Australia has just announced that it will join the US-led mission to protect shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz against harassment by Iran. New Zealand not only seems unlikely to do the same. It seems unable. Defence Minister Ron Mark has said that "The bottom line [is] that I can barely struggle to keep two P3s [surveillance aircraft] flying ... I just don't see that we have any spare capability right now to engage in that kind of a mission."
When Donald Trump’s latest Defence Secretary was in town earlier this month, I implied that New Zealand already had an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card for any US request for assistance, at least on the naval side. One of New Zealand’s two frigates, I suggested, was away being refitted. It turns out I was wrong. Both of the ANZAC frigates, as a colleague corrected me, are in a Canadian dockyard.
But that’s apparently not the case. The Navy’s website still has not one, but both of these vessels listed as still resident in Canada. Ten months seems to have been a modest estimate. That means that 100% of this country’s surface naval combatant capability is currently unavailable to the government.
That’s a significant challenge if you take seriously what successive governments have said about the importance of the frigates. According to the latest Defence Capability Plan, released last month: “The naval combat capabilities provided by the ANZAC frigates, and recently modernised through the Frigate Systems Upgrade project to retain world class combat systems and interoperability with New Zealand’s key defence partners.”
The words “recently modernised” turns the DCP into a veritable time machine. But when we go back a few years we find similar emphasis on the importance of the frigates to New Zealand’s military objectives. The previous government’s 2016 Defence White Paper argued that “The ANZAC frigates and their integrated capability systems represent the only maritime force element capable of operating across the spectrum of operations, from constabulary and humanitarian tasks to combat roles as part of a multinational coalition.” And the Ardern/Peters coalition government’s 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement concurs: “At sea, New Zealand’s ANZAC frigates – together with supporting elements such as maritime replenishment – are able to operate across the spectrum of operations from constabulary and humanitarian tasks, to combat roles as part of multinational coalitions. The frigates can also protect other vessels, and their embarked helicopters provide extended reach, surveillance and air-delivered combat effects.” Not so much it would seem last year, when NZDF reporting indicates that a frigate force of one vessel “failed to achieve the directed level of readiness for this output despite participation in readiness training activities.” The 2019 Annual Report will make for even more sober reading on this score.
The frigates represent no small portion of New Zealand’s modest capacity to project military power and to undertake non-combat operations at significant distance from its territory. But 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?
It’s unclear what scope there would be for a naval combat force if future governments go serious on the current formulation that “With the intensifying impacts of climate change intersecting with other challenges, New Zealand may be faced with increasingly concurrent operational commitments, which could stretch resources and reduce readiness for other requirements.” And it’s not clear how much money will be left for frigates once future governments have paid for the commitments of this one, including new P8 maritime surveillance aircraft and the C130Js to replace the Hercules.
It begs the question: once they are upgraded, might Te Kaha and Te Mana be the last of their kind?
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington
Image: Te Mana, New Zealand Defence Force