Chapter 2. The ANZACS, Part 1—The Frigate that wasn’t a Frigate

Table of Contents

The Impact of the Fourth Labour Government, and the Frigate that wasn’t a Frigate
Evaluating the Alternatives
The Review Committee’s observations
Proposals to the Joint Project Management Team
The Frigate Debate
What’s in a name?
The Other Alternatives
The Frigate Decision
Implementation of the Project
The ANZAC Frigates in Service

As long ago as 1954 the cost of replacement frigates had been an issue. Almost a quarter of a century later, the 1978 Defence Review made the observation that ‘the high costs of acquiring and maintaining modern naval ships and systems compounds the difficulty of reaching decisions which will adequately provide for New Zealand’s future needs at sea’.[1] Indeed ‘extensive enquiries to find a replacement for HMNZS Otago made it clear that the cost of a new frigate had gone beyond what New Zealand could afford’.[2] This observation led to the serious consideration of converting the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) to a coast guard service, but the Government rejected the notion on the basis that, although a coast guard could carry out resource protection tasks, it would mean the end of any strategic relationship with our ANZUS Treaty partners, and the RNZN would no longer be able to operate as a military force. The Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Neil D. Anderson, said that the New Zealand Government’s commitment to maintaining a professional fighting navy was ‘a magnificent shot in the arm for everyone in the Navy’.[3]

The Government remained committed to a compact multi-purpose navy, and calculated that a core operational force of three ships would be the minimum necessary force. These ships were to be the Leander-class frigates HMNZS Waikato and HMNZS Canterbury (commissioned in 1966 and 1971 respectively), and the older Type 12 frigate HMNZS Otago. The fourth existing frigate at the time, HMNZS Taranaki (a type 12), was to undertake the roles of resource protection and basic sea training. There was some concern though about the sort of vessel that would ultimately replace the Otago and how and when that replacement should happen. In May 1979 a project review team, led by Commander Somerford Teagle, examined a wide range of vessels. One of these, an American frigate, would have met every requirement set out in the Defence White Paper, but even in 1979 it was priced at NZ$400 million, and therefore ruled out. Consideration was then given to purchasing rejuvenated British frigates at a cost of NZ$44 million each, before plans were submitted for the possible conversion of Taranaki, Waikato and Canterbury late in 1979.

A decision on frigate replacements was expected to have been made before the end of 1979, but was deferred in February 1980, with a request from the Government to the Ministry of Defence to explore further options. Later that year the Government decided not to replace the ageing Otago, rejecting the RNZN’s replacement proposals for the second time in a year.

It was the British defence review of 1981 which allowed the possibility of a ‘bargain buy’ which helped resolve the issue for at least a decade. The decision was made to purchase two Leander-class frigates, HMS Dido and HMS Bacchante, which dated from the early 1960s. This allowed the naval combat force to remain with a core of four operational vessels, albeit with oil-fired boiler power. The Minister of Defence, David Thomson, commenting upon the purchase said: ‘In the existing financial circumstances it was plainly necessary to seize any opportunity to acquire effective operational part-life vessels as an alternative to the purchase of a new ship.’[4] Whilst there was concern expressed that this would lead to the RNZN facing block obsolescence in the early 1990s, the Government nevertheless concluded a deal in October 1981. Bacchante was transferred to New Zealand in October 1982 and renamed HMNZS Wellington, but did not enter service until mid-1986. Dido was refitted in Southampton and transferred to New Zealand as HMNZS Southland in December 1983.

