New Zealand's Defence Force will ramp up its readiness for combat, taking a more "proactive and purposeful" approach as part of a new government strategy.
High-level documents - published Friday morning - warn current capabilities are "not in a fit state" to respond to increasing security threats and the impacts of climate change in the region.
Unveiling the new direction at Parliament, Minister of Defence Andrew Little told guests New Zealand was facing more geostrategic challenges than it had in decades.
"The changes in the domestic and international security environment mean our response and preparedness must change too."
Little said the government would improve the effectiveness of combat and other military capabilities, ensuring the Defence Force could act "early and deliberately" in protecting the interests of New Zealand and the surrounding region.
"We must be prepared to equip ourselves with trained personnel, assets and material, and appropriate international relationships in order to protect our own defence and national security - and we are."
The documents come as part of a Defence Policy Review commissioned by the government a year ago and chaired by Sir Brian Roche.
The resulting 37-page Defence Policy Strategy Statement concluded there was a need for "a combat-capable, credible, deployable force" ready to respond when and where required.
"Defence will need to act earlier to prevent threats, for example through increased presence, as part of broader New Zealand efforts and in concert with international partners.
"Where possible, Defence will seek to act to constrain hostile actions, will be prepared to employ military force, and engage in combat if required."
New Zealand's security was assured by the collective strength of a network of partners to which the country needed to offer "operationally credible" contributions, the statement said.
"Our region is now a strategic theatre, and New Zealand needs a defence posture that reflects this reality... Defence must be able to defend, if necessary, New Zealand's sovereign territory and maritime interests."
A primary goal would be preventing states that don't share New Zealand's values from establishing a military or paramilitary presence in the region.
The report identified the Chinese government's efforts to increase its "political, economic, and security influence" in the Pacific as a potential risk to regional security.
"The relationship with China is significant for New Zealand, and its cooperation will continue to be essential in addressing many global challenges. At the same time, the Chinese government's assertive pursuit of its strategic objectives is the major driver for the new era of strategic competition among states.
"An increasingly powerful China is using all its instruments of national power in ways that can pose challenges to existing international rules and norms.
"Beijing continues to invest heavily in growing and modernising its military, and is increasingly able to project military and paramilitary force beyond its immediate region, including across the wider Indo-Pacific."
A related document - titled Future Force Design Principles - said the current Defence Force had been designed for a "relatively benign strategic environment".
"As a result, it is not in a fit state to respond to future challenges," the report said.
"A more challenging environment means that the Defence Force will be called upon more often, and personnel must be ready, equipped, and trained for a range of contingencies including armed conflict, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief."
Funding boost still two or three years away - Minister
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Little said a further document would be coming next year, the capability review which would set out the roadmap for future defence spending.
He said New Zealand was putting about 1 percent of GDP into defence - and while he expected that would increase as a result of the capability review it was not likely to reach the 2 percent level of Australia and several NATO-aligned countries.
"As a government, we are under fiscal constraints at the moment anyway. So should there be an increase in spending - which I predict there will be - it may be, you know, two or three budgets away yet before we start to see that," he said.
"Highly unlikely to go as high as 2 percent but it is likely to go higher than the current 1 percent, and it would be a combination of kit, material and personnel as well.
"We've got to look at naval fleet, and certainly the frigates and some of the offshore patrol vessels come to the end of their economic life over the next 10 years ... it'll be in those sorts of areas. I don't want to get ahead of the defence capability plan - that is a considered exercise and that will determine what the future and the full suite of capability might look like."
He acknowledged attrition was a problem, but said the government had recently increased service pay rates, and that could have an effect.
"I do know anecdotally of some recently departed personnel who have said they would like to come back, and they've seen the increases in remuneration and for some of them - it might be enough to entice them back, some might wait a little longer to see what else happens.
"But there's no substitute also for the ongoing recruitment, training up the next generation and backfilling our skills needs through that process."
National security strategy
Little also unveiled New Zealand's first 'National Security Strategy' with directions to the intelligence community on how to navigate the changed environment.
