Author: Robert Ayson

As I read Jim Rolfe’s thoughtful response to my post on the future of New Zealand’s frigates, one line really stood out. “The primary purpose of the warships is to be able to go into dangerous situations and defeat or deter enemies at sea.”

This important message is only amplified if we see what the government’s recent Defence Capability Plan (DCP) says about the money that is being spent on Te Kaha and Te Mana: “These upgrades have been undertaken to ensure that the frigates remain world-class maritime combat capabilities for the full duration of their service.”

And that brings to mind Lance Beath’s polite reinterpretation of my subversive suggestion: “if New Zealand did not need the kind of naval combat capability represented by our two upgraded frigates”, he asks, “why did this government choose to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars on the Frigate Systems Upgrade in the first place?” Why indeed.

The situational answer is that Defence Minister-in-a-hurry Ron Mark inherited an upgrade sequence that was too advanced to reverse. But there is another explanation. Alongside the maritime surveillance aircraft (currently the P3 Orions) and the Special Forces, the frigates are in rare company as elements of a slender range of combat options for New Zealand governments to choose from. That’s why my doubts about the future of the frigates gave one Australian-based defence commentator kittens on Twitter.

But a close look at the DCP make me wonder if a frigates upgrade today is likely to be followed by a like-for-like replacement tomorrow. For one thing, that tomorrow is further down the track than it once was. Having as many as two dozen items on Defence’s shopping list for between now and 2030, and having spent even more on the upgrades than initially anticipated, the two ANZAC frigates are being asked to go on for longer. The DCP puts it ever so nicely and optimistically: “Delaying the replacement of the frigates improves the affordability of the Defence Capability Plan 2019 by de-conflicting the replacement of the most significant Defence capabilities.”

In other words the government has accepted that even within a $20billion envelope New Zealand cannot afford to buy new frigates in addition to replacing the Orions and the Hercules over the next ten or so years. And it would seem both of the Air Force’s big platforms are already in the bag. Following last year’s decision to replace the P3s with P8s, the same government has bypassed the normal tendering process and identified the C130-J as the preferred replacement for the Hercules.

If I was Navy, and fond of my frigates, I’d regard with dread paragraph 204 of the DCP: “The ANZAC Frigates are scheduled to be replaced with modern surface combatants relevant to New Zealand’s prevailing strategic environment in the mid-2030s.” This is hardly a definitive commitment. If there were as many off-ramps on the Kapiti expressway, the residents of Peka Peka and Te Horo would have one each.

Yet in no small irony plenty is happening in the DCP for navy capabilities, and some of these may crowd out the frigates. By 2030 (if all goes according to plan!), there will be a new dedicated offshore patrol vessel for southern ocean patrolling, new maritime helicopters to replace the Seasprites, and a second substantial sealift vessel to join the ranks of the very busy Canterbury. That’s on top of the recently arrived dive and hydrographic vessel and a new tanker which the Defence Force proudly describes as “the largest ship the RNZN has ever had in the fleet.”

The second sealift vessel is the one that the frigate supporters really need to watch. At an estimated cost of at least $1billion, the write up in the DCP deserves to be quoted in some detail:

“The enhanced sealift vessel will have greater lift capacity than HMNZS Canterbury. The capability will provide a highly flexible military asset, including hospital facilities, planning spaces, and self-defence capabilities. It will also provide support for the deployment of a range of capabilities, including Special Forces, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and NH90 helicopters. The enhanced sealift capability will also improve the New Zealand Defence Force’s amphibious operations. Through the provision of a well dock, it will be able to conduct operations in a wider range of sea conditions, and will have the size and capacity to carry large equipment, and sufficient aviation capacity to allow extended, long duration operations. Its size will also provide for the transport of a larger number of personnel, allowing for the value of the increased size of the New Zealand Army to be realised.”

One question is: what sort of vessel do the writers of the DCP have in mind? They give their likely answer in the next paragraph as a thing called a Landing Platform Dock. Not quite as elegantly named as a frigate, corvette, destroyer, or cruiser, but a part of the force structures of many of New Zealand’s traditional partners, including the United States. A more significant question is where does such a vessel fit into the government’s depiction of its most important defence priorities. The answer, if we look at six crucial paragraphs (30-35) of the DCP, is right at the centre.

Let me take you through this logic. First, reference is made to last year’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement which “raised the priority placed on the Defence Force’s ability to operate in the South Pacific to the same level as New Zealand’s territory, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.” Second, there is a commitment to being able to “operate independently or to lead peace and security operations in the Pacific.” Third, the DCP argues that such a “force needs to act cohesively within potentially high-risk environments, inserting and sustaining diverse capabilities, preventing or minimising conflict, and supporting local communities to build security.”

In case you think some of this is frigate friendly, including the reference to high-risk environments, it is important to see the fourth leg of the logic. This part mentions the capabilities that New Zealand would require. The list includes “maritime mine counter-measures”, “air surveillance capabilities”, (a tick for the P8s) “amphibious forces”, (a tick for sealift) “landing craft and helicopter forces operating from sealift vessels, as well as airlift capabilities” (ditto and also the C130Js) and a “high-readiness land combat company, and if required, special operations forces”. And finally into that pot is added, or perhaps simply repeated, “New Zealand’s sealift, sustainment and air transport capabilities” (sealift and C130Js again).

What I can’t see is quite where the frigates fit in this picture which is reinforced by the government’s ‘Pacific Re-set’ and its concerns about the regional effects of climate change. In contrast it is easy to discern a demand for more sealift. So let’s assume that ten years from now the main features of today’s DCP have survived the next recession, one or two changes of government with new defence ministers, as well as some schedule delays and cost overruns. 2029 is when that second sealift vessel is meant to arrive. And that’s precisely when the Canterbury will need replacing. So how about two of these? And hey presto: the frigates have already been “replaced” before the two ANZACs leave service.

Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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