Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Sustaining New Zealand's Naval Capabilities

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Sustaining New Zealand's Naval Capabilities

Article excerpt

Scott Thomson comments on the government's plans for replacing the frigate HMNZS Canterbury.

The government's decision, announced in May this year, to replace HMNZS Canterbury is a momentous one for New Zealand. Unless the new ship turns out to be a stand alone orphan, repudiated perhaps by a successive administration, it will be a ship with capabilities that will define New Zealand defence policy for decades to come. It will be a ship with sister ships, or at least half-sisters.

In deciding to replace the Canterbury, the Labour-Alliance government has taken a middle course. In broad terms, there appears agreement with the Shipley administration's decision not to purchase a third ANZAC frigate, apparently on the grounds of cost and of relevance to New Zealand's perceived Defence 2001 policy. On the other hand, the contention that two ships of what is broadly the `frigate' operational category will be sufficient has apparently been turned down. The cutting edge of the RNZN remains the three-ship force -- at least for the moment.

If the term `frigate' is absent from descriptions of Canterbury's replacement, it will be not least because the term has become politically loaded However, a glance through any naval reference book shows the hated word applied to a quite bewildering variety of vessels.

In the days of sail, a frigate, by consensus, was something less than Nelson's Wooden Walls of England, but still a warship capable of independent action, a maid of all work. The British Admiralty revived the classification in 1943.(1) As the Second World War loomed, it had become apparent that in

addition to the classic pyramid of battleship, cruiser and destroyer, defined by the 1922 Washington Treaty, and their newer rivals, submarine and aircraft-carrier, smaller warships would be needed in large numbers.

Neither the whale catcher based corvette nor the economy Hunt-class destroyers proved adequate in the Battie of the Atlantic. The clear parent of the frigate was the colonial type sloop, with corvette and Hunt features incorporated as an anti-submarine ship.(2) Six such ships were purchased by New Zealand in 1948.

By that date two developments had taken place. The European phase of the Second World War concluded with the Atlantic battle won, and the prospect of operations against a Japan now bereft of submarines but not of kamikaze aircraft. The essential 1943 design thus acquired quite impressive anti-aircraft armament, HMS Amethyst of the famous Yangtse Incident being such a ship deployed in a traditional colonial role.

The other development was the intensified Cold War, which sent British designers to their drawing boards and resulted in a range of types suitable for mass production in an emergency. The most basic of these, essentially corvette replacements, served in the Cod War confrontation with Iceland, their light hulls proving sadly inadequate in the North Atlantic.

The `First Rate Frigates', or Whitby-class, on the other hand, proved one of the most satisfactory small warship designs of the period. Essentially anti-submarine ships, but with one state of the art destroyer medium gun turret, the Whitby design was developed to include more advanced detection and communication equipment, a helicopter, early anti-aircraft Seacat missiles and eventually anti-missile `chaff' launchers and in a few ships the highly capable Sea Wolf, giving a degree of protection against modern missiles.

Thus the Whitby design, which began as an anti-submarine platform, attained general purpose status. The RNZN adopted the type, HMNZS Otago being the first and Canterbury the last.

The development of the basic design should not be seen as an example of free running admirals wanting better toys. Britain could not afford both the powerful anti-submarine navy the Cold War seemed to demand and modern versions of the traditional classes. Thus the `cheap' frigates, children of 1943, found themselves taking on tasks that in earlier years would have been given to destroyers, or even cruisers. …

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