Category : Defence
Author: Tim Fish

As the frigate HMNZS Te Mana and tanker HMNZS Aotearoa return to New Zealand following a five-month deployment, including the successful firing of two SeaCeptor missiles, the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) fleet remains at risk. 

HMNZS Te Mana returing to New Zealand after five-month deployment.

The pair of frigates in RNZN service – the other being HMNZS Te Kaha – represent the RNZN’s Naval Combat Force (NCF), which provides an important offensive capability and is a priority for the service.  

The firing of the SeaCeptors in November in the East Australia Exercise Area proved two scenarios: the frigate’s ability to defend itself and to perform local areas defence of other ships under its protection. Drones simulated at missile attack on Te Mana and also on an accompanying ship. 

This event completed the final testing and trials of the Frigate Systems Upgrade (FSU) program that both frigates have undergone to renew their contemporary combat capability. 

However, despite this achievement, Rear Admiral David Proctor, chief of the RNZN, told ADM: “I would describe the Navy as hollow at the moment. We don’t have enough sailors, particularly in the specialist trades, to get all of our ships off the wharf and into the sea.” 

“Attrition has been a problem for us in the past couple of years post-Covid. We were as high as nearly 17 per cent the latest number is just around 13 per cent as a rolling average, so at this stage it is going down but we still need to do a whole load of work here,” he explained: The RNZN has three of its nine ships, two Offshore Patrol Vessels and an Inshore Patrol Vessel, laid up alongside in port in long-term care and custody due to lack of crew.  

“Unless I can attract trained sailors who have already left, to return. We will be unable to have those ships off the wharf until about 2027. Whilst we are getting on top of attrition, it is really risky and we need to find options to get people to re-recruit,” Proctor said. 

Despite the manpower struggles the RNZN is experiencing sending Te Mana and Aotearoa on a lengthy deployment was a priority.

“Getting these two ships away was hard, but really important,” Proctor said.

“Some of the sailors had not been to sea before and certainly have not worked in the higher end of our navy over the last seven years, whilst we were renewing the capability [under the FSU] – this was their first opportunity.” 

Commander J.J. McQueen, the commanding officer of Te Mana, told ADM that the deployment supported the regeneration of the NCF capability after a long hiatus. 

“We have tested every single piece of capability that the FSU project has delivered. Everything works and was proven culminating in the two successful missile firings,” McQueen said. 

“It was a staged process with some initial gateways in terms of competence with the radar and we had a lot of confidence in the combat management system throughout the deployment – in a sense the missile firing was the easy part,” he explained. 

Te Mana will head into its refit period and will be replaced in the NCF by Te Kaha, which is in dry dock at RNZN Base Devonport and expected to return to service early in 2024.  

“All the things that we have done under the FSU project and integrated into the Navy will I hope will seamlessly go across to Te Kaha, which will have a period of qualification trials to make sure everything works well,” McQueen said. 

Te Kaha becomes the primary frigate next year,” Proctor said, “she will be working up to full operational readiness to deliver against its highest end design parameters by 2025.” 

Meanwhile Aotearoa will deploy to the Pacific and South East Asia in the new year and will have an ice-reset by late-2024. 
Looking head Proctor is preparing options for government to replace most of the RNZN fleet.

“Every ship in the current fleet, except Aotearoa, needs to be replaced by the middle of the next decade. That is a big consideration for the government to have to make.” 

A fleet renewal Request for Information is looking for industry engagement to help deliver options for New Zealand’s next Defence Capability Plan that is due by mid-2024.

 An in-depth look at the RNZN’s Frigate Systems Update (FSU) program appeared in the October-November issue of ADM

Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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