Spy drones will become as common as machineguns and engineers must fight alongside killer robots, according to an official New Zealand Army paper that explores how multi-skilled Kiwi soldiers will need to operate in future wars.

The remarkable NZ Army document outlines how its land and special forces must evolve over the next 17-18 years and incorporate drones, satellites, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data into its arsenal, while keeping its ability to win close combat battles against ever-evolving foes.

It states that the NZ Army must excel as a light fighting force, with no budget for powerful armour or heavy fire-power, and be known for its highly-trained and motivated soldiers who are "ethical, physically tough and well-equipped", while keeping close ties to New Zealand's Five Eyes intelligence allies.

The NZ Army's 94-page Future Land Operating Concept 2035: Integrated Land Missions (FLOC 35) has been the talk of the army since it was released in June.

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Penned by Army General Staff, the "aspirational document" quotes Napoleon, Erwin Rommel, James Joyce, Thucydides, Ernest Rutherford while citing Trotsky battles, Ukrainian rebels tactics, and military successes in Mali, Afghanistan, and Timor Leste.

It predicts that New Zealand's greatest risks will continue to be border control and illegal resource exploitation, including unlawful fishing, along with natural and human disasters. Terrorism in the Australia and South Pacific region will continue to be a "highly-localised, small-scale but high-profile threat".

By 2030 there will be 41 mega cities, with populations over 10 million, and many in the Indian and Pacific regions, while social media and 'fake news' will help create adversaries, with algorithms increasingly dictating what information individuals consume, which creates 'echo chambers' that can "harden people's ideas and promote populist politics and intolerance".

New Zealand's military needs to adapt to modern conflict where "adversaries have adopted hybrid warfare" and blend conventional and irregular methods with information and cyber tactics.

"To do so, they form coalitions of convenience between states, extremists and criminals, create proxies, or employ their own special forces to work in the 'grey zone' just below the escalation threshold," FLOC 35 states.

More lethal, effective, precise and autonomous future weapons will not be limited to traditional militaries, it warns, with "non state actors becoming increasingly technologically enabled as well and in some cases are leading innovation".

The NZ Army has produced a document outlining how its land and special forces must evolve over the next 17-18 years.
The NZ Army has produced a document outlining how its land and special forces must evolve over the next 17-18 years.

New Zealand is a small country with a comparatively tiny military budget. In the great tradition of the New Zealand "Number 8 Wire" mentality, the document even quotes the great Kiwi physicist Ernest Rutherford's line of, "We've got no money, so we've got to think", while also hinting at the Spartan virtue that "austerity drives innovation, resilience and resource maximisation".

The paper says: "Given resource constraints, the NZ Army is a light fighting force, therefore, it must be agile: able to do more than one task and transition between tasks quickly. It must also be precise, so that its limited combat power can be employed to greatest effect."

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However, a light fighting force is also vulnerable and, as a result, force designers will need to "make trade off decisions".

With high-end firepower and protection "beyond the reach of New Zealand's resources", investment should be prioritised to cutting-edge tools that enable Kiwis troops to "sense, act and react faster and with better precision than likely adversaries".

It will also see increased use of autonomous systems and robotics on the battlefield.

By 2035, drones will be "as ubiquitous as section machine guns" – not just for armies, but for "civilians and irregular forces alike".

"Large quantities or 'swarms' of small and disposable remote or autonomous air systems, for example, may be used to harass and attack friendly forces, even if the enemy does not possess a conventional air force and has not gained control of the air in the traditional sense," it says.

"Irregular adversaries will compete with conventional military forces in new and novel ways by using improvisation to weaponise commercially available systems."

Some of it sounds like the stuff of a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster, including battlefield targeting from satellites by artificial intelligence for killer robots: "Digital integration and leveraging ISTAR-EW assets including remote and autonomous systems, will be essential to faster target identification, accurate delivery of effects, and battle damage assessment."

But it advises that the NZ Army must "closely monitor ABCANZ (America, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) developments on artificial intelligence and remote and autonomous systems".

Chief of Army, Major General Peter Kelly says FLOC 35 gives a clear direction for land and special operations forces to remain "ready and relevant into the future".

"History repeatedly shows that prosperity is underpinned by security and that land forces are fundamental to New Zealand's security and the promotion of its interests," Kelly says.

"The FLOC 35 provides a clear direction for the land and special operations forces to remain ready and relevant into the future."

AN NZDF spokesman said the document was guiding the "development of concepts, experimentation, planning, force-design and capability modernisation – based on operating environments and trends in warfare".