The disclosure that 92 missions flown by RNZAF P3 Orions have been intercepted by the jets of foreign powers is sending shock waves through the broader defence community.
Details of the incidents, including the identity of the foreign powers and the exact locations of the interceptions, were withheld on national security grounds under the Official Information Act.
The NZ Herald broke the story after it had been withheld on national security grounds.
What is alarming is that the public is left unaware of the risks which are routinely carried by defence personnel as they fly these missions. It also points to the need for greater defence spending to ensure the RNZAF, and other defence services, have the resources they need for the complex tasks they are expected to undertake.
Defence chief of staff Air Commodore A. J. Woods told the NZ Herald the 92 intercepts of the P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol planes happened across 234 missions since 2015.
They happened in the East Asia and Middle East regions, Woods said.
All further details, including the foreign powers involved and the circumstances of the intercepts, were withheld under Section 6(a) of the Official Information Act, allowing information to be withheld if it could prejudice the security, defence or international relations of New Zealand.
The NZ Herald first filed the request with the Defence Force after a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft was intercepted in international airspace by a Chinese J-16 fighter jet on May 26, leading to a further souring of Sino-Australian relations.
Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said the P-8 was carrying out routine surveillance when it was intercepted by the J-16 fighter aircraft, which he said flew “very close to the side” of the Australian aircraft.
“In flying close to the side, it released flares. The J-16 then accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the P-8 at very close distance,” Marles told media.
Marles described the incident as “very dangerous”, and said Australia had voiced its concerns with Beijing.
The Chinese government hit back via an editorial in the party-controlled Global Times, saying key details were left out by the Australian minister, including where it exactly it occurred.
A request in June to the NZ Defence Force asking for details of all intercepts in recent years was withheld in full the following month, citing national security. The Herald complained to the Ombudsman and asked for at least some broad details to be released, even if it meant withholding the exact locations.
The watchdog launched an investigation, but eventually upheld Defence’s decision to withhold the information in full.
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he accepted the argument that its release would be likely to prejudice the security and defence of New Zealand.
“Even if there is a high public interest in the information, I cannot recommend that NZDF release it,” Boshier wrote in a letter in November.
“Unfortunately, I cannot provide more of an explanation of my opinion, without that explanation potentially causing the prejudice at issue.”
Boshier said the Defence Force had signalled it intended to revisit its decision on the request.
The following month, Air Commodore Woods provided the data. No explanation was given as to why it was not now prejudicial to national security.
Ron Mark, who was Defence Minister from 2017 to 2020, much of the period covered by the interception data, told the newspaper:
“In my time as Minister of Defence, I received many such briefings on those very matters.”
Mark would not go into specifics on the incidents, citing a “lifelong duty of confidence” after taking the oath as minister.
“I am still subject to all their relevant Acts regarding highly confidential and sensitive information that might harm our diplomatic relations with other countries, and that might harm our economy,” he said.
“I won’t be commenting on how it affects New Zealand’s P-3 deployments, because that would potentially harm New Zealand’s diplomatic relations, and potentially could harm New Zealand’s economy. And I don’t want to be the person responsible for that.”