Public concerns about the cost of defence had heightened significantly by the beginning of the 1980s, and the Government was keen to consider novel ways of reducing the costs involved in maintaining a combat fleet. The 1983 Defence Review reinforced the findings of the previous Review that a reduction in capability to a coast guard role was not acceptable, and that a combat force should be maintained.[5] However, fiscal concerns were to the fore, and the Government’s dilemma about a future replacement for the frigates was clearly spelt out in the Review. Because of the political and economic implications surrounding the frigate replacement question at the time, and the debate which has ensued for over two decades since, it is worthwhile quoting fully from the Review to highlight Government thinking at the time:

The frigate’s main attraction lies in its flexibility of employment and its ability to offer a graduated range of responses in varying circumstances particularly in times of tension short of war. New Zealand’s frigates have been configured essentially as anti-submarine escorts best suited to operations within a fleet environment. They are however versatile and will give scope for deployment on a wide range of duties for the rest of their operational life. Given the range and capability of modern weapons and sensor systems, frigates could remain a viable combat force option for New Zealand into the indefinite future—if the financial problems of providing them with an effective self-defence capability and for their eventual replacement could be overcome. However, at this time there appear no realistic prospects of the future defence budget being able to accommodate the costs that would be involved. Financial considerations alone therefore demand consideration of an alternative force structure for the Navy. The period during which the present frigate force is available must accordingly be used to determine a new operational concept for the RNZN.[6]

The novel solution that was being explored at the time was to introduce a fleet of submarines; they were seen potentially as being cheaper to introduce and to operate than the frigate force. Robert Miles, an outspoken and passionate defence commentator, called MP Doug Kidd’s suggestion that the RNZN become a submarine force ‘misguided’. He went on to roundly criticise the concept, drawing attention to the limited utility of submarines for the range of roles the RNZN was expected to fulfil. Instead, he suggested that New Zealand expand its naval patrol force with the purchase of ships such as the British Castle-class offshore patrol vessels.[7] He would not be the only one to make that suggestion. Initial investigations suggested that a submarine might cost NZ$140 million, rather than the NZ$240 million cost for a new frigate. However, the plan never did proceed; further evaluation indicated that it was not as cost effective an option as originally thought, and the project was finally cancelled by the Labour Government in February 1985.[8]

The Impact of the Fourth Labour Government, and the Frigate that wasn’t a Frigate

As previously discussed, the election of the Fourth Labour Government and the subsequent ‘nuclear ships’ dispute led to the need to review defence policy. The ANZUS dispute had become the major controversy of the decade, and left the Labour Party with the question of the future direction of defence policy. To help inform this next step, the Government convened a Defence Committee of Enquiry in 1985, the first time that a New Zealand Government had sought out public opinion on defence planning.[9] This Committee was to hear public submissions and report on public attitudes towards strategic and security issues. The report and its recommendations were to be taken into account in the preparation of the anticipated 1986 Defence Review.[10] Public debate and controversy surrounded this period, and the question of frigates was to the fore once more.

Another discussion paper, An Alternative Defence Policy, put forward by the Peace and Justice Forum in March 1985, challenged the need for frigates and also supported the purchase of the Castle-class vessels,[11] and this recommendation was reinforced by the ‘Just Defence’ submission to the Defence Committee of Enquiry in February 1986.[12] Such sentiments were echoed by the Labour Party’s Wellington regional conference, held in May 1986, when it passed two remits calling for the adoption of a civilian-based defence policy, and the replacement of the frigate fleet by smaller boats suitable for fisheries protection.[13]

Early in 1987 the debate heated up. The Australian Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Michael Hudson, was in New Zealand meeting top Navy and Defence officials during February. The 23 February issue of the Evening Post carried a story stating that ‘the New Zealand Navy is considering joining Australia in a frigate deal as part of a long-term plan to replace New Zealand’s ageing vessels’. It went on to say that ‘one frigate type of particular interest was a light patrol vessel with ocean-going capabilities’. The report brought a sharp rebuke immediately from the New Zealand Prime Minister, David Lange, which was reported in the Dominion the following day. Lange criticised by inference the Secretary of Defence, Denis McLean, commenting:

The prospect is that we have a vessel, drummed up with Australia, providing exactly what we need. But it won’t be a frigate. … It is unfortunate that there has been the impression gained, from certain statements in certain quarters, that we are in the frigate business. We are not in the frigate business.[14]

The report went on to say that defence specialists suggested that Lange was talking about a frigate hull, but without the high-tech installations of a fully fitted frigate, perhaps to appease the peace groups who were becoming increasingly vociferous in their opposition to any replacement for frigates. It was further suggested that replacing the frigates with patrol boats would have meant the end of a blue-water role for the RNZN, but that Lange’s comments made it clear that the Government intended to maintain a blue-water capability.

