HMNZS Manawanui Before Commissioning - Source NZDF

HMNZS PATIENCE

MV Edda Fonn – soon to be HMNZS MANAWANUI (A09 – the fourth of her name) has arrived in New Zealand. The english translation of the ship’s Maori name according to many is “to be brave or steadfast.” However, another translation is ‘Patience.’ Both seem particularly apt for describing the way in which current and former members of the Royal NZ Navy have conducted themselves. This vessel represents, in a political sense, everything that is wrong with the way successive governments deal with national security.

Rewinding the clock on this vessel, the RNZN previously had a diving support vessel of the same name – originally the Star Perseus. Built in the UK in 1979, she was commissioned in the RNZN in 1988 and decommissioned in 2018. In the discussions conducted as part of the 2010 Defence White Paper, it was acknowledged that it needed replacement, as did the Navy’s hydrographic survey ship, HMNZS Resolution. The latter was built in 1989 as USNS Tenacious (T-AGOS-17), a Stalwart-class ocean surveillance ship that was used to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War. It was sold to the RNZN in 1997 and decommissioned in 2012. Both vessels are still being used commercially.

The 2016 Defence White Paper specifically identified the need for a single vessel to replace the capabilities of both. Bear in mind that NZ has another maritime survey vessel in NIWA’s RV Tangaroa. There had previously been debate about whether that vessel should be operated by the Navy but the case was lost. Instead, a new purpose-built vessel would form the core of the Navy’s Littoral (Coastal) Operations fleet.

Mismanagement (no-one’s taking the blame) of the Frigate Systems Upgrade (FSU) saw a cost blow-out of $148m revealed in December 2017, shortly after the Government changed. Defence Minister Ron Mark’s fiscal solution was to cancel the purchase of a military-specific littoral operations ship in favour of a second-hand civilian vessel. In effect, this is directly punishing the Navy for something they didn’t do and indirectly punishing the whole nation by reducing defence capability. Having made much of the dangers to naval personnel created by the previous Government over the FSU delays, Ron Mark admitted:

“While the change meant the vessel could not go into “medium-risk scenarios”, Mark said it would still be valuable while the frigates were in dry dock.”

What should be obvious to all is that this represents a downgrade of carefully planned military capability requirement in order to save money. Yet no one in the Ministry of Defence was sacked? No sanction seems to have been landed on the contractor Lockheed-Martin? A phrase I learned from sailors which I’ve used often is this: “You can’t paint a ship grey and turn it into a warship.” A warship has certain characteristics beyond that of a merchant vessel. In particular:

  • Speed
  • Range
  • Manoeuvrability
  • Offensive and defensive weapons systems
  • Ability to withstand battle damage

Basically what we have bought in the MV Edda Fonn is a fifteen year old civilian vessel designed to serve the oil and gas industry in the North Sea. We will change some of the superstructure, paint it grey, fit some diving and survey equipment onto it, an armoury for personal weapons (where the sunbed was?) and perhaps some pintle-mount points for MAG 58 general purpose machine guns. In an era of decreasing regional stability and responsibility for an ocean full of islands, we simply cannot afford to shift our focus to non-combatant surface ships. At the minimum, our Navy vessels should be able to protect themselves from medium-level threats that, as we are painfully aware, can occur at any time without warning. The best protection this vessel will have is embarking an armed helicopter.

The Navy’s response to the exit of the old Manawanui has included creating HMNZS Matataua in 2017. This ‘Ship’ is the old littoral warfare unit comprising divers, hydrographers and logisticians. They will deploy on whatever ship is available rather than be the ship’s complement of Manawanui as in the past. They have two REAs (Rapid Environmental Assessment boats) called Takapu and Tarapunga. Here’s what a REA looks like (weekend fishing anyone?):

RNZN REA Takapu
RNZN REA Takapu

So what point am I making? It goes well beyond the penny pinching that Manawanui represents. It relates to an article I wrote about a year ago called Sea Blind. The term refers to the lack of awareness and understanding of the strategic importance of the sea that surrounds us. ‘Sea Blindness’ is a term that can be applied to politicians, policy writers, media and the public alike. As a country, New Zealand is sea blind. Not only do we lack a national security strategy we also don’t have an oceans policy, unlike most of our regional neighbours. Such a policy would set out our intent for sea lanes, freedom of navigation, fisheries, pollution and science. It would provide the basis for a whole of government business case for our maritime capability rather than just a naval argument.

Put simply, given our vast area of responsibility, increasing instability at great, middle and minor power level, growing requirements for humanitarian assistance, burgeoning trans-national crime and competition for resources from Antarctica to Pacific fisheries, minerals and ports, NZ needs more ships in the water – not fewer. Simon Murdoch, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, suggested at last year’s maritime security conference that the rate of change in our strategic environment is outstripping our rate of adaptation in capability terms. By 2030, for instance, 50% of the world’s submarines are projected to be operating in the Indo-Pacific region. It takes years to acquire new platforms let alone bring the capability on line.

That brings me to the ANZAC frigates. They are hallway through their useful lives. Hulls, engines, self-defence systems and now fighting systems have/are been upgraded. Following WWII, the RNZN had six frigates. This was reduced to a squadron of four and, with the arrival of the ANZAC Class frigates from 1997 only two. The Government had an option on another two but declined it, opting instead for the Project Protector Patrol Vessel fleet plus an amphibious logistics capability. More hulls, but less surface combat capability. To be credible, a navy needs a blue water capability which the frigates provide. Furthermore, fleets that can’t fight at sea are not navies, they are coastguards. New Zealand is one political decision away from having only a coastguard.

We need to decide, in the next year or two, about replacing the frigates because it takes a decade to choose a design, get it built and make it operational. There is no doubt in my mind that we must. The debate has to be stepped up and get back to a full squadron rather than only two. The reason is ably demonstrated right now – both frigates are offline for refit. Three vessels is the minimum number required to operate a task with one vessel on task, one running up to replace her and one in refit post-task. Ideally, however, in order to cover the risk of catastrophic failure, four vessels should be operated. The debate to be had is not won if the decision is two new frigates by 2030-35. I believe that the planned purchase of a third ice-strengthened Offshore Patrol Vessel will be delayed. In a sense, this is good because its acquisition sooner will be presented by some in politics and Treasury as an option to more frigates. It isn’t.

This isn’t the be-all and end-all for our future navy because there’s a world of new technology, especially in the form of autonomous or remotely-piloted vessels to incorporate. What’s essential is to see the new un-crewed versus crewed platforms not as either/or but as both/and. I’ll be looking at those in a separate post.

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