In a recent Incline post titled ‘Where are the Frigates?’ Professor Robert Ayson notes, quite correctly, that the frigates currently undergoing refit in Canada represent ‘no small portion of New Zealand’s modest capacity to project military power.’ He then asks, ‘if New Zealand can have a period of months when it does without that capacity in its entirety, would the lights really go out if there were no frigates at all?’
A headline writer on Newsroom, in republishing Rob’s piece, added the provocative headline ‘Farewell to New Zealand’s Frigates?’ with a lead-in paragraph saying that ‘New Zealand’s inability to contribute naval frigates to a US-led operation near Iran may seem embarrassing – but as Robert Ayson writes, it may actually demonstrate we don’t need the vessels at all.’
Yet, as I read Rob’s piece, he seemed to me to be asking a rhetorical question. The current unavailability of the two major components of the Navy’s surface combat force does not demonstrate lack of necessity. More correctly, what it demonstrates is a larger and more pressing phenomenon that was the subject of an earlier Incline post by Van Jackson. Namely, an inability to do what the NZDF might be asked to do because of ongoing resource shortfalls or what Jackson called the ‘strategy-force mismatch’.
A two frigate Navy was always going to have difficulty in delivering operational capability on an around- the-clock basis while also keeping it maintained and upgraded. The Navy has never made a secret of such difficulties. 2 frigates cannot do the job of 4 let alone 6.
When a future government is required to consider the frigate replacement question, the questions that will need to be asked are: First, do we believe that New Zealand has a maritime zone whose resources are worth defending? And if so, how do we best go about that task? Second, are we concerned to provide combat capabilities to protect our seaborne trade? Third, how do our naval combat capabilities contribute to New Zealand's other deployable force elements? Fourth, are New Zealand naval combat capabilities a useful contribution to the combat capabilities of our friends? And fifth, what lessons have we learnt from our history and strategic geography?
Some New Zealanders may be happy to depend on other countries to protect our maritime interests. But if our history and geography has anything to tell us, this is a poor way to approach the defence and promotion of our vital interests. Sovereignty brings with it responsibilities. We are a continental power with continental interests. And many of those interests are maritime in nature. How we protect and promote them when statecraft and the international rules-based order break down is the question.
When the current naval combat force needs replacement the real issue is likely to be how to address the strategy-force mismatch commented on earlier. Geopolitical trends suggest that this is a question that is likely to get more pressing rather than less. Competition over resources is increasing. There is a race underway to secure the mineral and metal resources of the deep seabed, and this race is being fuelled by the demand for ‘green’ metals as a result of the worldwide drive towards lower carbon emissions. We have many of those minerals on our seabed. So do many of our Pacific Island neighbours. These resources will be in heavy demand.
The strategy-force mismatch poses a question that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Our strategic geography is overwhelmingly maritime in nature. It is steadily driving us towards a force structure, capability and command arrangements which more fully reflect that geography. One force, and one integrated service, not three.
This is the real question that I think Rob was driving at. But I would go further. In the world of the 2030s and beyond, how can a small and fully integrated defence force best achieve presence and combat effects in and across a maritime environment that is becoming markedly more demanding, not less? Frigates may or may not be a part of that future answer. But I believe that an increased force of naval and maritime combatants WILL be a part of the answer, along with embarked and significantly enhanced army and special force capabilities.
All of which will be raised, trained, sustained and deployed within a fully integrated, unified, single combat service. If agreed, this would be the goal of what might be termed 'NZDF Force 35', a government-endorsed force structure that the NZDF would work towards by 2035, or earlier if possible. That needs to be our vision. From today’s ‘modest capacity to project military power’ (Rob’s words) to a capability that more fully reflects our status as the owner and developer of APEC’s 7th largest maritime zone and as both a developed and a developing member of the Pacific Islands Forum.
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: HMNZS Te Kaha at sea, courtesy NZDF, reproduced under CC.