Having only purchased two of the planned four Anzac class frigates in it’s last capital ship acquisition, then failed to keep the two vessels adequately upgraded, Wellington now faces some difficult choices.
Does it cut and run from its vast maritime responsibilities, or is there a will to pay up and meet them?
Because, currently, it has eked out a position somewhere between the two.
Granted there has been a modest rise in the defence budget, with money allocated for a new supply vessel, but in the context of cancelling half of its last planned capital ship acquisition, its entire defence posture seems to be to hope for peace and expect Australia to come to its aid in a war.
Let’s focus for a minute on the fact that since 2001, Wellington has had no fighter aircraft to defend its airspace.
Now consider the carnage a carrier fleet could unleash on any city or essential infrastructure from the skies with impunity.
No fighters, two frigates and an army that would struggle to fill a decent sized hall is all that stands between Kiwi’s and chaos in the event of war.
But, of course, that’s been its bipartisan policy for decades. So why should they change it?
Put simply, in one word, China.
Beijing has expanded unilaterally into international territory and is circling Taiwan like a predator.
It is being confrontational with its subcontinent neighbour, expanding the range of its armed fleet of fishermen and actively pursuing a plan to exploit the Antarctic.
To underline the threat, China has already acquired one operational aircraft carrier, has launched a second and is building a third.
The plan is to have six carrier fleets operational in the not too distant future.
Thanks to the former Hawke Labor government’s inept handling of the scrapping of HMAS Melbourne in the 1980s, China was able to reverse engineer allied technology to make its own designs on par with an American carrier.
This is deeply unsettling to the status quo, meaning New Zealand now presides over contested waters.
From Cook Islands to the Ross Sea, the New Zealand is responsible for one of the largest maritime territories in the world.
Much of which isn’t recognised by many other nations.
Fishing vessels currently plunder with near impunity the property of New Zealand without a second thought st present, such is the paucity of its deployable force.
For too long Wellington has entrusted Canberra to defend its sovereign position in the event of a conflict.
This reliance is reminiscent of Canberra’s trust in Britain before the fall of Singapore, totally unrealistic and an attempt to outsource an essential service of government.
Defence of the realm is not an optional extra in this unstable world, it’s essential.
China is not playing by the rules, is sending fishermen south with impunity and is intimidating regional powers out of standing firm against its maritime invasion.
And to confront this, New Zealand has just two obsolescent capital ships with no air support to counter any real or perceived threat to its sovereignty.
It might as well seek terms before a shot’s even been fired if it actually came to war.
To make matters even worse, Wellington has made no commitment to replacing its two frigates any time soon, unlike Britain, Canada and Australia which are commuting tens of billions of dollars into a complete fleet rebuild.
Here’s where the Kiwi’s have a chance to either purchase decommissioned vessels or commit to a new build.
The first option is cheaper, but the second more secure.
Either way, the need to plan ahead is pressing.
Enough of the cost cutting, enough naive posturing that war is but a distant memory and not a harbinger of things to come.
To rely on Canberra, whose fleet is split between the Indian and Pacific, is to rely on a nation that can barely defend itself.
Australia too has a self reliance issue with the Americans, but that’s another issue.
In any event, should a hostile force be deployed, allies would take time to sail to meet them.
A window of devastation would ensue.
So if the government was genuine about adequately defending New Zealand, it would either issue a tender process to choose at least three new frigates, like BAE System’s Type 26, or negotiate the purchase of an additional two Anzac class frigates when Australia decommissions them on the arrival of their new ones.
Either way, something has to be done.
If Prime Minister Ardern can stop being a celebrity for more than a minute, then perhaps her government can invest time and money defending the land of the long white cloud with something more.