Challenges Ahead for Australian and New Zealand Navies

Luerssen corvette 2
The C90 corvette design from Luerssen is considered a front runner in any potential new corvette programme emanating from Adm Hilarides’ analysis of Australia’s surface combatant fleet. It would supplant the existing Arafura-class OPV project. (Luerssen)

The right type? The right capabilities? What is the need for both navies to readjust their fleets to face regional threats?

The changing global strategic environment and the shift of power from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific is presenting considerable difficulties for Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have been slow to recognise and adapt to the rise of China as a regional and global power. There has also been a serious lack of understanding at the political level that due to the geography of the Indo-Pacific, any future peer-on-peer conflict will be maritime in nature and that the force structures of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) should reflect that.

But there is some progress being made. In April 2023, the Australia department of defence (DoD) published its Defence Strategic Review (DSR), which has substantially changed the country’s defence posture. It has called for the creation of an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) zone in Australia’s northern approaches in a “strategy of denial” that can protect the continent from attack.

As a result there are major changes taking place in the ADF with a focus on the procurement of long-range surveillance and strike capabilities, however, a review of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) surface fleet was not included in the DSR. Instead, an independent assessment of the RAN’s capabilities and requirements led by ex-US Navy Admiral William H. Hilarides, the ‘Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet’, was completed at the end of September, but it will not be published by the Australian government until well into 2024.

Considering the need for urgency stressed in the DSR to take action and reform the ADF, it is baffling why the most important element of the review was separated out and delayed by over a year. It is likely there are going to be some difficult decisions to make about the force structure of the RAN, a realignment of its current procurement programmes and how it will introduce new capabilities to meet the strategic challenges of the future.

For the RAN, the DSR calls for new fleet with a shape, size, and scope that reflects the new level of threat. However, a majority of the speculation in the media and defence circles about what the future make-up of the RAN should be rests upon the interpretation of a key line in the DSR, which states: “Such a fleet should consist of Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants in order to provide for increased strike, air defence, presence operations and anti-submarine warfare.”

It goes on to say that enhancing the RAN’s capability in long-range strike, air defence and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) “requires the acquisition of a contemporary optimal mix of Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants, consistent with a strategy of a larger number of smaller surface vessels.”

This has led to a barrage of assumptions about what Tier 1 and 2 actually mean and a sort of consensus has emerged that Tier 2 means a new class of corvettes is what the RAN needs to meet this capability requirement. But to free up the budget for a new corvette project it would mean cutting back on the DoD’s SEA 5000 Hunter-class frigate project and the SEA 1180 Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) programme – a significantly costly exercise.

There are problems with this assumption. Firstly, it is not exactly clear how a bunch of corvettes will be able to deliver the kind of long-range firepower and persistent presence in the maritime domain. Corvettes are small ships with limited endurance compared to frigates and won’t be able to venture into the open ocean for long periods or access operational areas further afield.

While this should make them a cheaper alternative, a larger number of hulls will be needed to allow them to sustain a consistent presence in the littorals. There are also questions, due to the size of the ships, about the number of missiles a corvette will store to provide the long-range surface attack capability desired. The RAN will also need robust communications links to provide the corvettes with all the targeting information needed to carry out an attack – the sophistication and capability of a corvettes own sensors will be limited to self-defence due to the ships’ smaller size.

Secondly it is hard to see how such ships can be delivered quickly in the timeframe that Australia wants them. If the Australian DoD runs a competition for a corvette project, that will take time. One option is for a single source contract to be placed with Luerssen Australia to replace the existing Arafura-class OPV production line in Western Australia and transition to the company’s C90 corvette. This would utilise existing facilities and workforce, but it is not foolproof. The design will have to adapted and new supply lines established, which increases time, cost and risk.

