For the first time since the Anzac-class frigate program commenced in the 1980s, the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) are simultaneously undertaking a comprehensive fleet recapitalisation. By the mid-2030s, the RNZN and RAN are both due to replace their current surface warfare, patrol, sealift, hydrographic, and mine countermeasures vessels. This presents a unique opportunity to reinvigorate and strengthen the trans-Tasman relationship by pursuing a coordinated and consolidated approach to maritime capability acquisition that would enhance interoperability and reinforce a sense of shared purpose and direction between the allies.
As Peter Greener noted recently, despite the ongoing social and economic challenges posed by COVID-19, this is a crucial time in setting out the shape of the future New Zealand fleet. As I have argued previously, in this global context, defence organisations everywhere can expect to come under pressure to find savings, which will necessitate some hard (or perhaps, creative) choices to ensure they are able to adequately respond to the full range of emergent security challenges.
The decisions taken by the New Zealand government since 2018 to acquire Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles, C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, and P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft have been a welcome step to modernise the NZDF’s capabilities while maintaining commonality with the ADF, but this may prove more challenging in the maritime domain. Given the costs associated with high-end surface warfare vessels, retaining the existing mix of capabilities in the RNZN will prove increasingly difficult and prohibitively expensive unless significant additional funds are made available, or significant changes are made to the existing force structure.
At present the RNZN possesses nine ships in six different classes, with two more vessels of distinct types due to enter service this decade; a situation described by Andrew Watts as ‘diverse beyond the point of sustainability.’ As Peter Greener has argued, one response would be to employ greater modularity and commonality into the future fleet, thereby streamlining force structure and reducing sustainment costs. The RAN has already opted to employ some of these principles with the decision to base their new hydrographic and mine countermeasures vessels off the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessel (OPV) design that commenced production in 2018.
However, in some respects, every platform discussion for the RNZN revolves around the decision furthest away: how, or whether, to replace the Anzac-class frigates. Should the New Zealand government opt to not replace the frigates, a more limited surface warfare capability could still be retained through an upgraded OPV fleet, which could allow for the investment in a greater number of platforms overall. For example, as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Marcus Hellyer has proposed, the Arafura-class has the potential to be upgraded, relatively inexpensively, to provide a substantial boost in combat power via an advanced electronically scanned array radar, anti-ship missile launchers, and interchangeable combat packages such as towed array sonars, and/or anti-air missile launchers. The production line is expected to run through the rest of this decade, which provides ample opportunity to place additional orders from Australian or international customers.
Of course, a frigate-type platform has inherent advantages over an OPV, such as in terms of range and payload, but fleet size is also a measure of capability that ought not to be overlooked. Between the challenges posed by US-China strategic competition, and the disproportionate impact of factors such as climate change, transnational crime, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing on our regional neighbours, the RNZN and RAN will have an increasingly important role to play across the “Blue Pacific continent” in the years to come. To do so (cost and mission) effectively may not necessarily require a frigate-sized platform, but it does depend on sufficient numbers to provide continual availability and presence across the region.
A regionally focused RNZN based around a core of OPV-type platforms might be less popular, but would still make an important and valuable contribution to alliance efforts and regional security by ‘complement[ing] partner capabilities and potentially free[ing] up their resources to be deployed elsewhere’, as Timothy Portland has argued. To complement a larger, constabulary-focused RNZN, additional resources could be invested in expanding the P-8A fleet, which would still contribute to maritime domain awareness, anti-submarine, and anti-surface warfare tasks, as well as being valuable assets suitable to be deployed in support of coalition operations.
Another area for potential cooperation is with future sealift acquisitions. Both New Zealand’s Defence Capability Plan 2019 and Australia’s Force Structure Plan 2020 set out requirements for vessels in the Landing Platform Dock class (or similar) to complement or replace existing capabilities. Even if the requirement for a second sealift vessel is removed from the Defence Capability Plan 2019, the RNZN’s existing sealift vessel HMNZS Canterbury is due to be replaced around 2030, likely with a similar platform. Though both programs are at a germinal stage, consultation and collaboration between the RNZN and RAN may provide opportunities to generate economies of scale and deepen platform interoperability. The Force Structure Plan 2020 indicates that the RAN’s preference is to design and develop the platform locally, which may permit some degree of collaboration which factors in the RNZN’s requirements and produces a vessel suitable for both parties.
At the end of the day, whether the RNZN and RAN use common platforms is not going to make or break the alliance between our nations. However, this confluence of events provides a unique opportunity to look at different ways in which to strengthen the defence relationship and respond together to meet emerging strategic threats, despite the social and economic challenges posed by COVID-19. As two small, regionally active defence organisations, the NZDF and ADF need to look for innovative solutions to enhance their individual and joint capabilities, and there is much to be gained by undertaking those processes together.
Bio: David Andrews is a PhD candidate in international relations at La Trobe University, and previously held roles in military strategy, strategic policy, and export control in the Australian Department of Defence. You can follow him on Twitter @dmandrews13
This post builds on an article by the author published in Issue 1, 2021 of the Australian Naval Review.
Image: Australian Department of Defence