Author: Euan Graham

Rob Ayson’s thought-provoking post implied that the temporary incapacity of New Zealand’s two ANZAC frigates is a blessing in disguise. In other words, because both vessels were undergoing a significant upgrade refit in Canada, Wellington would be able to rebuff any request from Washington to send a warship to the Gulf, simply because the capability was unavailable. Rob went on to ponder whether the absence of a surface combat capability beyond 2030 really matters for keeping New Zealand’s lights on.

To this Australia-based occasional commentator on trans-Tasman strategic affairs that seems like a fair, if deliberately provocative, question. After all, successive New Zealand governments have run down the NZDF’s combat capabilities, including its fast jets, without incurring obvious strategic costs. Or, at least not costs that bother most taxpayers, since it is they who are ultimately expected to foot the bill for defence, against competing priorities with more tangible socio-economic benefits.

Despite this, the NZDF have kept up the illusion of doing more with less, maintaining an impressive international activity rate for the most part. HMNZS Te Kaha and Te Mana were regular visitors to Singapore when I lived there a few years ago, tangibly demonstrating New Zealand’s enduring Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) commitments, at a time when the UK felt disengaged by comparison.

Something more profound than budgetary decline has taken place, however. New Zealand has stopped thinking strategically, beyond a very narrow circle of officials and academics (including Rob and others writing for this forum). That is especially true at the political level, where defence lacks a lobby or supportive constituency. This problem is hardly unique, but the “post-modern” feel to New Zealand’s defence debate seems particularly pronounced, and sticky. If Australia is Mars, New Zealand is Venus.

From the outside, it feels as though a strategic rationale for maintaining a conventional war-fighting capability across the NZDF has been progressively massaged out of the national discourse. In its place, a non-traditional “other-than-war” security paradigm has won mainstream acceptance. Granted, the 2019 Defence Capability Plan mentions the “fundamental importance” of combat capabilities, but with little specificity this comes across as orphaned from the overall framing. Non-combat roles for the military, such as HADR, peacekeeping and search and rescue have also taken on a more central justification in recent years. Yes, New Zealand sent special forces to Afghanistan and recently decided to replace its old P-3 fleet with a smaller number of more capable (and expensive) P-8A Poseidon aircraft. But references to anti-submarine warfare are officially eschewed in favour of the bland “underwater” descriptor, for fear of sounding too, ahem, war-like.

None of which is to imply that New Zealand should join Australia and the UK in a US-led naval coalition of the willing in the Gulf. Australia would have been wiser, in my view, to concentrate its military resources and defence engagement effort closer to home, including in our shared neighbourhood in the Southwest Pacific.

But the higher point, which seems curiously absent from Rob’s commentary, is that New Zealand is acutely dependent on the security of the maritime trading system. It also has defence commitments, under the FPDA, that strategically tie it into Southeast Asia. The NZDF cannot defend these extra-territorial interests unilaterally, but should maintain the capability to contribute credible combat forces when required. As an island nation, it seems obvious that this should extend to the navy.

It is not only New Zealand that does the contributing. New Zealand receives “systemic” security from Australia, but also from far-flung naval contributors to the region. Two frigates may feel like a discretionary capability for New Zealand to maintain in certain quarters (though three ships should really be the minimum). Yet even the Royal Canadian Navy has committed to sending 2 warships annually across the Pacific in recent years. Given that New Zealand is already across the water, that is a reasonable benchmark to match.

As Lance Beath has recently argued, the requirement for a future frigate need not be treated too prescriptively. Australia’s Hunter-class frigates, verging on 9,000 tons, are probably beyond New Zealand’s reach, on top of HMNZS Canterbury’s nearer-term replacement. Something more along the lines of the UK’s Type-31 program may be a better fit, and still be inter-operable in a Trans-Tasman and FPDA context.

New Zealand’s remoteness affords it enviable strategic depth, even today. But how reliable is the assumption that New Zealand won’t be facing direct strategic pressure around the time of the ANZACs’ retirement? New Zealanders have grown inured to grizzling from across the Tasman that they don’t carrying their share of the defence burden. Australia’s geographical bulk and greater military capabilities help explain New Zealand’s temptation to skimp on defence. But New Zealand’s strategic community needs to consider whether Australia will always be so conveniently interposed in the way of potential threats.

The South Pacific region has always had a geopolitical dimension. But there is now a potential military dimension on top. New Zealand’s strategists appear less willing to swallow this uncomfortable paradigm shift than their Australian counterparts. If China’s ambitions to acquire a military base, or operating facility in the Southwest Pacific are realized, the implications for New Zealand’s defence would be game-changing, transforming a “rear area” into something more like a strategic front line, for the first time in a century. There is also a strategic dimension to China’s thickening presence in the Antarctic. This, if anything, is more likely to resonate with the New Zealand public.

By the time the ANZAC frigates leave service, New Zealand’s location is likely to look a good deal less pacific than it does currently. Two or three modern surface combatants, operating in tandem with the RNZAF’s P-8A Poseidons, could be rather handy at that point. Not merely to “plug in” to faraway commitments, but for defending New Zealand’s vast sovereign maritime space and that of its Pacific hinterland. New Zealand will always lack the resources required to maintain its extra-territorial security interests unassisted. Maintaining a suite of expeditionary war-fighting capabilities, including sea-control assets, is therefore prudent.

If I was New Zealand, I’d not only be replacing the ANZAC frigates in due course but scaling up to a three-ship force. But that’s all pie in the sky unless New Zealand learns to think, talk and act strategically again.

Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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