Arafura-class OPV project
The Arafura-class OPV project is also expected to be cut back as part of a move to a new fleet construct under Australia’s DSR. Adapting the Arafura-class design to host more missiles as an alternative is an unlikely option as the OPV won’t meet Tier 2 requirements (ADF)

Shipyard investment

Another alternative is to select an overseas supplier, but it would mean the abandonment of much of the considerable investment the DoD has made in Australia’s naval shipbuilding industrial base. Furthermore, whilst ships could be delivered faster any design will still have to be ‘Australianised’. This latter option might be unlikely because the DSR states that it wants lethality through its surface fleet and nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) fleet “underpinned by a continuous naval shipbuilding programme.”

Behind all this is the looming presence of the AUKUS partnership, which will see the RAN eventually operate US Navy Virginia-class SSNs and then adopt the UK Royal Navy’s SSN-AUKUS submarine. The DSR stated: “An enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances.”

But how corvettes will complement SSNs is not clear. The rational is that SSNs can do ASW therefore there is a reduced need for as many Hunter-class ships, which are specially designed for ASW. However, ASW is a team effort that requires a combination of surface, air, underwater and space assets, therefore cutting the Hunter-class seems counterintuitive. The frigates may not deliver as many anti-ship missiles as the RAN seems to think it needs, but they will provide the best defence against enemy submarines. The SSNs will be few in number and those available will likely be sent on operations farther afield, not conducting ASW in Australia’s northern approaches.

In short there is no easy solution, especially considering that the defence budget is not set to increase to take account of the need for a major transition in the fleet structure. Hilarides review of the surface fleet will have given the Australian DoD its recommendations with a series of options about how the required capabilities for the RAN can be delivered. How Australia will proceed and whether the RAN will acquire corvettes or not will be the defining decision of the next 30 years.

Whatever new ships are selected by the Australian Ministry of Defence, the Hunter-class frigate is likely to be curtailed as the ships are not considered as important to Australian maritime security anymore. This could be a serious misconception. (BAE Systems)

New Zealand challenges

Meanwhile across the Tasman Sea, like the Australian DSR, New Zealand’s new Defence Policy Review also accepts the new geopolitical realities and it has made a point of the need to double down on governmental efforts to engage in the Pacific region.

On 8 August the New Zealand Ministry of Defence (MoD) released the first two parts of its DPR: a Defence Policy Strategic Statement (DPSS) and Future Force Design Principles (FFDP) alongside a new National Security Strategy (NSS). However, the main part of the review that outlines key defence capabilities, funding and procurement programmes – the Defence Capability Plan (DCP) – won’t be released until 2024.

Again, like its antipodean neighbours, the sense of urgency presented in it defence policy document to provide funding and shape the navy to better respond to crises in the Pacific is not reflected in the slow progress in completing the DPR process. Whilst it is understandable that a significant shift is being undertaken by the naval forces of both countries that will take time to plan and realise, the long-term nature of defence procurement and delivery of capabilities suggests this work needs completing more rapidly in future.

The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) faces serious challenges. It is a navy in crisis with three of its nine ships tied up alongside in long-term care for lack of crews and it can only deploy its remaining ships with a core staff. The NZDF is suffering a serious recruitment and retention crisis and because the RNZN operates a fleet of nine ships across six different classes it makes training personnel and providing support and maintenance extremely time consuming and costly.

Through accident rather than design the RNZN is due to replace most of its ships by the mid-2030s, which presents it with an opportunity to completely renew its structure, how it operates and is supported and mitigate against its existing problems.

In September 2023 the NZ MoD released Industry Engagement documents for maritime domain market research to provide options for a future force structure for the RNZN that can be included in the DCP.

The Industry Engagement documents state: “Rather than taking a ‘like for like’ approach to replacement, there is a unique opportunity to consider alternative fleet configurations, alternative ways to operate and alternative approaches to support the fleet in the upcoming Defence Capability Plan (DCP).”

It adds: “This may be achieved through having more of the same class of ship and greater commonality of systems across the fleet. This could mean fewer classes. The ability to combine multiple capability roles into fewer common hull forms needs to be critically examined.”

Common hull

A common hull would certainly offer a solution to the RNZN’s problems, however it is questionable the extent to which the varying capabilities of the existing fleet can be combined onto a two or three platforms.