"Kiwis want to know more about the national security challenges we face, and crucially they want to be part of the discussion about how we can address them," Little said.
The document also highlighted the wider Indo-Pacific region as the centre of strategic competition with potential flashpoints located in Taiwan, the South China Sea and East China Sea.
"North Korea continues to destabilise the Korean Peninsula. In any of these instances, even tensions that fall short of full conflict could have unpredictable but significant impacts on trade and supply chains, with global effects, including for New Zealand and the rules-based international system."
China had become more assertive in the region and efforts to develop ports and airports brought the possibility of dual-use facilities for both civilian and military purposes, the document said.
"The 2022 China-Solomon Islands security agreement and ongoing attempts to create new groupings in the Pacific demonstrate China's ambition to link economic and security cooperation, create competing regional architectures, and expand its influence with Pacific Island countries across policing, defence, digital, and maritime spheres."
The 'National Security Strategy' sets out major initiatives through to 2025, including commitments to publish an annual overview of threats along with a ministerial speech.
DPMC chief executive Rebecca Kitteridge - also the former director-general of NZSIS - had overall responsibility for the policy, and said national security was fundamental to the people of New Zealand.
"We now face a world which is rapidly becoming more challenging and complex. We need to be better prepared for this shifting world and new challenges at home," she said.
Referring to the 2019 attacks on Christchurch mosques, she said working together and sharing information across New Zealand society was critical. Public conversations would help New Zealanders prepare themselves against threats, send important signals to markets, and validate communities who had been struggling with foreign interference, she said.
"It encourages better cybersecurity practices and helps our businesses and institutions to protect their networks and their intellectual property, she said.
"A well informed society is a more resilient one."
A strong focus on working together also extended to international partnerships, and New Zealand would commit to deepening those relationships.
The strategy was a beginning, not an end, Kitteridge said, and would change the way the security community worked - reducing harm by tackling threats before they arose, while building resilience and readiness when for prevention was not possible.
Little said the strategy was more about being open to current circumstances than making radical changes to the national security or defence policy.
"I don't think we are close to war on the Pacific. I think there is some rising tension in the Pacific and I think it puts the onus on all countries with a stake in the Pacific and with an involvement in the Pacific to be engaged, to be engaged with each other, to minimise that prospect - but to continue doing what we do."
'No one else is responsible for defending Aotearoa'
Defence leaders appeared keen to highlight the need for the strategy's renewed focus.
"If we have learnt anything over the past few years it is that unexpected events don't queue up waiting for us to deal with them," began Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Kevin Short.
Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman similarly outlined just how much and how quickly things had changed.
"Just over a year after the release of the 2021 Defence Assessment, the strategic environment has deteriorated more quickly than we imagined: the illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine, the devastating effects of climate change both here in our region and beyond, as well as the increased competition we see in the Pacific and the wider Indo-Pacific."
He said the previous reactive policy approach was "appropriate for a more benign world that we enjoyed" but would not serve New Zealand's best interests today.
However, investment in military capability was neither simple, nor quick, and would need "sound stewardship".
Air Marshal Short highlighted "challenges on many fronts" facing the NZDF including high attrition, ageing capabilities and infrastructure, but said Defence would "always need people".
"We need people capable of seeing the future and doing ordinary things, we need curious people to do curious things, and we need courageous people to do courageous things. I cannot see a future where this will not be required."
But in this more dangerous world, personnel would asked to go into dangerous situations on our behalf.
"They must do so knowing that they are equipped to be their best when the world is at its worst. The future Defence Force is one that has our people at the centre, serving in a force which can fight and win in mid-intensity conflict.
"Today more than ever we need to look at the defence systems of systems: the system which includes the latest but proven technology, the eyes and ears of information-gathering senses, fast and accurate decision-making, our command and control systems, reliable supply chains, and of course our people."
"We need to be able to operate in several concurrent operations, and to shape and respond to the environment."
He said the international rules based system was what guaranteed New Zealand's stability, security and prosperity.
"We cannot do it alone - but no one else is responsible for defending Aotearoa New Zealand."