In the wake of last week’s AUKUS announcement, decisions around what to replace New Zealand’s Anzac class frigates with have become immediately more important, writes Dr Wayne Mapp.
Many readers will know that most of my Line of Defence articles this year have referred to the need to renew the naval fleet, most notably the Anzac frigates. I have been postulating that an all OPV fleet might be the answer, predicated on the basis that our prime interest is the South West Pacific, from Antarctica to the Equator. In particular I have mentioned the ice capable Harry DeWolf as a credible option.
AUKUS changes all that. The strategic settings of the Indo Pacific have been significantly changed by this new alliance. Australia, with its proposed fleet of nuclear submarines, will be moving into the top rank of middle powers. Britain will be projecting sea power into the Indo Pacific. It can’t be long before Britain joins the Quadrilateral Dialogue as a full member.
There can be no doubt that AUKUS has substantial implications for New Zealand. Australia is New Zealand’s only formal military ally. Britain is rediscovering its Commonwealth links. Together they will expect more from New Zealand. In particular, Australia will have expectations that New Zealand will take its alliance obligation seriously. It is worth remembering that alliances have obligations as well as benefits.
These obligations will be particularly focused on the Anzac ship replacement programme. This is not an issue that the government can continue to duck. I believe that it is imperative that the government to make its decisions on the replacement programme within the next two years, that is, before the next election. As we have seen with AUKUS, decisions can be made quickly if the will is there to make them.
So, what are the choices?
A key question can be dispelled immediately. In my view it is no longer credible to argue that the Anzac frigates can be replaced with OPVs. Our alliance partners would not see OPVs as being an appropriate recognition of our alliance obligations. Combat capable ships need to be replaced by combat capable ships.
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Our alliance and Commonwealth partners have already decided to replace their ageing frigates, including the Australian Anzac-class frigates, with a common programme based on the British designed Type 26 frigate. Although our frigates are just as old, we chose not to join. Perhaps the $4 billion price tag per ship was just a bit too steep.
Nevertheless, the Type 26 decision is a pointer. The Five Eyes nations are keeping their key procurement decisions within their own family. This includes New Zealand, with the decisions to purchase the P8 Poseidon and the C130J Hercules. These two latter decisions were the first of the trio of the key procurement decisions for the NZDF. It has long been known that the Anzac decision would be the most difficult of the three decisions.
Covid is not an excuse to avoid the decision.
I had many such discussions in my office when I was Minister of Defence, as we were undertaking the 2010 Defence Review. Our view was that each of the major decisions would need to be successively made in different terms of parliament. Essentially the P3 replacement in the 2014 to 2107 term, the C130 replacement in the 2017 to 2020 term, and the Anzac replacement in the 2020 to 2023 term. As it happened, Ron Mark as Minister, made the first two decisions in the 2017 to 2020 term, to his considerable credit.
We are now in the 2020 to 2023 term. Covid is not an excuse to avoid the decision. All our partners have been afflicted by Covid and they can still make major defence procurement decisions.
If the Type 26 frigate is too expensive, are there other options? The Five Eyes family provides a guide.
Britain has designed the Type 31 frigate and it comes in both a high and low spec. The price ranges from $1 billion to $2 billion, depending on the spec. This is comparable in real terms to the price of the Anzac frigates.
The high spec ship, as ordered by the Royal Navy, has similar capabilities, albeit in a modern context, as the Anzac frigates. The low spec version is akin to an advanced OPV and would be substantially superior to New Zealand’s existing OPVs. But as Peter Greener has indicated, there is real merit in have a common platform for the fleet.
I appreciate that some will say that diving into specific platforms is the wrong way to go about these kinds of decisions. While that may apply in many cases, it is not always true. For instance, there was never any real doubt that the P3 Orion was going to be replaced by the P8 Poseidon. All the lengthy MOD and Treasury papers could not disguise that reality. The only real question was how many were to be purchased. Much the same might be said in respect of replacing the Anzac ships
I should note that New Zealand might still need at least one ice capable Harry DeWolf class of ship. New Zealand has real interests in the Southern Ocean and there are not many alternatives for that role. However, AUKUS makes it clear that this is not the big decision that now faces the New Zealand government. Getting on with replacing the Anzac ships is now the priority.