The 1987 Defence Review was published two days later, on 26 February 1987. In the introduction to the 1987 Review, emphasis was placed on the comprehensive nature of the review of defence policy which had taken place since the Labour Party had come to power and introduced New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation. As a result of the ending of the security relationship with the United States, greater emphasis was to be placed on the importance of New Zealand’s relationship with Australia:

The New Zealand—Australia defence relationship has always been close and remains a key element in New Zealand’s defence strategy. Defence cooperation is one of the strands of the evolving trans-Tasman relationship that also covers political, commercial and personal links. The ANZAC military ties have a long and honourable history. … The withdrawal of United States military cooperation with New Zealand has made our defence relationship with Australia more important, but it has not substantially changed its nature.[15]

The importance of this relationship was underscored with a clear acknowledgement that New Zealand forces needed to be trained and equipped to operate jointly with Australian forces, and that:

The security of either New Zealand or Australia would be at severe risk if the other was seriously threatened and it is inconceivable that a joint response would not be forthcoming. For both security and military reasons, as well as economic and political considerations, we need to maintain our close defence relationship with Australia.[16]

The central defence objective of developing greater self reliance and working closely with Australia to meet the defence needs of the region was clearly stated. Some joint developments and purchasing had already begun to take place, with the setting up of identical defence communications networks in both countries, the purchase of an artillery field gun, and the potential purchase of new rifles which would be manufactured in Australia. None of these, though, were on the scale envisaged in the involvement of New Zealand in the planning and potential purchase of the ‘Australian Ocean Combat Ship’.

The Labour Government had two clear and interlinked objectives—the development of naval capability, with the replacement of the surface combatants; and the development of the relationship with Australia. With the tenor of the times, neither objective was going to be easy to achieve.

The Defence Review highlighted the importance of maintaining flexibility in New Zealand’s naval forces. It confirmed that there was a longstanding need for replacement of the current frigates, and pointed to working together with the Australians to see ‘if a mutually acceptable and cost-effective ship can be constructed which will meet both countries’ needs’.[17] Two weeks later, the Australian Minister for Defence, Kim Beazley, was reported as saying that a blue-water navy with a capacity to contribute significantly in the area of submarine warfare was seen as an essential ingredient in the trans-Tasman relationship: ‘Provided those capabilities are maintained … the co-operation between our two countries will be close.’[18] Significantly, the new vessels were being called ‘new surface combatants’ in the official title of the Australian project—supporting Lange’s insistence that New Zealand would not buy any more frigates. John Henderson, at the time Head of the Prime Minister’s Department, emphasised that great care was taken in those early stages to avoid the term ‘frigate’ completely.[19]

The press release by Lange on 15 July 1987 confirmed the Government’s plan to proceed with the projected replacement of the frigates during the 1990s. Notwithstanding this confirmation, the same month the International Defence Review drew attention to the political atmosphere in New Zealand, which it suggested could seriously obstruct the procurement of any warships. It quoted one source ‘close to the programme’: ‘The Prime Minister needs educating, although that’s the New Zealand Navy’s job, not ours. Even “frigate” is a dirty word there, and to be politically acceptable the ship will have to be called something like an “ocean surveillance vessel”.’[20] However, the descriptive term could not be avoided, and when Beazley released a statement on the project in July, he welcomed the New Zealand announcement to join Australia in buying a ‘new class of frigate’.

