New Zealand officials began pitching the benefits of joining AUKUS months ago - documents

Phil Pennington for RNZ

Documents show Defence officials have for months been pitching the benefits of joining the AUKUS military alliance.

Defence Minister Judith Collins meets her counterpart in Melbourne on Thursday and is expected to raise the prospect of joining the non-nuclear part of the deal - called Pillar 2.

A briefing to the previous government just before the election lists eight "opportunities for New Zealand's research community and industry", but these are all blanked-out in the Official Information Act release.

Collins told Australian media on the eve of the Melbourne talks that, "We are interested in being involved in Pillar 2. It's not a secret."

Pillar 2 aims to rapidly develop advanced military technology including drones. The UK has stressed the need for speed. The core AUKUS partners the US, UK and Australia have talked up the threat of China.

The NZ Defence Force has just done a multi-million-dollar deal for dozens of new, much more high-tech drones, some able to help artillery target the enemy.

Collins also suggested New Zealand's space industry might help develop hypersonics tech, a goal shared by Pillar 2 and Washington, and already involving local firm Rocket Lab in Pentagon contracts.

Unusually, the trans-Tasman meet-up on Thursday is a doubleheader - also involving Foreign Minister Winston Peters and his counterpart.

The advice about the benefits of joining Pillar 2 is in a five-page briefing to the previous defence minister, shared with the ministers of foreign affairs, and of research, science and innovation.

"Officials are continuing to analyse the opportunities for New Zealand under AUKUS pillar two," the briefing stated.

As with other documents released about AUKUS, swathes are blanked out, commonly on the grounds of protecting national security, so the public is left none the wiser.

AUKUS has two parts. Pillar 1 between the core partners is primarily about supplying nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra.

Pillar 2 is the non-nuclear part, about developing and sharing military tech.

The US has said the door is open to New Zealand - and others, like Canada - to join, and most New Zealand politicians, including the current and former prime ministers, have liked the idea.

However, critics say it would be a shift away from the current defence strategy where helping Pacific neighbours is key, to a techcentric, expeditionary type military that aligns with helping the US counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The OIA papers show the government set out last year to "recalibrate" the key message on AUKUS, to show that New Zealand agreed with the rationale behind the alliance, and with the US and Australia, that there was a "deteriorating strategic environment" in the region.

Collins was quoted in Australian media saying New Zealand had to play its part and "not be a freeloader". She is also minister of science, innovation and technology, and of space. The US recently asked New Zealand to front up more money to update military satellites.

US Admiral has said the intent of Pillar 2 was "to hit the accelerator", and UK government public relations stated that "accelerating the development of these technologies will have a massive impact on coalition military capability".

However, dilemmas abound over signing up to an alliance intent on rapidly developing advanced military technology: The government is trying to cut spending at public agencies by 6-7 percent; the country's existing military tech, such as its naval helicopter fleet, is in many cases at end of life and needs big spending on it - those helicopters alone will cost a billion to replace; and so many Defence personnel have quit since Covid it and so many Defence personnel have quit since Covid it cannot even keep ships and planes on duty.

Drones and hypersonics are two of the eight technologies that Pillar 2 is working on, with others comprising: undersea capability, quantum tech, AI and autonomy, advanced cyber, electronic warfare, and information sharing.

The Pentagon's hypersonics ambitions are matched by its Replicator concept for drones. This new approach aims to get industry partners on board to help it put thousands of cheap drones into the Indo-Pacific region, inspired by the use of mass drones in the Ukraine war for both defensive and offensive operations.

The NZDF's new drone contracts with three suppliers are for between 50 and 75 new drones of three types, used for reconnaissance, surveillance, tracking and targeting.

A tender cited in Defence media reports suggests the order is for between two and four fixed-wing Skydio X2D quadcopters - which have been promoted in the US as a fit with the Replicator project - between 18 and 30 Vector drones for the artillery, and 30-40 tiny Black Hornets, made by US giant Teledyne, which has copped criticism for its links to Israel's military.

Collins told the AAP it was vital New Zealand military tech fit in with Australia's - what is called "interoperability". RNZ has asked her if the new drone deals ensure such interoperability.

The NZDF could not say if the drone deal ensures interoperability.

"Interoperability with coalition partners, and in particular with our only formal ally Australia, is a critical factor in the joint defence and security of our region and allows for the sharing of common doctrine and procedures in an operational context. With regards to interoperability specifically on these [drones], we are unable to provide you a response within your deadline.

"Final purchase order values and quantities cannot be release for operational reasons," the NZDF told RNZ.

The US-UK-Australia core alliance has set up working groups for Pillar 2 tech streams and last April ran a landmark trial of drone swarms that adapted in-flight using AI to detect and track military targets.

The UK military wants speed, but a House of Lords report on autonomous weapon systems late last year warned it was not living up to its goal of "safe, responsible" use of artificial intelligence.