Navy vs Coastguard

New Zealand is surrounded by sea, but naval enemies are rather more difficult to find. The nearest navies belong to Australia, France, the United States and Indonesia.  The United States Navy's budget is bigger than New Zealand's annual turnover of money (GDP). The French Navy is nuclear armed; the Australian Navy consists of 8 Meko frigates (the same as ours) 4 guided missile frigates, 6 submarines and 32 other smaller or less well armed vessels. Indonesia's navy consists of two (ultimately five) submarines, and a huge range of small patrol boats for operations in its huge archipelago. 

The object of any navy is to fight other navies. Policing EEZs, search and rescue, and disaster relief are handled in many countries by the coastguard. The difference is that a coastguard assumes it's targets are civilians incapable of gaining access to the latest anti-shipping missiles. This makes a huge difference in the design criteria of the craft.

Because a Navy must assume it is dealing with enemy navies it must compete with other navies' war fighting technology.  A Navy is meant to be better than another Navy.  But if our Navy mostly deals with civilians why does New Zealand need a Navy at all? Why invest in combat Naval systems to fight other Navies? Why not a coastguard? Norway (a NATO nation) which is far richer than New Zealand largely makes do with a coastguard, as does Ireland.

Commerce Raiders

Historically the only ships which have sunk New Zealand civilian shipping were German commerce raiders during World War Two. These were merchant vessels armed and manned by the German Kriegsmarine. All the shipping losses were due to mining. Mining remains one of the easiest ways for any putative enemy to disrupt our sea lanes. Mine sweeping does require military technology but most mine sweepers are relatives of civilian craft.


During World War Two there was a threat posed by Japanese and German submarines although no vessels were lost in New Zealand waters. Japanese submarines I-25 and other submarines circumnavigated New Zealand while U-863 explored the West Coast all to no effect. After World War Two Soviet submarines navigated past New Zealand towards patrol areas in the Indian ocean and were tracked by P-3K Orions. With the fall of the Soviet Union there has been no reports of potentially hostile submarines anywhere near New Zealand. 

This report details recent Chinese submarine development and points out China has a dozen older style Kilo class diesel-electric submarines and over twenty older Soviet style subs some of which it has tried to sell to Pakistan. Most of these submarines do not have the range to do more than visit New Zealand. 

Indonesia has two Type 209 submarines capable of reaching New Zealand. It is planning to buy more but had not (as of December 2015) made any firm announcements. It is difficult to imagine why Indonesian submarines would make a long an perilous journey past Australia to attack New Zealand.

The threat from submarines as assessed by the bureau of external assessments is considered extremely small.

Surface combatants

The famous role of HMS Achilles cornering the German cruiser Graf Spee at the Battle of River Plate was basically the end of ship-to-ship engagements. Even the Bismarck was sunk by torpedo bombers. Nowadays ship to ship fighting now comes down to aircraft, helicopters and guided missiles. For New Zealand to be threatened by surface combatants would require a collapse in global governance systems which cannot be contemplated within a fifteen year time frame. Even were this to occur New Zealand would have no choice but to improvise anti shipping systems from civilian technology.

Protecting our sealanes

New Zealand's sea lanes stretch across the Pacific to Panama and Cape Horn; South of Australia; and north to Singapore, China and Japan. Shipping through Panama is largely secured by the US Navy. Shipping through Cape Horn depends on the Argentine and Chilean navies. Shipping South of Australia relies on the Australian Navy. Shipping to South East and North Asia passes through the zones of control of multiple navies most much bigger than ours.

The simple fact is the safety of our sealanes depends on navies and air forces which are far bigger than anything we can compete with. We therefore need to provide support to these forces. This does not necessarily, however, mean providing competitive military systems.


Pirates are typically armed civilians using infantry weapons, speed boats and sometimes captured merchant ships. Coastguard level armament is certainly sufficient to defeat this threat.

Our Fleet

The Royal New Zealand Navy fleet consists of two combat frigates, two offshore patrol vessels, four inshore patrol vessels, the multi-role vessel Canterbury, the oiler Endaevour and the dive support boat Manawanui. The Air Force also operates 8 aging anti submarine warfare Seasprite helicopters - the last surviving examples in the world (see Air Force Helicopters).


The EEZ is patrolled by the OPVs and the IPVs. The frigates aren't used for EEZ patrol because they are too expensive. The NZDF annual report provides the following figures. The Naval Patrol force costs $131 million per year for six vessels wheras the Naval Combat force costs $336 million per year for two frigates. The Naval combat force (frigates) are available for 233 days and is at sea for 180 (between two ships) so effectively they cost $1.5 - $1.8 million per sea day.  The OPVs are meant to spend 373 days at sea (for two ships) while the IPVs are meant to spend 460 days at sea (for four vessels) or 833 sea days total. The patrol force therefore costs $139k per sea day on average. If OPVs cost (Est) $75 million per year (for two) we could substitute the frigates for OPVs (as the Irish do) and save $260 million a year.

The OPVs Wellington and Otago are ocean going ships armed with a light cannon capable of killing civilian ships or aircraft a mile away. They have a helicopter deck for the Seasprites and can sail at 22 knots up to 6,000 nautical miles. They can launch RHIBs and carry a container of aid or mission equipment. They have a crew of 80. They are capable small ships of 1,900 tonnes (which for a ship is small, a Cooks Strait ferry would be five times heavier). While the OPVs can enter icy seas they are not icebreakers. 

