When the undersea volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupted in January, triggering a tsunami in Tonga and surrounding areas, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) was quick to deploy emergency humanitarian assistance. This is in line with a new set of priorities and principles for the NZDF, announced in December, which include a stronger focus on people, infrastructure and the Pacific.

In our March issue of EG, we talk to engineers from the Navy, the Army and the Air Force to find out more about their work with infrastructure, machines, weaponry and other equipment aimed at helping keep the Pacific region secure and stable.

Three days after the volcanic eruption, HMNZS Wellington was on its way to Tonga, carrying Hydrographic Survey and Diving Teams, as well as an SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopter. The vessel’s engineering officer, Lieutenant Maddy Win, joined the Navy eight years ago for the variety. Just before Christmas she'd found out the ship and its 80 personnel were off to help defuse tensions in the Solomon Islands. And by late January, they were deploying for Tonga.

Wellington is the “workhorse of the fleet” and Lt Win's role is as a “turbo-charged project manager” who oversees a team of up to 25 technicians. They look after all “fight, float and move” components onboard, from weapons and ammunition, to the propulsion system, and the vessel’s stability.

“No part of the ship is left untouched by the technicians. My responsibility is to ensure all that machinery is running correctly, and if it’s not, then implementing plans to bring it back up to speed.”

The largest part of her role is deployment planning. She says the biggest engineering challenges take place once the ship has left port, away from its support network of land-based contractors. “A lot of out-of-the box thinking often needs to happen to get equipment back up and running to its optimum state.”

Many technicians are 18-year-old school leavers. “I’m sort of camp mum,” she says. “We have to be equipped to deal with welfare issues while at sea.”

The Navy paid Lt Win’s university fees; she’s travelled the world, and she is hoping to be chartered within the year. The opportunities for leadership and working on high-budget projects are “massive”. “It’s unbelievable to be in charge of a team that’s almost 25 strong at the age of 29. Some people see the Navy as engineering-lite. Yet the engineering we do on board is exactly the same as what people do ashore. But it’s a lot more exciting than sitting at a desk.”

NZDF Tonga defense

The NZDF quickly deployed personnel and resources following Tonga’s volcano and tsunami in January.

Army combat engineers: physically tough, mentally resilient, flexible

When New Zealand was in Afghanistan, it was combat engineers who went ahead of everyone else to search for roadside bombs or IEDs (improvised explosive devices) using metal detectors and detection dogs.

It can be dangerous, but as Major Gareth Collings, from 2 Field Squadron in Linton, lists the 16 different skill sets that military engineers learn, it’s not surprising to learn the Army easily fills the annual intake.

It sounds like the stuff of action movies: “We blow bridges up, we do mine warfare and we do assault breaching – placing charges on obstacles, on doorways and to blow holes in walls,” Maj Collings says.

Combat engineers also operate the Army’s small boats, they build bridges and fortifications and they’re experts in chemical warfare. They help with humanitarian aid and disaster relief – the same water purification systems used in combat situations have been used in Fiji, Vanuatu, Christchurch and Kaikōura after natural disasters.

They ensured there was an alternate traffic route after the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake and they helped with Australia’s devastating 2020 bushfires. A small group of combat engineers deployed to Tonga on HMNZS Canterbury as part of the recent Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief Task Unit.

Combat engineers learn their trade entirely within the military, says Maj Collings. The minimum joining age is 17.5 years and many arrive straight from school. They all do the 16 weeks’ basic Army training before they’re posted to the engineer regiment.

A four-month practical course gives them an overall grounding in the core skills of their new trade. There are specific courses to complete to rise up the ranks, as well as the “all arms” courses that all soldiers do. There are around 130 combat engineers in the Army’s regular force and another 50 or so in the Territorial Force. Approximately 130 are in 2 Field Squadron, of whom six are female.

Self-reliance, communication and flexibility of mind are “invaluable” qualities, says Maj Collings. Even junior combat engineers are sent to support other units, so they need to be self-reliant and be able to communicate with senior people. They need to be able to switch quickly between different tasks. “Flexibility of mind, to do that, is very important.”

It can be difficult to keep skills up when not on deployment, so regular training is important. Otherwise the consequences could be “catastrophic” for high-risk activities like operating small craft and working with explosives. 2021 saw half the squadron away at any given time, on six-week rotations as part of Operation Protect – helping the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment with the Border Security Force and the Managed Isolation Quarantine system.

But a two-week training exercise in November – in which 50 combat engineers spent one week building fortifications, and another week blowing them up – was great refresher training, he says. “We got a lot out of it and it was good for morale to get out and do our job. Everyone enjoyed the chance to do their job in a climate where training opportunites have been limited.”

... the engineering we do on board is exactly the same as what people do ashore. But it’s a lot more exciting than sitting at a desk. - Lt Maddy Win

Lt Maddy Win

Lt Maddy Win, engineering officer on HMNZS Wellington.