The RNZN’s Naval Combat Force is centred on its two Anzac-class frigates, HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Te Mana. A new surface combatant project to replace them by the end of the decade was postponed in the 2019 DCP to after 2030 and the ships have recently completed a Frigate Systems Upgrade (FSU) package.

The rest of the fleet includes of two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVS) HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Otago – both of which, along with one of the two Lake-class Inshore Patrol Vessels (IPVs) HMNZS Hawea, are laid up alongside at Devonport naval base in long-term care of RNZN maintenance and support provider Babcock NZ.

The other IPV, HMNZS Taupo, completed Operation Calypso in mid-2023 helping provide maritime security and fisheries patrolling in Samoa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering some 967-nautical miles. The RNZN stated in its internal magazine is “the furthest north in latitude and the furthest travelled for an IPV since the commissioning of the Lake-class vessels in 2009.” This journey was admirable for such a small vessel, but the fact remains that this is the task of an OPV, except neither available for the RNZN.

It is possible that the capabilities of the frigates, OPVs and IPVs could be put onto a single hull. A project for a Southern Ocean Patrol Vessel (SOPV) to be delivered to the RNZN was abandoned in March 2022, so this will have to be included in the maritime domain market research. Meanwhile of the other ships available in the fleet there is the diving and hydrographic vessel (DHV) HMNZS Manawanui, the tanker HMNZS Aotearoa, and the multirole sealift vessel HMNZS Canterbury.

The Royal New Zealand Navy’s Anzac-class frigate HMNZS Te Kaha provides one-half of its Naval Combat Force. The frigate and its sister ship Te Mana will be replaced under new plans to re-capitalise the fleet in the mid-2030s. (US Navy)

Although Manawanui is new and only entered service in 2020 it was a compromise purchase. The promise of a specialist new littoral operations and support capability (LOSC) to replace the previous dive tender Manawanui and hydrographic survey ship Resolution, which retired in 2018 and 2012 respectively was expected. However, an overspend on the Frigate Systems Upgrade project led to $86 million (NZ$148 million) of LOSC funds being siphoned away. Instead the new Manawanui is a former Norwegian survey vessel converted into the DHV role.

Manawanui, like the new tanker Aotearoa, which was commissioned in 2020, are both specialist vessels with unique roles, therefore it is unlikely these capabilities could be combined on a common hull alongside those of the frigates and OPVs. This might mean a separate hull, which would be large in size but it is not clear where a replacement for Canterbury might fit in. The DCP 2019 called for the procurement of a new purpose-built amphibious ship like a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) in its Enhanced Sealift Capability project. This would significantly upscale the RNZN’s amphibious capability, but a LPD is another expensive specialist platform. The project has since been abandoned and the requirements included in the new maritime domain market research project.

Furthermore the RNZN wants to do more than what it can currently deliver, so additional capabilities will have to be included in any new force construct and this will impact the ability to provide more common hull solutions. According to the Industry Engagement documents the RNZN roles must include naval combat operations, maritime security operations, sealift/humanitarian aid and disaster relief, ISR, Southern Ocean and Polar Patrol, replenishment, littoral operations support and include remotely operated and autonomous unmanned assets.

The challenge for the RNZN is not just the technical challenge and whether this diverse range of capabilities can fit on one or two common hull platforms, but whether it will have enough manpower to operate its ships and if the government can actually afford to replace its entire fleet in such a short space of time by the mid-2030s. This will require a significant uplift in defence spending and for the navy to be given the lion’s share of the extra funds provided.

When launching the DSR, the former Minister of Defence, Andrew Little, stated that defence spending will need to rise to more like one and a half percent of GDP well beyond the normal one percent that has been common for New Zealand in recent history. However, since 14 October his Labour government has been ejected from office and a new National-led coalition has taken over. Whilst the National Party and its allies in the right-bloc have also called for defence spending closer to two percent that might make a fleet renewal programme viable it remains to be seen whether the new government will deliver on its promises.

by Tim Fish