They do not have the structural integrity or brig size to ram and arrest a civilian ship that doesn't want to stop.  In January 2015 HMS Wellington could only document illegal toothfishers in the Southern Ocean aboard M.V Songhua and pass the information on to Interpol. This could also have been done by a maritime patrol aircraft, and potentially even a satellite.

The IPVs Taupo, Hawea, Pukaki and Rotoiti are 55m long, 340 tonne launches which have a range of 3,000 nautical miles cruising at 25 knots. They don't have heavy weapons but can launch a RHIB crew to board a vessel small enough to be boarded or willing to stop.  They are essentially good for policing New Zealand vessels and foreign vessels nominally operating legally. Like all the Project Protector vessels they have suffered from maintenance and design problems.

Altogether the Navy operates six vessels to patrol an EEZ of 4 million square kilometers (equivalent to 2,000km x 2,000km) over 833 sea days.  


The Naval combat force is one of the most expensive units in the NZDF. For $336m (50% the total spent by Pharmac on drugs) New Zealanders get two combat capable frigates which go to sea for 180 days total to take part in exercises, stop civilian merchant ships in far off waters, search for contraband, and visit distant ports.

The New Zealand frigates Te Kaha and Te Mana are half way through their design lives. By 2030 they will be effectively obsolete. The MEKO-200 design are all-rounder fleet ships able to hunt submarines or defend against air strikes. They also have a 5 inch gun for seaborne artillery support. Theoretically their turbines can be used to generate electricity in an emergency but this was not needed after the Canterbury earthquakes. 

The two frigates are effectively not part of a New Zealand fleet but part of the Australian fleet. Our frigates bring the Australasian frigate count to ten. That is a reasonable fleet. Two isn't. The problem is that politically, most of the time our frigates represent New Zealand, not Australia, so they are neither one thing nor the other.

In a combat situation our frigates could possibly deal with two strike aircraft or one submarine. Against a squadron of strike jets or fast missile boats they would struggle to avoid damage - especially in the shallow waters of an archipelago like Indonesia or the Phillippines. 

All the frigates are is a negotiating chip thrown in to make foreign powers look more international. There are, however, cheaper ways of achieving the same thing.


The HMNZS Canterbury multi-role vessel is regularly deployed to provide aid to Pacific Island nations. Designed by Merwede it is a roll-on roll-off ferry similar to Bluebridge's ferry which has been adapted for military use. It is combined with the most cost effective and efficient ship in the Royal New Zealand Navy  - the oiler (refueller) Endeavor for budget purposes. 

Canterbury is meant to spend 144 days at sea and be available 303 days. Endeavor is meant to be at sea 105 days a year. Canterbury costs $67 million per year while Endeavor costs 41 million. That means Canterbury costs taxpayers $460k per sea day, and the Endeavor $390k per sea day.

Before Canterbury was purchased the Navy (who were not keen on it at the time) pointed out that for the transport of goods it was cheaper to use civilian commercial services. This remains true, but civilian commercial services are not always available at short notice. Canterbury can also accommodate 250 troops or disaster refugees. In general it takes Canterbury two weeks to get aid to sea in response to a Pacific disaster and another week to reach most of the Pacific. 

Canterbury has the capability to carry two Airforce NH-90 helicopters. However because these were not built to a navalised specification they would corrode badly at sea.  

Canterbury can land material either via its two 23m on-board landing craft or by docking. The landing craft can carry 40 tonnes each which is effectively two sea containers (or one sea container and one carrier) or two trucks. She has a draught of 5.4m so landing directly onto a beach relies on assembling temporary bridging. In aid situations Canterbury usually docks. 

The Endeavor is effectively an oil tanker (5,000 tonnes payload) but is able to refuel ships at sea. This is potentially a useful facility for foreign navies. Endeavor can also carry defensive weapons and a dozen shipping containers. The Endeavor has reached the end of her life and a replacement is being sought. This is potentially an important opportunity.

The Canterbury has had significant teething problems and has design limitations because she was built for quick turnaround trips similar to those made by the Cook Straight ferries.  She is the best we have and for the moment will have to do.


The Royal New Zealand Navy is barely a navy at all. It's combat capability is limited to two frigates and while no civilian vessel would want to tangle with them, a fleet of much cheaper fast attack missile boats, or a surprise air strike could easily sink or badly damage them. The assumption is that the frigates constitute a credible contribution to allied naval exercises and a "seat at the table". However it is doubtful that a navy as small as New Zealand's makes us any better heard than Norway or Ireland and the cost of $336 million per annum is considerable. It would be fairly easy to replace the two frigates with two coastguard cutters at half the annual cost.

As for EEZ patrol and transport the Navy is just functional. The very notion that we have a Navy (as opposed to a Coastguard) hugely inflates the cost of operating ships for EEZ patrol (civilian function) and disaster sealift.

In my view the probability that New Zealand will need naval combat systems in the next 30 years is so low that there is no need for us to spend such a huge amount on these systems. In the unlikely event that combat systems are needed we should equip ourselves such that we can retrofit credible systems in the period of warning likely to occur before any such conflict.

Potential Savings

Naval Combat Force: $260 million