Two of my colleagues have used this forum recently to comment on the need for a naval combat force. Both have useful insights to make, but neither gets to the root of the issue.
Professor Robert Ayson assumes that because we do not have ships readily available today because they are being upgraded (and we seem to be surviving as a country without them) a future government may well decide that the cost of a warship capability might better be directed elsewhere. Perhaps so, but this seems to me to be hypothetical and drawing from a single data point.
In contrast, Lance Beath argues that a naval combatant capability is essential, but that the real answer lies in an integrated single combat service for the armed forces. That is, however, to discuss structure rather than capability and to assume the context of the domains within which future operations will be conducted.
If we believe that in the next century there will be no situation in which naval combat force could be necessary for New Zealand, then we do not need frigates or any other warship. But there is no evidence to suggest that in the future armed force will be discarded as a tool of state policy and there is no evidence that New Zealand governments would not want the ability to send warships on naval missions to protect New Zealand’s interests, as they have many times since the end of World War II.
Let us be quite clear. The primary purpose of the warships is to be able to go into dangerous situations and defeat or deter enemies at sea. Other tasks are useful but can be carried out by other military elements or other agencies. Constabulary roles are carried out by the naval patrol force, to which frigates are a useful supplement. Activities such as search and rescue, disaster response and defence diplomacy are all in support of other government agencies, but don’t rely on the weapons carried by a warship. Nonetheless, there is value in these secondary tasks which should be acknowledged in any overall accounting.
We have tools, both qualitative and quantitative, that can give insights into the value of a naval fighting capability. For example, successive governments have sent warships on operations: during the Korean war; during Confrontation with Indonesia; to counter terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean; in support of Pacific stability endeavours. In none of the cases was the deployment a matter of national survival, but there was always an element of military risk. In all cases the ability to provide this capability gave benefit and demonstrated New Zealand’s commitment to maritime issues in a way that other responses would not have.
We may add some hard numbers (supported by and dependent upon assumptions mostly too detailed to set out here). We rely on sea trade valued at about $140bn per annum. We may make the reasonable assumption that there is always some level of threat from the use of force against that trade, whether through regional conflict, terrorism or piracy. That threat will vary according to the time and the place, higher perhaps in the Strait of Hormuz and lower across the Tasman Sea. It is also a reasonable assumption that warships provide some level of deterrence to the disruption of that trade. Without warships there would be more likelihood of disruption than with them. We know the total of warships that provide such deterrence, regionally and internationally, and we know New Zealand’s contribution to that total. From those numbers we can determine that the value of the frigates for trade protection purposes alone could range from under $1.0m a year in a completely peaceful international environment, through $100m - $150m if there were a regional conflict in East Asia or the Indian Ocean, to perhaps $500m a year in times of wider global conflict.
My point is not that warships are useful or less than useful in themselves. Instead, before we decide whether or not we need them, we should do some clear analysis of the value they bring through their military use and through their general existence.
Of course, this discussion is in isolation of the same considerations in relation to other military capabilities. All future capabilities should all be analysed in terms of value and cost, as should alternative means to achieving the desired ends. And they should, as both Professor Ayson and Dr Beath recognise, be considered in light of an overall set of defence force objectives and capabilities. Any investigation that does not recognise these matters is either analytically flawed or political. In the first case it should be ignored, in the second it should be recognised for what it is.
Jim Rolfe is a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.
Image: RNZS Te Kaha, from Wikipedia, used by CC.