Most combat engineers stay in the Army for six to eight years. Many go on to tertiary study. Maj Collings joined the army from school in 1994. He briefly stepped away from the Army a decade ago, but soon realised he wasn’t quite ready to leave. “You have to be in the right mindset.”

He describes the combat engineers as “amazing people”. “They’ve got to be physically tough but, more than that, they have to be mentally resilient and flexible enough to handle the variety of things that they could be called to do at any given time. They take everything in their stride.”

A “once-in-a-lifetime” project at Base Ōhakea

Keeping New Zealand safe and secure, supporting the future generations of our Defence Force, environmental sustainability, local iwi and the wider Manawatū-Whanganui community were all top of mind with the design and construction of a new $250 million state-of-the-art facilty for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) at Base Ōhakea, says Ministry of Defence Project Infrastructure Director Robin Scott CMEngNZ.

When complete, the new aircraft hangars will be the biggest and most complex construction ever undertaken by an integrated project team from the Ministry of Defence and NZDF.

“It is also the first purpose-built facility for Number Five (No 5) Squadron,” says Robin.

Part of a wider $2.3 billion Air Surveillance Maritime Patrol capability project, the hangars will house Aotearoa’s new fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft which are scheduled for delivery in 2023.

The RNZAF, which celebrates its 85th anniversary this year, will use the P-8A Poseidon fleet for more than just military activities, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and search and rescue operations.

The four aircraft will replace the six ageing turboprop P-3K2 Orion aircraft. Their arrival means infrastructure is key to the project.

“P-8A Poseidon aircraft will bring new and diverse engineering and maintenance requirements, and the Air Force is refreshing its operations to meet those new requirements.”

The site is named Te Whare Toroa (house of the albatross) after the majestic, powerful seabird that is No 5 Squadron’s crest and an important bird for iwi. The facility, which has been designed to withstand large seismic events, will be 180m in length and cover 16,000m2 over two storeys, and 30m high.

It includes two hangars as well as a workshop and maintenance base, equipment stores, headquarters and administration offices, mission support facilities, and a state-of-the-art training and flight simulation wing. The parking apron in front of the hangars will cover the equivalent of approximately nine rugby pitches.

Groundworks started on the site in December 2019 and the facility construction began in 2021. The facility’s design consortium, named Team Tangaroa (god of the sea), comprises Aurecon, AECOM, Warren and Mahoney, and Boffa Miskell.

Fulton Hogan is leading the horizontal works, including the apron construction and runway upgrade, while Hawkins Construction is building the facility. At its peak, the project will see 400 construction workers on site, and up to 50 design engineers.

With the P-8A Poseidon aircraft fleet expected to be in service for at least 30 years, the facility has been designed with environmental sustainability in mind.

Robin says: “We’ve tried to keep the carbon footprint to a minimum via material selection, designed hi-tech ventilation systems to cater for potential temperature rises in the coming decades due to climate change, and installed a rainwater collection system and lowflow water fittings."

Facility design incorporates aspects of te ao Māori. The building’s frontage is curved to reflect the toroa’s wingspan. Meanwhile, Te Kāpehu Whetū, or the Māori star compass, will lie at the entrance.

The positive impact of the new facility is already being felt in the local community, with two-thirds of the construction workforce coming from ManawatūWhanganui. The community will get a further boost in 2023, when No 5 Squadron moves from their current base in Whenuapai to Ōhakea, with their families.

“This facility will be pivotal in providing support to these amazing and very capable aircraft, and the service personnel who will operate them. It’s a oncein-a-lifetime project."

Base Ōhakea

Construction work at Base Ōhakea. Image: NZDF

Tackling “pretty scary” southern seas

The Southern Ocean is arguably the world’s most hostile and hazardous maritime environment. It’s also part of New Zealand’s backyard. The NZDF’s many responsibilities in this remote, icy region include search and rescue, environmental custodianship through fisheries patrols, and supplying the Antarctic bases.

The Defence Technology Agency (DTA), which provides research, science and technology support to the NZDF and the Ministry of Defence, has been studying the region’s wave environment to better understand it. A lack of historical observations means that the groundbreaking DTA-led research provides useful data that reveals just how inhospitable the region can be.

In 2022, a DTA-led trial is looking at what that means for New Zealand’s naval vessels, and the seakeeping challenges that come with operating in the Southern Ocean. In February, a team of three DTA engineers accompanied the HMNZS Aotearoa on her maiden Antarctic voyage.

DTA research engineer Dr Richard Stubbing says the Southern Ocean’s wave environment is “pretty scary” and in some ways even more extreme than the North Atlantic’s infamous huge waves.

“On an average day in the Southern Ocean, a typical wave is around four metres, and the largest up to eight metres.”

The trial will look at how various technologies, like radar and sonar, used to detect sea ice, lose performance in such potentially rough conditions.

The trial has already received interest from overseas, says Richard.

“As a small nation we tend to be more agile and have much easier access to our frontline platforms and personnel. Trials like this are where we really punch above our weight in international defence science collaborations.”

Richard Stubbing.jpg

Dr Richard Stubbing