New Zealand's armed forces have three defence policy objectives; to defend New Zealand against low-level threats, to contribute to regional security; and to play a part in global security efforts. New Zealand considers its own national defence needs to be modest, due to its geographical isolation and benign relationships with neighbours. As of September 2008, approximately 600 NZDF personnel served overseas in the South Pacific, Asia and Middle East areas.
New Zealand is a signatory of the ANZUS treaty, a defence pact between it, Australia and the United States. Since the United States suspended its obligations to New Zealand in 1986, due to the latter's anti-nuclear policy that refused certain US ships access to ports, New Zealand co-operates only with Australia under the treaty. Before entering New Zealand, US ships must declare whether they are nuclear propelled or carrying nuclear weapons. Since the US has a policy of "neither confirm nor deny", they have not visited New Zealand.
The NZDF came into existence under the Defence Act 1990.
New Zealand's Army consists of around 4,500 full-time and 2,500 part-time troops. Most troops are infantry. New Zealand does not operate tanks, although it does have more than 100 Armoured Fighting Vehicles, known as the NZLAV. The New Zealand Special Air Service, an Army unit, is the NZDF's special forces capability. Other NZ Army branches include:
The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) includes two Anzac class frigates, developed in conjunction with Australia. Eight other vessels are in use, consisting of patrol vessels and logistics. Over the next few years the RNZN will acquire seven new vessels: one large Multi-Role Vessel, two Offshore Patrol Vessels, and four Inshore Patrol Vessels. All of these new vessels will be part of Project Protector and will be built to commercial standards.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force consists of 50 aircraft, consisting of P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and Lockheed C-130 Hercules and other transport aircraft. The RNZAF does not have a strike force following the retirement of its A-4 Skyhawk and Aermacchi MB-339 squadrons. A plan to acquire 28 F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft was cancelled in 2000. The NH90 helicopter has recently been ordered to replace Bell UH-1 Iroquois. The PAC CT/4 Airtrainer is locally produced.
HQNZDF operates as the administrative and support headquarters for the New Zealand Defence Force, with operational forces under the separate administrative command and control of HQJFNZ.
The operational forces of the three services are directed from Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand near Trentham Military Camp in Upper Hutt. From this building the Air Component Commander, Maritime Component Commander, and Land Component Commander exercise command over their forces. Commander Joint Forces New Zealand (COMJFNZ), currently Major General Rhys Jones, controls all overseas operational deployments and most overseas exercises.
New Zealand states it maintains a "credible minimum force," although critics (including the New Zealand National Party who have been the NZ Government's main opposition since the 1990s) maintain that the country's defence forces have fallen below this standard With a claimed area of direct strategic concern that extends from Australia to Southeast Asia to the South Pacific, and with defence expenditures that total around 1% of GDP, New Zealand necessarily places substantial reliance on co-operating with other countries, in particular Australia.
Acknowledging the need to improve its defense capabilities, the government in 2005 announced the Defense Sustainability Initiative allocating an additional NZ$4.6 billion over 10 years to modernize the country's defense equipment and infrastructure and increase its military personnel. The funding represented a 51% increase in defense spending since the Labour government took office in 1999.
New Zealand is an active participant in multilateral peacekeeping. It has taken a leading role in trying to bring peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction to the Solomon Islands and the neighboring island of Bougainville. New Zealand maintains a contingent in the Multinational Force and Observers and has contributed to UN peacekeeping operations in Angola, Cambodia, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia. It also participated in the Multilateral Interception Force in the Persian Gulf. New Zealand's most recent peacekeeping experience has been in East Timor, where it initially dispatched almost 10% of its entire defence force and continues to be the second-largest force contributor.
New Zealand participates in sharing training facilities, personnel exchanges, and joint exercises with the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Brunei, Tonga, and South Pacific states. It also exercises with its Five-Power Defense Arrangement partners - Australia, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and Singapore. Due to New Zealand's antinuclear policy, defense cooperation with the U.S., including training exercises, has been significantly restricted since 1986, when the ANZUS treaty defence obligations to NZ were suspended by the USA. However, New Zealand and the USA remain 'very, very good friends' and the NZDF has served alongside the US Military in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent times - in 2004 the NZSAS were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation by US President George W Bush for "extraordinary heroism" in action.