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Reading Between the Lines – New Zealand's Defence Capability Plan

Line of Defence, Autumn 2017

ANZAC Frigate HMAS Perth off the coast of the UAE following Operation Manitou. Courtesy Australian Government.ANZAC Frigate HMAS Perth off the coast of the UAE following Operation Manitou. Courtesy Australian Government.


Dr Peter Greener, Senior Fellow at Victoria University Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies, looks at what the Defence Capability Plan tells us about possible ANZAC frigate replacement and airlift capability options for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF).


When the Defence White Paper was released in June 2016 there was criticism that it lacked detail on future capability purchases, with Phil Goff commenting that, “it adds little of value”. In some quarters though there was hope that would be rectified with the release of the subsequent Defence Capability Plan in November 2016.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the Ministry of Defence is still in the early stages of the capability procurement process for many of the major items to be replaced, there is little detail here either. So what can be gleaned from this current Plan? This article will draw attention to two sentences in the document of particular interest.

Within the Defence Capability Plan, Section 4 there is an element headed 2030 Force Structure. In exploring Maritime Domain Capabilities the first to be highlighted is the ANZAC frigate replacement, future surface combatants which will be “either in service or under procurement”.

In an interview with Defense News in April 2015 the then Chief of Navy Rear Adm. Jack Steer commented, “I'd like to think that whatever replaces our combat capability is here in time for the other two to move on gracefully, so we don't have a gap. That's my only concern.”

In that same interview Rear Admiral Steer also said, “Three slightly used combat platforms is fine; three brand new ones is fine. I just think we need to get away from two.”


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Purchasing warships second-hand for the Royal New Zealand Navy is not new; during the 1980s the Leander-class frigates HMS Dido and HMS Bacchante were bought and became HMNZS Southland and HMNZS Wellington. Yet current Royal Navy Type 23 frigates are of the same era as the ANZACS, whilst the last US frigate USS Kauffman was decommissioned in 2015. Buying the last of the original Australian ANZACS would provide only a stop-gap solution.

In 1998 when a third frigate was being debated, the then Minister of Defence Max Bradford had organized the prospect of purchasing a second-hand ANZAC from the Australians, which they would then replace with a new-build. Once again Australia is to build new frigates and is committed to developing a sustainable naval shipbuilding capability. New Zealand will be looked to as a prospective customer.

As noted by Dr Wayne Mapp in the last issue of Line of Defence, “Inevitably there will be the opportunity to partner with Australia in this project.”

The Australians are committed to building nine ships for the Royal Australian Navy. Should three of these ultimately be purchased new and/or second-hand for the Royal New Zealand Navy the production run could be extended, which would be very attractive for Australian shipbuilding and add value to the Trans-Tasman relationship.

Given the projected costs of new replacements for the frigates and the fact that the ships will be built over a decade, might the purchase of second-hand ships be contemplated again?

In exploring 2030 Air Domain Capabilities the first two to be highlighted are:  

  • A strategic airlift capability to support independent operations, New Zealand’s Antarctic Programme and the Joint Logistics Pool, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief responses, and coalition operations.
  • A tactical airlift capability that supports independent operations, search and rescue tasks, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and coalition operations.  

Taking tactical airlift and search and rescue first, whilst the RNZAF’s current workhorse airlifter the C-130 does provide a search and rescue capability, it is customarily the P-3K2 Orion which undertakes such missions when long endurance is called for. Currently the RNZAF operates six P-3K2 Orions but noting Dr Mapp’s observation that, “The only practical replacement for the P3 Orion is the P8 Poseidon….” it seems highly unlikely that six P8s would be purchased given the cost of procurement.  

This then makes sense of the new mission focus for a tactical airlifter and takes us back to the debate on what might replace the Hercules, also covered elsewhere in this issue by Professor Robert Owen.

Hercules aircraft are proven in the search and rescue role particularly in service with the US Coast Guard.

What of the Airbus A400M? Both the UK and Turkey have had an interest in an SAR capable A400M, but the aircraft has no real track record. However, when we return to the question of strategic airlift capability and the requirement to transport heavy military vehicles or large helicopters, then the A400M is ideal. Would it though be too valuable an asset to use in the search and rescue role?

With an inevitably reduced number of airframes compared to purchasing C-130Js might there be an issue with availability of aircraft? Whilst the Future Air Mobility Capability project will make recommendations on the composition of a future fleet, given the likely nature of future Capability Plans we may yet need to continue to try and read between the lines.


Dr Peter Greener is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University Wellington. He is also an Honorary Professor and was previously Academic Dean at the Command and Staff College of the New Zealand Defence Force.

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