Professor Robert Ayson is right to be uncertain about the likely shape of the future surface combatant force once HMNZS Te Kaha and Te Mana are withdrawn from service in the first half of the 2030s. But the reasons for uncertainty are a good deal more complex than Rob’s piece argues.
Robert writes ‘If I was Navy, and fond of my frigates, I’d regard with dread paragraph 204 of the DCP (government’s Defence Capability Plan of April 2019): “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.’
It is hard to see why anyone thinking about the question of the replacement of the frigates would be unhappy with this drafting. The DCP says as much as needs to be said, or indeed can sensibly be said, this far out from any replacement decision, viz: the ANZAC frigates are scheduled to be replaced with modern surface combatants relevant to the strategic environment of the mid-2030s and well beyond.
There are two things to say about this line of thought. First, a like-for-like replacement philosophy is actively discouraged within Defence. Second, frigates are far from being the only credible manifestation of maritime combat power. Like some other naval platform type descriptors, the term ‘frigate’ is rapidly losing its value as a means of describing an understood level of combat capability. Who knows what capability solutions may be available and needed to meet the maritime requirement in the 2030s? All that we do know is that the arc of choice at the time of decision will be wider than it is at present.
Note that for a planned withdrawal date of 2032 for Te Kaha, means steel for a new capability needs to be cut in 2027/28. This means a decision on acquisition will need to be made no later than 2025.
One significant trend that has been underway for some years is a broadening of the way that partner navies are thinking about the future development of amphibious as well as combatant capabilities. One example was on display in Singapore earlier this year at the International Maritime Defence Industry Exhibition. Dutch shipbuilder Damen Schelde showcased a model of a possible contender for the Singapore Navy’s future multirole combat vessel. It was configured as a surface combatant with a proposed length of 130 meters, a displacement of 5300 tons (vide the ANZAC frigate displacement of 3600-3800 tonnes), a crew of between 108-125, plus accommodation for an extra 128 personnel.
The design is intended to serve the needs of both naval and embarked marines on a single integrated mission and features multiple landing craft and boats stored below the helicopter deck. Other variants of what Damen calls its ‘Crossover’ design include Security, Fast Security, Logistics, Amphibious, Combatant and Fast Combatant vessels. Specifications are a mix of commercial to full naval standards. The benefit of this approach is the possibility of a degree of commonality in modular systems across the future amphibious and combatant fleet, holding out significant benefits of economy and relative ease of future updates.
Another benefit lies in adaptability across the spectrum of tasks – in other words it would have utility in a humanitarian assistance contingency as well as in combat. Several of these ships would distribute our force projection/humanitarian assistance capability over a larger number of platforms, providing a greater degree of assurance that a ship will be available to respond when disaster strikes or a force protection or projection requirement arises.
Developments such as this are for the future. In the present it needs to be remembered that the DCP that Professor Ayson is drawing from, and which he finds alarming in respect to the future surface combatant force, is essentially a planning document. It does a good job of balancing current shortfalls in capability within the presently available fiscal envelope.
But it is not intended to answer, and nor could it answer, the strategic level questions that a future government will need to ask when the time comes to renew its investment in naval combat capability. These questions will include how we see the strategic environment evolving over the service life of the replacement surface combatants, an exercise that will require us to look out to the world of the 2030s, 40s and 50s when the environment seems likely to be even more heavily contested than it is at present. This will enable a future government to answer questions about the likely tasks and requirements that will need to be addressed. Out of those answers will come a better sense of the sorts of capabilities that we will need and the likely order of costs involved. Only then will we be able to speak with any confidence about the nature and size of the future surface combatant fleet.
In the meantime, the only thing that we can be reasonably sure about is that New Zealand will need both amphibious lift and combat capabilities in its future surface fleet. Fixating on whether frigates will be replaced by frigates 10-15 years from now is not a very fruitful exercise. Better to focus on getting the best possible value out of the current frigate fleet when the FSU upgrades are complete. And on engaging the public, officials and academia on the big questions about what sort of country we want to be, what might threaten our values and interests and what we should do about it.
Bio: Dr Lance Beath is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He is also Royal New Zealand Navy Residential Nelsonian Fellow and Research Director of the New Zealand Oceans Foundation. www.oceansnz.com
Image credit: Damen Crossover. https://products.damen.com/en/ranges/crossover