Royal New Zealand Navy is struggling to manage its small fleet due to lack of funding

The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) commenced an industry engagement exercise with the release of a request for information (RfI) on 8 September. The document, entitled Maritime Fleet Market Research for the Defence Capability Plan, revolves around how the navy can better manage its fleet with limited dollars.

All except one ship in the New Zealand fleet – which comprises two frigates, two offshore patrol vessels (OPV), two inshore patrol vessels, a multirole vessel, replenishment vessel and hydrographic/diving vessel that cumulatively require a core crew of 647 personnel – are up for replacement by the mid-2030s.

The RFI acknowledged: “The current fleet configuration of nine ships across six classes, with many aspects of bespoke design, is increasingly difficult for the Royal New Zealand Navy to manage. Maintenance, operational management and training requirements differ significantly between ship classes.”

Having only one or two vessels in each class may provide breadth of capability, but little depth. That means the ideal vessel may not always be available when needed. With this in mind, the navy is thus considering alternative ways of operating.

Specifically, the RFI seeks to gather information on the following: fleet configuration options; alternative crewing, operating and support concepts; new technologies; consideration of approaches to reduce environmental impact; increased partnering arrangements with industry; and reducing the complexity of New Zealand Defence Force systems and structures.

The scope encompasses naval ships, landing craft, unmanned systems, mission planning and simulation/training facilities, but it does not extend to naval helicopters or ship boats.

The RFI’s target audience is companies who offer maritime consultation services; maritime through-life providers; manufacturers of ships, uncrewed systems, mission planning and training solutions; and maritime commercial crew services.

Market research data gleaned from this RFI exercise will inform a Defence Capability Plan due in 2024. The last plan was issued in 2019, and the Royal New Zealand Navy does not simply want like-for-like vessel replacements.

Currently, there are 2,219 Royal New Zealand Navy personnel and a single base at Davenport in Auckland, but the force is suffering badly from retention and recruitment issues. Thus, workforce optimisation is a priority. This might entail crew rotation models, using civilians in specialist roles aboard or ashore, mission planning support ashore or advanced training and simulation for capability generation.

Dr. Peter Greener of the Centre for Defence Studies at Victoria University in Wellington, noted that personnel numbers in July 2023 were almost exactly the same as in July 2020.

“However, what these numbers don’t reflect is the loss of experienced, qualified tradespeople. The RNZN attrition rate has stood around 12%, but it’s the loss of skilled engineers and the like which led to three ships being tied up from late 2022…”

The three vessels tied up are the OPVs HMNZS Wellington and Otago, and the inshore patrol vessel HMNZS Hawea. Dr. Peter Greener informed Naval News that “retention does seem to be improving since the announcement of significant pay increases”.

The RNZN is being forced into creativity. This may involve reducing ship classes, achieving greater concurrency across platforms, adding unmanned technologies, reducing complexity and bespoke solutions, or reaching new partnership solutions with industry.

Perhaps the most important consideration is how to replace two Anzac-class frigates. Certainly, looming block obsolescence gives the RNZN huge opportunities to redesign its fleet. It is therefore commendable that the navy is developing new options to inform government investment out till 2040.

Even though modularity is increasingly popular, no single platform yet fully encapsulates the concept. Nonetheless, Dr. Greener highlighted the applicability of the Cube modular payload concept unveiled by Danish company SH Defence in 2020. This containerised system is not tied to a ship’s fixed superstructure, plus it encompasses the infrastructure to handle modules ashore and on board the vessel.

Incidentally, Denmark introduced the original Standard Flex (StanFlex) modularity concept some three decades ago, and first adopted on Flyvefisken-class corvettes. In fact, the driver for the Royal Danish Navy was very similar to New Zealand’s – the need to replace 22 warships in three classes with a reduced number of vessels.

Modularity is alluring, as standard hulls with spaces for self-contained mission modules can be swapped out and easily upgraded over time. It also shifts more of the maintenance and training burden ashore, and helps alleviate obsolescence management. For example, maritime strike modules could add missiles and sensors to a ship, while a swappable maritime interdiction module might be used for regular sea patrols.

However, there are limits. Modularity seeks acceptable performance over a wide range of requirements, rather than optimal design for specific requirements. This leads to compromises. The lower cost of modular payloads may be seductive, but it can result in vessels with suboptimal performance for their intended roles. In other words, a ship can become a jack of all trades, but master of none.

For instance, the USN’s Littoral Combat Ship envisaged three variants – antisubmarine warfare, mine countermeasures and surface warfare. Ultimately, the USN abandoned the idea of swappable modules, plus the mission types often conflicted with the basic design parameters of the LCS.

Because affordability is critical to New Zealand, it cannot start from scratch creating modularity. This could give rise to cooperation with like-minded allies such as Australia or the UK, with the latter’s Type 32 frigate programme exploring modular payloads.

The RFI discussed unmanned technologies too, and Dr. Greener pointed out that the Royal New Zealand Navy is already putting such systems to good use, one example being the Remus 100.

“The RFI suggests that autonomous or remotely operated uncrewed air, surface and sub-surface vehicles may be operated from ships, but would initially be seen as complements to a ship’s capability. This leaves a wide range of options open.”

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