Rhys Jones: Facing up to the reality of warfare

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A tradeoff between protection for our soldiers and operational ability is sometimes necessary.

The Kiwi team in Afghanistan is well-equipped with LAVs which have proved their worth. Photo / NZDF
The Kiwi team in Afghanistan is well-equipped with LAVs which have proved their worth. Photo / NZDF

Our armed forces have embarked on an ambitious reform programme, reflecting the strategic direction set in the white paper of 2010. Government funding for defence has in fact remained stable, and this reform programme has allowed us the headroom to focus on frontline capability - a weapons upgrade for our frigates and a new replenishment ship are next for the Navy, having received the seven new ships of the Project Protector Fleet; the Army is embedding a range of new combat weapons systems, which I will discuss below in relation to Afghanistan; and next for Air Force will be aircraft to better train our pilots and crew, following the $770 million already spent on the new NH90 helicopters.

The public can have confidence that Defence Force equipment on operations is world class and suitable for the role. However, task realities can mean that at times the highest levels of protection cannot be utilised as they would restrict our operational ability. This trade-off has always been the reality of military operations.

Let me use Afghanistan as an example, for it represents the highest threat levels to our people.

On July 19, 2011, on a dusty Afghan road an improvised explosive device (IED) detonates under a light armoured vehicle (LAV) of a New Zealand patrol. Our patrol members sustained no injuries. That the LAV protected all onboard had not come as a surprise.

The LAVs had gone into northeastern Bamyan to meet this very threat, and a detailed assessment had been carried out before determining them to be the most appropriate vehicle for the security challenges we faced there.

Though nothing may stop some IEDs, before going into the field our LAVs had undergone a significant upgrade programme specific to Afghanistan, based on the latest allied developments for the vehicle. The upgrade afforded higher levels of protection, and without going into detail we had improved armour and our soldiers' survivability gear.

Moreover, the insurgent attacks on Coalition patrols in Afghanistan followed a familiar pattern: an IED to disable vehicles, and then small arms and rocket fire from those on foot targeted at our people. The LAV provided the optimum mix of protected mobility to survive initial blasts, and then firepower through its 25mm Bushmaster automatic cannon (effective out to nearly 2.5km), its two MAG 58 machine guns capable of firing up to 900 rounds per minute, and its multi-barrel grenade discharger, to see off our adversaries. Mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) armoured vehicles available at the time had no such capability.

That the LAV have proved effective in Bamyan has been demonstrated through insurgents being forced to change their tactics and no longer following up IED blasts with attacks by foot soldiers - having no answer to the firepower of the LAV.

Despite our forces having LAV, there are nonetheless mountainous roads in parts of Bamyan where both LAVs and MRAPs are just too unwieldy. Integral to the counter-insurgency approach being used by New Zealand forces to beat the insurgents is separating them from the support of locals. It is about removing their access to comfort, finance and re-supply. New Zealand patrol members' access to communities is therefore the vital first step in gaining and maintaining the support of locals. It is in these instances where we have used the smaller up-armoured Humvee; again the only suitable armoured vehicle available for the job at the time we made the decision to use them.

Other examples of the latest weapons systems include the Heckler & Koch Grenade Machine Gun which was deployed with the current CRIB rotation to Afghanistan; the Designated Marksman Weapon introduced into the NZ Army last year and used with good effect in Afghanistan since mid 2011; or the variety of night vision capabilities that provide our people with advantages over their adversaries.

In this regard Defence Force personnel serving with the PRT in Bamyan Province have weapon systems that are similar in performance and effectiveness to our coalition partners in Afghanistan. Our weapons and equipment are regularly benchmarked against ABCA nations (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and have proven to be as effective, if not superior, to those used by our coalition partners in Afghanistan. For example, since October 2011 our personnel deploying to Afghanistan were provided with battle-tested soldier survivability gear. We have made this body armour system standard issue. It is the same equipment that other nations have allocated to their Special Forces including the US Navy Seals and the US Army Rangers.

The soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who make up the Defence Force are among the best in the world. I wish to assure the public that ensuring these forces have the latest available, technologically advanced and battle-tested equipment to cope with hostile environments has been a priority. This goal has not been compromised by our reform programme. On the contrary, efficiencies and savings found elsewhere in the Defence Force have enabled money to be reallocated to meeting the operational needs of our people.

Lieutenant General Rhys Jones is chief of the New Zealand Defence Force.

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