Scott Yeoman is a NZ Herald reporter

Inside NZ's new SAS training facility

SAS demonstration during the New Zealand Defence Force's Special Operations Battle Training Facility official opening in Papakura.Photo / Jason Oxenham
SAS demonstration during the New Zealand Defence Force's Special Operations Battle Training Facility official opening in Papakura.Photo / Jason Oxenham

Explosions rang out and a military helicopter flew low overhead, as armed soldiers stormed the New Zealand Defence Force's (NZDF) new $46 million battle training facility in Auckland this morning.

The simulated exercise began with Prime Minister John Key exploding an entrance ribbon and ended when New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) regiment soldiers slid down ropes suspended from a NH90 helicopter, and a tactical assault vehicle loaded with soldiers and a military dog entered the building.

The Papakura four-storey "world class" special operations facility - which, from the outside, looks like nothing more than a plain concrete building - is an all-weather, live firing and 360-degree battle training ground that will allow New Zealand's best soldiers to simulate scenario-specific training.

New Zealand Special Air Service regiment soldiers slide down ropes suspended from a NH90 helicopter. Photo / New Zealand Defence Force
New Zealand Special Air Service regiment soldiers slide down ropes suspended from a NH90 helicopter. Photo / New Zealand Defence Force

The NZDF says it will replace the "outdated" and "obsolete" training facilities, which are more than 30 years old, at its base in Papakura.

The Prime Minister was joined at the opening by Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee and Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating, as well as military officials and dignitaries from the NZDF and its international allies.

The facility is aimed primarily at New Zealand's SAS regiment, but will also be used by other divisions of the NZDF - Royal New Zealand Air Force and Navy - as well as teams from the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Fire Service and other Government services like search and rescue teams.

Speaking to the dignitaries and officials at the event, with light rain falling on and off, Mr Key called the NZSAS "the Ferrari" of the New Zealand military, and said he thought they were the "best in the world" at what they did, and that they were well regarded around the globe.

He said the new training facility would give New Zealand soldiers the preparation they need to serve in the difficult environments they are deployed to.

"They are the elite forces of New Zealand, so to get into the SAS you have to go through a gruelling assessment.

John Key said the new training facility would give New Zealand soldiers the preparation they need. Photo / New Zealand Defence Force
John Key said the new training facility would give New Zealand soldiers the preparation they need. Photo / New Zealand Defence Force

"You actually have to prove not just that you're the biggest and strongest ... but mentally that you can cope with the most challenging and difficult situations and be able to, in essence, hold it all together in the most difficult of situations."

Mr Key said it was about preparing soldiers for the situations they are put into so that they come home safely.

"The real main point here is that in terms of dispatching and deploying the SAS to those kinds of environments, we absolutely owe it to them and their families that we put them in a situation where they're fully prepared, because you don't have a split second really to make the wrong decision, you've got to get it right."

He said based on the advice the Government had been given, the new facility was "top of the range" for what the NZSAS and New Zealand military are doing.

"They're obviously not the biggest group in the world, so lots of militaries will of course spend more, but I think at this facility they should be able to do everything that will allow them to be as prepared as you ever can be for the sorts of circumstances they are put into from time to time."

When asked what exactly they were training for, he said to ultimately "be ready" in the event that New Zealand might need to deploy them.

"So we saw that in Afghanistan where they provided a number of roles - both under Helen Clark's watch and under mine. In my particular case they were out there in Kabul in a very volatile situation accompanying the Afghan forces as they were going in there and from time to time ultimately had to take over those missions when things got particularly difficult in a number of circumstances.

"So it's one of those things where you can't develop that capability quickly, it's also a culture that develops with this group and you really need to keep them ready all the time. You never know when you're going to use it - we actually don't want to deploy all the time, but you do need to know you've got it in the locker if you need it."

There was nothing specific that they were training for at this stage, Mr Key said.

"There's no mission, if you like, in the locker that we're aware of at the moment."

He said from time to time the SAS will do things like accompanying him on overseas trips, such as his recent trip to Iraq.

"But one day they'll be required and we'll use them again, or future Governments will."

Inside the facility

Prior to the official opening, members of the media were given a tour of the new battle training facility.

Flanked by a member of the military police at all times, and with cellphones confiscated for security reasons, the reporters, photographers and videographers were shown around the building.