Initial estimates gave an indicative figure of up to NZ$300 million as the sail-away cost for each of the first two ships delivered. Opposition to the frigates closely followed the announcements, with Just Defence concerned that the Government had not seriously considered cheaper non-frigate alternatives, again mentioning the Castle-class patrol vessel. Sylvia Bagnall, its spokesperson, said that at, a total cost of $1 billion, New Zealand would get four frigates designed to suit Australia’s and not New Zealand’s needs.[21] The following week the Minister of Defence, R.J. Tizard, responded to clarify aspects of the project in the light of the criticisms that were being reported:

Since we have no defined enemy, we need vessels that can perform the functions of the various roles we see for ourselves. These include maintaining a role in the South Pacific and building co-operation with Australia. Contact and co-operation with Pacific Island countries is paramount, as is protection of our own economic zone and help to Pacific Island countries to do the same. Obviously an increased search and rescue response will be a very significant part of our contribution.

There is a certainty that we will have these roles. By contrast there is no certainty our ships will have to perform a wartime function. They must have that capacity of course, but their use for most of their lifetime will be in the roles set out above. That may not be how the Australians see their ships’ role.[22]

The Minister’s words were carefully crafted, emphasising those roles that would be most politically acceptable at the time. Jim Anderton, the new Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was only too well aware of the issues involved in upgrading the Defence Forces. Anderton drew attention to the trade-offs involved:

Now that the nuclear policy is in place, the reality is that we are going to have to bear the cost. There is a cost, and if we are to carry on with any kind of conventional forces, we’re going to have to give them the wherewithal.[23]

The trade-offs and controversy were only just beginning.

[1] Defence Review 1978, Government Printer, Wellington, 1978, p. 23.

[2] Defence Review 1983, Government Printer, Wellington, 1983, p. 23.

[3] ‘Navy going shopping overseas for frigate’, Evening Post, 12 March 1979.

[4] Ministry of Defence Library vertical file , ‘Leander frigates for NZ’, news release, 19 October 1981, in Matthew Wright, Blue Water Kiwis, Reed Books, Auckland, 2003, p. 193.

[5] Defence Review 1983, p. 23.

[6] Defence Review 1983. [my emphasis]

[7] National Business Review, 28 November 1983, pp. 7–8.

[8] Wright, Blue Water Kiwis, p. 194. Admiral Sir Somerford Teagle had been part of the project team investigating the submarines, and added that another reason for not pursuing them was that ‘they were a one-shot weapon’. (Personal interview, 20 September 2003)

[9] Dr Kate Dewes, Personal interview, 21 February 2004.

[10] The Defence Question: a discussion paper, Government Printer, Wellington, 1985, p. 3.

[11] Peace and Justice Forum, An Alternative Defence Policy, Wellington Labour Regional Council, Wellington, March 1985, p. 15.

[12] ‘Just Defence’, Submission to the Defence Committee of Enquiry, Just Defence, Wellington, February 1986, p. 30.

[13] Dominion, 10 May 1986 (The same conference was also reported to have called for the Government to pull out of ANZUS and lead the country into ‘an acceptance of positive neutrality.’)

[14] Dominion, 24 February 1987. [my emphasis]

[15] Defence of New Zealand, Review of Defence Policy 1987, Government Printer, Wellington, 1987, p. 14.

[16] Defence of New Zealand, Review of Defence Policy 1987, p. 16.

[17] Defence of New Zealand, Review of Defence Policy 1987, p. 35.

[18] David Baxter, ‘Beazley did for Labour what Hayden didn’t’, National Business Review, 13 March 1987, p. 13.

[19] Squadron Leader A.J. Forrest, ‘The Anzac Frigate Decision: The Rationale of David Lange’, No. 34 Staff Course, Whenuapai, October 1993, p. 3.

[20] R.J.L. Dicker ‘Renewing the Australian surface fleet’, International Defence Review, vol. 20, no. 7, July 1987, pp. 887–88.

[21] Evening Post, 9 September 1987.

[22] Office of the Minister of Defence, Press release, Wellington, 18 September 1987.

[23] Gordon Campbell, ‘The Frigates of Oz’, New Zealand Listener, 21 November 1987, p. 38.