The Other Alternatives

The alternative that had perhaps had most press space by the beginning of 1989 was the Castle-class, having been suggested by Robert Miles in 1983, and by Just Defence since 1985. This class of offshore patrol vessel had been designed for the Royal Navy, to provide a ship capable of resource protection, policing Britain’s 200 mile EEZ. The first of class, HMS Leeds Castle, was completed in 1981. Together with its sister ship HMS Dumbarton Castle, the vessel quickly saw active service in the Falklands War, being despatched there in April 1982. The vessels gained a reputation for excellent sea-keeping, and an ability to embark helicopters in rough conditions. They were 81 metres long, and displaced 1630 tonnes. Maximum speed was 19.5 knots, with a range of up to 10 000 miles. Whilst the original vessels did not have hangars for helicopters, the manufacturers indicated that design provision had been made for hangar space. Just Defence made much of their relative cost and capability when comparing them with the ANZAC frigates, citing the Whangarei Engineering Company managing director Kelvin Hardie giving a price of about NZ$40 million for construction (admittedly without weapons systems), as opposed to NZ$500 million for an ANZAC frigate.[67]

The suggested alternative of the Castle-class was given short shrift by the Minister of Defence. In a press release issued in July, Tizard was again on the offensive, saying that the RNZN had never considered the Castle-class as replacements for the Leanders. They had been considered as replacements for the Lake-class patrol vessels prior to the development of the 1987 White Paper:

The reference to the Navy wanting to purchase or build Castle class patrol vessels is based on information that was produced prior to the 1987 White Paper. ... What it comes down to is the Castle class vessel was a contender for the patrol craft and nothing else. ... The 1987 White Paper did not include a strong priority for replacement patrol craft so funding for it was never sought in the indicative capital equipment plan.[68]

The following month Captain Ian Bradley (Ret.) sent a letter to John Matthews, the Managing Director of Technic Group—an engineering firm in New Plymouth which was keen to see new vessels built in New Zealand—responding to a request for comment on the Castle-class. He compared it to the IS-86, a Danish designed ship which had by now entered the fray, championed by Harry Duynhoven, Labour MP for New Plymouth. ‘Either of these ships could have a role in the RNZN’, commented Captain Bradley. Duynhoven had been intent to see that the IS-86 was chosen.

In March 1989, two months after the tenders for the ANZAC frigate project had been delivered, Peter Glente, the managing director of Svendborg Shipyard in Denmark visited New Zealand. Subsequently he wrote to Gerald Hensley (at that time in the Prime Ministers’ Department) offering details of his firm’s frigate—the 4000GRT (subsequently referred to as the IS-86). This was a vessel of 112 metres, with a displacement of 3500 tonnes, and a top speed of 21.4 knots. It had a large helicopter deck, hangar and a double skinned hull designed for breaking ice up to a metre thick. The vessel was offered at an indicative price of NZ$70 million, or on very favourable finance terms.

Glente made the point that four such ships had been ordered by the Royal Danish Navy, and the first would go to sea trials the following year. His letter was forwarded on to Tizard, to whom Glente subsequently wrote on 5 April 1989. By this time Svendborg had made contact with Duynhoven who was on holiday in Europe, and had persuaded him to visit the shipyard. Duynhoven returned in time for the central North Island Labour conference in Wanganui on 9 April, and helped ensure this conference voted against the ANZAC frigate proposal. He said:

I believe we can get ships that can easily do what we require for New Zealand, and that are completely capable of coping with the seas, that are quite similar in size to the frigates, for less than $100 million.[69]

The Government was unmoved, with the Minister of Defence responding in May to a letter from John Matthews requesting a meeting, by saying that there was no good reason for having a meeting at that stage, and emphasising that the review of potential ships had been closed some two years previously. This response was reinforced by the Prime Minister the following month in a written reply, when he wrote: ‘I would not at this point wish to pursue your offer to build “any type of frigate you require” here in New Zealand.’[70] Unwilling to take ‘No’ for an answer, the Danes sent a delegation in July, with Glente, and Captain Niels Ottesen of the Royal Danish Navy, but Lange still remained unmoved, once more ‘pouring cold water’ on the idea. Lange commented that the proposal could pass quite a high degree of commercial and technology risk on to the New Zealand Government, and he was also critical of a number of purported technical deficiencies with the vessel. Not to be deterred, Matthews wrote an open letter to the New Zealand Government on 20 August 1989, and on that same day Duynhoven also wrote to all Cabinet members, urging them to once more consider the IS-86. Duynhoven worked hard to use political influence to help shape a change in the decision-making process, but to no avail. David Lange made that very clear:

Once we got the word that the frigates were the price of Australian goodwill, it became a matter of extracting the best possible deal. We mused publicly about alternative purchases. We acted coy about making up our minds. We haggled over details. But in the end we signed on the dotted line and bought two Australian ships.[71]

Later he was to comment:

Yes, the other designs didn’t get a look in; they didn’t get a fair hearing. We went through the motions but I made it abundantly clear that there was no way those designs were going to succeed. I mean, I told Harry Duynhoven that he could produce them for nothing and we still wouldn’t take them. … We ended up being told they were going to be built in Australia. There is no doubt about that. … But in 1988 I said we wouldn’t be buying anywhere else and that was the truth of it. There was no point in mucking around—that was what we had to do.[72]

Geoffrey Palmer had a different perception:

Yes Harry’s ships were never a goer. But we had them analysed incessantly, and they were never going to be interoperable with the Australians. Interoperability with Australia is essential, and we needed to have the equipment to make that possible.[73]

Despite Duynhoven’s protestations, by August 1989 the decision on the ANZAC frigates was well in train.

[67] Kevin Hackwell, ‘The Case for Corvettes’, New Zealand International Review, vol. XIV, no. 2, 1989, p. 9. In a subsequent letter to Kevin Hackwell, (21 August 1989), Alastair Lambie, the Managing Director of A&P Appledore (Aberdeen) Ltd (who had purchased the assets of Hall and Russell) indicated that a standard Castle-class vessel without weapons fit would cost £16 million; if fully fitted with significant ASW capability, it would cost £127 million.

[68] Office of the Minister of Defence, Press Release, Wellington, 31 July 1989.

[69] New Zealand Herald, 10 April 1989

[70] Letter from David Lange, Prime Minister, to J.B. Matthews, 6 June 1989.

[71] David Lange, Nuclear Free—The New Zealand Way, Penguin Books, Auckland, 1990, p. 167.

[72] David Lange interviewed by Squadron Leader A.J. Forrest. See Forrest, ‘The Anzac Frigate Decision: The Rationale of David Lange’, p. A-2.

[73] Rt. Hon. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Telephone interview, 2 May 2005.