New Zealand naval chief talks future fleet, unmanned tech

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The Royal New Zealand Navy recently introduced three high-speed, 41-foot Littoral Manoeuvre Craft to its fleet of nine ships, and is now testing the Australian-made 22-foot uncrewed surface vessel Bluebottle.

But it has been difficult for the service to operate all of its maritime platforms amid recruiting and retention woes. In January 2023, a third of the Navy’s ships were docked due to a shortage of sailors, causing a loss of “significant flexibility,” the service’s top officer, Rear Adm. David Proctor, told Defense News at the time.

On Nov. 15, the Defense Ministry closed a request for information about replacing nearly the entire naval fleet. The Navy’s flagship — its 568-foot replenishment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa — has been in service for three years, but the remaining eight ships — two frigates, two inshore and two offshore patrol vessels, a sealift ship, and a dive and hydrographic ship — will reach the end of their service lives in the mid-2030s.

Defense News recently checked in with Proctor to discuss the state of the Navy, what’s planned for 2024 and ongoing efforts to strengthen the service. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What responses have you received to the request for information for new ships?

A wide range of responses. Respondents included shipbuilders, system suppliers and maritime service providers, and the quality of information is an encouraging indication of interest in New Zealand’s defense. The responses are providing industry input to maritime fleet options in support of the Defence Capability Plan.

[Editor’s note: A New Zealand Defence Force spokesperson told Defense News after this interview the government received 49 responses to the RFI, but declined to provide further details.]

What’s next?

The development of the Defence Capability Plan is a process that explores a range of investment options to balance capability and resources. These options are assessed against extant defense policy. No decisions on specific ship types have been made at this point. The DCP will present investment options for government to consider.

Talk about the state of the Royal New Zealand Navy over the last year.

We have experienced a challenging year, with a declining workforce in 2023. Attrition is currently outstripping recruiting. But key measures and recruiting initiatives are underway to address this issue. The attrition rate is decreasing, indicating these initiatives are having a positive effect on addressing workforce issues.

How do you balance training against the deployment of forces?

The Royal New Zealand Navy is currently regenerating, following widely reported attrition and recruiting issues since the COVID-19 pandemic. This process is not without challenges as a result of the hollowness of the Navy.

In particular, the cohort where we are most short is needed to both keep the fleet at sea and to deliver specialist training ashore. This requires careful management and some compromise to maximize our ability to have ships at sea on operational deployments and/or providing at-sea training, while still being able to deliver world-class training ashore and transition to a sustainable training state.

What’s planned for the Navy in 2024?

The priorities for 2024 are to regenerate maritime capabilities in accordance with the Navy’s four-year regeneration plan, [which includes work on an integrated system to sustainably generate naval forces; a fresh focus on personnel capability to develop high-performing individuals and units; and a regeneration of combat capabilities]; continue the introduction and transition to new and upgraded capabilities; and improve maritime cooperation among Southwest Pacific partners by continuing to develop the effectiveness of the forum with Southwest Pacific heads of maritime forces.

As a small trading nation, New Zealand’s security is absolutely dependent on multinational organizations — like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations — and the rules-based international system to advance its interests. Specifically for the Royal New Zealand Navy, a number of key challenges and opportunities exist which, if achieved, would enable the service to improve its operational ability.

It is crucial that the Navy is able to continue reducing the current attrition rate and increase recruiting in order to regenerate the service and ensure the effective delivery of outputs.

As we continue to deliver our mission, which is to advance New Zealand’s interests from the sea as well as progress our strategic initiatives, we must also maintain our personnel and operational competencies as we transition to new capabilities. In addition, we must ensure that we put in place mechanisms that allow us to unlock the full potential and benefits from any new capabilities we are introducing. This will allow us to fully use the enhanced military platforms and technologies the government is investing in.

Gaining the right balance between effectiveness and efficiency is required to successfully introduce the future Navy while minimizing cost to New Zealanders. This will be done by ensuring we do the right things the right way so we can optimize effort and prioritize resources — for example, personnel, maintenance, finances, and ships and shore infrastructure.

Greater focus on capacity building within our region and the development of a body of knowledge on maritime security and strategic matters will continue to enhance the Navy’s position as subject matter experts in the maritime security domain. Increased engagement with partner navies, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutes and other government agencies will enhance the Navy’s ability to make a difference and will promote a wider understanding of the value of the service.

Of course, it’s worth noting the volatile security environment as well as the need to be ready to provide the government with options covering the full spectrum of maritime military operations, including combat and lethal force in defense of New Zealand, our allies and our interests.

How is recruiting going?

The Royal New Zealand Navy acknowledges that a naval candidate in 2024 is vastly different to one who would have joined in 2004. Access to technology and a reliance on fast responses can mean candidates may expect those same timelines from their recruiter. However, standardized assessment processes are required for us to accurately evaluate candidates and make sure we abide by our security, medical and academic standards.

This has involved robust action plans to enhance the recruiting approach, such as the development and publishing of operating processes, technical upgrades to operating systems, updates to minimum entry requirements, and the ongoing development of recruiters’ skills.

How are you balancing the varying levels of experience between new and seasoned sailors?

After a period of heightened attrition, the average level of experience across the Navy has fallen. Significant overseas ship deployments in both 2022 and 2023 have helped begin to rebuild these, as will deployments planned for 2024 and 2025.

A small but significant number of highly experienced subject matter experts have been used to provide guidance in their areas to those at sea and at the beginning of their careers.

What could the service gain from the trilateral AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States?

It remains to be seen what opportunities might exist for New Zealand under the second pillar of AUKUS, [which involves cooperative efforts to develop and field undersea capabilities, among other advanced technologies].

Decisions on this matter will be for ministers.

How has New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy affected the Navy?

The impact has been in relation to our Navy’s engagement with the U.S. Navy. But the relationship has largely moved beyond past differences over nuclear policy that impacted ship visits for a period of time. The Wellington Declaration of 2010 and the Washington Declaration of 2012 have enabled a notable reengagement between the two navies.

How do you view China’s maritime growth?

China continues to modernize its military. New Zealand is fully invested in collective security approaches alongside our key partners and in supporting the international rules-based system.

What is the Navy doing with uncrewed platforms at sea?

The Navy and Defence Force currently use a number of small uncrewed systems for a variety of tasks, and are undertaking experimentation to investigate their potential for greater use in a broader range of roles. In support of the Defence Capability Plan, the fleet is considering uncrewed capability as part of a solution set for the future Navy.

[Editor’s note: The military spokesperson also told Defense News the Bluebottle uncrewed surface vessel is set to undergo an initial confirmation of standard operating procedures, which would allow the Navy to build confidence and experience with the system as well as launch trials to support other government agencies, while gradually increasing range and duration of use around the country’s waters. The level of endurance the platform offers at sea, alongside its onboard cameras and radar, could benefit maritime patrol missions. The spokesperson noted Bluebottle is a quiet platform able to carry a towed array sonar.]

[The Navy leased the Martac-made Mantas T12 uncrewed surface vessel for three months in mid-2022. The spokesperson told Defense News the service used the platform to better understand such technology. Martac’s chief marketing officer, Stephen Ferretti, told Defense News in 2022 the T12′s sensors include electro-optical/infrared cameras for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as multibeam, single-beam, side-scan and other sonar types for object detection and hydrographic surveying missions.]

Nick Lee-Frampton is the New Zealand correspondent for Defense News.

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