Below is an interview with Jack Steer which may answer a lot of questions you may have about our current Navy. If you have a question that you would like answered specifically leave a comment and I will attempt to get an answer for you. