Foreign Affairs

Farewell to New Zealand’s frigates?

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.

Australia has just announced that it will join the United States-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: "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.

The two frigates, Te Kaha and Te Mana, are being reconfigured by Lockheed Martin Canada with a new suite of communications and weapons systems. This is the Frigates System Upgrade (FSU) whose rising costs gave Ron Mark an early political headache when he took over the defence portfolio.

Nearly eighteen months ago, Mr Mark announced that Te Kaha had arrived in Canada. When Te Mana arrived in March of this year, Naval Today reported that the “first of two NZ Navy Anzac-class frigate, HMNZS Te Kaha, started the 10-month refit in March 2018”.

So one might have joined the dots to conclude that the schedule would allow at least one of these vessels to be available to the government for deployments on fairly short notice. 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 percent 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.

Defence Minister Ron Mark's comments about a lack of Navy frigates to support a US-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz give rise to questions about whether we need the ships at all, Robert Ayson writes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

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” turn the plan 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.

If New Zealand can have a period of months when it does without that [frigate] capacity in its entirety, would the lights really go out if there were no frigates at all? 

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?

This article was originally published on Incline.org.nz, and is reproduced here with permission.

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