that this country occupied a benign strategic environment. Instead, it talked of more challenging times in the next 25 years, not least in the South Pacific. There, the outlook was said to be one of "fragility". This region is the intended theatre of the Joint Amphibious Task Force. Indeed, the lack of air cover means it could not operate independently elsewhere. Further afield, the force will have to participate in coalition operations.
The capability plan covers the period to 2020. During this, the Defence Force will receive little in the way of new equipment. The Defence Minister acknowledges that its Orion and Hercules aircraft and NH90 helicopters will be required to fly well beyond normal civil parameters. That may, as Wayne Mapp suggests, be "routine" for military aircraft, but this does not make it wholly desirable.
The Joint Amphibious Task Force cannot be effective if it has to make do with equipment past its use-by date. With every malfunction, morale suffers. With every breakdown, coalition partners come to regard this country as more and more of a liability. The Government has put off the expense of a large-scale re-equipment programme until after the end of the decade. At that point there will be no option if New Zealand is to retain a credible military force.