At a time when the economy continues to face the costs imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic it may seem premature to be exploring opportunities for building the Royal New Zealand Navy of the future, but now is the very time to be doing so.
Over the next ten to fifteen years, the government will need to consider replacements for the Protector class Offshore Patrol Vessels, the Anzac frigates and the dive and hydrographic support ship HMNZS Manawanui. The Defence Capability Plan 2019 envisaged a decision being made by 2028 for the replacement of the Offshore Patrol Vessels, with the Anzac frigates being replaced in the 2030s “with modern surface combatants relevant to New Zealand’s prevailing strategic environment”. The dive and hydrographic capability was to see HMNZS Manawanui “replaced with a similar vessel in the mid-2030s”.
It was therefore reassuring to have Minister Henare tell the Foreign Affairs and Trade Select Committee in August that, “We are not cutting back on the DCP [Defence Capability Plan].” Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman added that a revised Defence Capability Plan would not mean scrapping planned projects but would rather necessitate moving them “out a bit”.
Over the past quarter century, one of the fundamental difficulties for a small Navy such as New Zealand’s has been the training and maintenance burden imposed by the requirements of each class of ships in service varying significantly. Currently with nine ships in service there are six different classes of vessel. This has been compounded by the bespoke nature of the vessels – the refitted Anzacs are now very different ships from their Australian counterparts. Some recent research has sought to identify how best to respond to the challenge of being a small Navy with a large area of responsibility.
For example, in the inaugural edition of the Professional Journal of the Royal New Zealand Navy of December 2020, Andrew Watts published a convincing article entitled “Designing the Next Fleet.” He argued for a rationalized future Navy fleet, making a case for designing a force structure and not merely replacing like for like. He acknowledged that there are specialist roles that require a single class of ship – HMNZS Aotearoa, HMNZS Canterbury, and the future Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel are cited as examples. Nevertheless, at the core of his thesis is the importance of reducing the number of ship classes, promoting the concept of one fundamental ship design capable of generating several possible capabilities.
Central to this model is the notion of modularity: “Modular installations that provide a basic ship structure and services that allow various mission packages to be installed and interchanged as needed.” Here the ship and its fundamental core systems remain unchanged - “to which a removable payload system tailored to a particular mission and level of capability is added.” Watts notes that this would allow the possibility of fitting a vessel out as an offshore patrol vessel; with Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Mine Counter Measures equipment (though he acknowledges the possible need for additional hydraulic systems) to undertake many littoral warfare tasks; or fully fitted out as a capable combat frigate. Whilst acknowledging that frigates require a high maximum speed at times, he notes that patrol vessels also need speed for interdiction and emergency response. In addition they both need range, endurance and good sea-keeping qualities. “The potential for combining combat and patrol functions in a single platform able to accept modular systems for combat and/or patrol missions should thus be investigated.”
Importantly, given the amount of capital that investing in such technology requires, such platforms have been in existence for three decades now, initially with the introduction of the Danish STANFLEX system. The most recent iteration of this can be found in the Royal Navy Type 31 frigates that are currently under construction. The Babcock Arrowhead 140s are based on the modular concept of the Iver Huitfeldt class Royal Danish Navy frigates. Built to a very tight budget limit of GBP 250 million, five of these ships are planned at a total cost of GBP 1.25 billion. Many of the required systems will be fitted later, some of them being re-purposed from the current Type 23s. A successor to the Type 31, the Type 32, is likely to provide even more flexibility for configuration, to be designed from the outset to support autonomous technology and facilitate the deployment of mine counter measures.
What was clear in Watts’ recommendations was that no particular ship was being advocated for, but two significant points were highlighted. In choosing a ship fitted with modular systems, upgrades can be undertaken without a ship having to be taken fully out of service. The other feature is that ship availability could be higher; greater flexibility could allow for the ships to be rapidly reconfigured from combat to patrol, thus helping to manage wear on engines and other equipment. It is noteworthy here just how long both frigates have been unavailable over their lifetime because of their refits. Greater standardization across a greater number of ships could also allow for “price leverage on suppliers.”
It may be that a future tender results in promising offers from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain, Italy or South Korea for suitable contenders. However, the building of four or five ships to replace three current classes of ship also provides for other significant opportunities in both a post-Covid environment and a more challenging strategic context.
In May 2021 Finance Minister Grant Robertson, whilst visiting the revitalized Hillside railway workshops in Dunedin, said he wanted to see workers involved in advanced manufacturing. “It is good for our communities, and it is good for our economy. I want to see communities around New Zealand with manufacturing, like Hillside.” Defence Minister Henare earlier this year indicated that the Prime Minister was due to “go to Australia soon and we should explore complementary defence industry opportunities.” That visit may be on hold, but new possibilities for the defence industries of Australia and New Zealand remain when thinking about new ships for the Royal New Zealand Navy.
Whilst there was much controversy in New Zealand over the decision in 1989 to purchase the Anzac frigates, what was clear ultimately was the high level of New Zealand industry participation in the project. With the frigates in the end costing close to NZ$2 billion, the total value of work awarded to firms across New Zealand was in excess of NZ$800 million. The renewal of half of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s fleet presents a rare opportunity to move away from simply considering like for like replacements. Consideration of a new type of Anzac ship for New Zealand’s future Navy, based on an already proven design, may just be what would work best to meet New Zealand’s needs.
Peter Greener is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
Image credit: HMNZS Te Mana, NZDF picture https://www.nzdf.mil.nz/navy/capability/hmnzs-te-mana-f111/.