David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

One man in a shed kept navy afloat

The navies from 14 nations were gathering. But New Zealand ships almost didn’t go.
Air Force Orion.
Air Force Orion.

One man in a shed was all that stood between New Zealand's navy being able to put to sea or being tied up at port, according to NZ Defence Force documents.

That man is former Royal New Zealand Air Force Warrant Officer Richard Mosley, who toiled by himself in a shed in suburban northwest Auckland to make ready a key element in the navy's readiness to put to sea - lifejackets.

Until he stepped into the breach in 2014, the Royal New Zealand Navy faced the prospect of being stuck in port during a major Hauraki Gulf military exercise involving navies from 14 countries.

It should be a story of legend - the Air Force specialist who kept the navy afloat - but the urgent solution to the navy's problem led to a two-year inquiry that exposed flaws in the way the NZ Defence Force hired the company for which Mosley worked.

Serving Air Force staff owned that company, Miltech Ltd and others connected to it. Three months ago, the Auditor-General criticised NZDF processes after looking into how Miltech was hired to work on lifejackets in 2014.

The Auditor-General's inquiry said there was "an urgent demand from the navy for life jackets that were necessary to sustain operations".

Documents released through the Official Information Act show how close it came, with one key Air Force figure in the maintenance chain saying it was an "urgent decision" to hire Miltech Ltd because there were "risks of stopping ships from sailing" because there was not enough serviced lifejackets.

The papers obtained by the Herald on Sunday show the navy knew it needed a new arrangement to service the lifejackets a year before Labour's Phil Goff raised questions in Parliament over the Miltech contract.

In June 2013, a briefing was sent to the Commander of Logistics saying the air force staff at the service centre were over-loaded with work. "Given current manning levels, Air is unable to continue to support the servicing of navy and army jackets."

Air Commodore Mark Brunton, then group captain, wrote to the Devonport Naval Base commander Captain Fred Keating in November 2013: "It has now been many months since we advised our capacity has expended. We agreed to maintain our service while other arrangements were made by navy but it doesn't appear anything has changed. There has been a bunch of postings and we no longer have the capacity to assist."

Keating responded: "Can wait until New Year."

But still nothing happened, leaving HMNZS Canterbury's executive officer emailing navy logistics command in February 2014: "I have just been informed that the ship is unable to have our lifejackets serviced. Have I been informed correctly?"

The executive officer said "we will require to have the vast majority of our lifejackets serviced within the next week to ensure they do not fall out of date during the very closely monitored MCMEX", referring to the upcoming military exercise.

Miltech Ltd was hired almost immediately and Mosley went to work.

The NZDF papers show the "shed", as military police called it in the report that cleared all involved, was considered a top-class facility that produced quality work.

Defence minister Gerry Brownlee, who was briefed on the issue and who received the Auditor-General's report, would not comment.

Papers show he raised questions with the defence force over Miltech Ltd's continued work while the inquiry was underway, although no issue had been raised over its quality.

A spokesman for the NZDF said it was "not aware of any occurrences where lifejacket availability has affected RNZN ships from carrying out programmed outputs".

"However, the NZDF would not compromise the health and safety of personnel by not ensuring that all ships had the full complement of safety equipment, complying with manufacturers' standards, before undertaking a task."

- Herald on Sunday

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