An unnamed member of the NZDF gave the tour and explained how each component of the new, state-of-the-art training facility would be used daily.

As media were driven up the gravel road at the NZDF's historic Ardmore base, which is tucked away into the green hills and native bush of Papakura, the bus passed outdoor firing ranges - 600m, 700m and 800m - as well as a sniper tower and an old building and train locomotive used for combat training specific to situations Kiwi soldiers might find themselves in, here and overseas.

These kinds of situations were mentioned throughout the tour and - as well as obvious and recent deployment scenarios like Afghanistan and Iraq - they included Auckland high rise buildings, a ship captured by pirates, hotels and shopping malls.

There are three firing ranges inside the building. Photo / New Zealand Defence Force
There are three firing ranges inside the building. Photo / New Zealand Defence Force

But unlike the older training facilities the bus passed on the way up the hill, and those at the other Papakura base, the new multi-million dollar facility is designed to simulate the many complexities of modern battlefields.

The words "360 degree" and "flexible" were used a lot throughout the tour.

Surrounding the new building is special tarseal designed to stop live rounds from ricocheting, and inside steel and rubber line the walls and floors - also designed to capture live rounds and fragments safely.

The main ground-floor training space can be turned completely pitch black to simulate night operations and has two storeys with a 360-degree balcony, not dissimilar to that of a hotel lobby.

The ground floor also has one of three firing ranges inside the building - there is a 20m, 30m, 50m range - and soldiers can enter from all sides using doors that open in all directions and from "mouse holes" in the roof.

The German-designed targets the soldiers will be firing at can move, react to shots being fired, and can record the exact spot they are hit and the time they are hit to measure speed and accuracy. All the targets are controlled by a WiFi tablet.

As the tour moved through to other rooms and floors, media were shown the Marine Counter Terrorism (MCT) section, with a six metre dive pool and a wall shaped like the bow of a ship.

The MCT set-up includes various other ship structures and features like bridges, ropes and ladders and will allow soldiers to simulate the storming or assaulting of a ship.

There is a NH90 helicopter mock-up where soldiers can practice landing on a building via rope, and "sacrificial" trap doors that will allow them to enter the building by blowing already-established holes in the ceilings.

The NZDF guide said an elevator in the building will give them the chance to practice using a lift shaft to enter different floors, and soldiers can also train with live rounds in stairwells - a common and dangerous situation in urban battlefields.

Throughout the building there are review and control rooms where people will be filming and analysing the training operations for performance enhancement.

During the tour, another unnamed NZDF member explained to media how the new facility will allow soldiers to train with new weapons and ammunition.

The old Papakura training grounds restricted the soldiers to 9mm bullets.

Now NZDF forces can train with 556mm and 762mm ammunition and the weapons made to fire them.

This was necessary, the guide said, because 9mm bullets were becoming redundant in the field, with some body armour now able to withhold the shots.

This new capability, like many features in the building, demonstrated the flexibility and modern capabilities the NZDF is now looking for.

But why now?

Prime Minister John Key said this was the first time a facility with this sort of capability was presented to the Government and the first time there was demand for it.

The Government carried through with it, he said, "simply because we know we have a responsibility to make sure we give them [New Zealand soldiers] the best training we can".

He said these kinds of facilities last for quite a long time and are very adaptable and will also be used by visiting international military forces training with the NZDF.

Mr Key said this upgrade was needed because we now live in a world where there is some risk to New Zealand.

He said despite that risk being much lower than in other environments, the Government could not rule it out when the likes of Isis are using social media to target people, "even as far away as New Zealand"

Mr Key said in the event that New Zealand was subject to a domestic terror threat, the SAS would be used if necessary.

Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating said the new facility was certainly a big upgrade and was "world class, but within a New Zealand scale".

He said the NZDF is asking young New Zealanders to step into a really complex environment and so the new facility had to reflect that.

He said warfare was no longer one-sided or linear.

"You've got to be discerning that the type of battles that we're involved in, the type of environments we're in, where that threat comes from can be from someone on your side, or some unsuspecting place."

Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee said the upgrade was "timely".

He said while not the most important thing, the project also came in under budget.
"In any military procurement it's always expensive and so getting it for the right price is important."

- NZ Herald

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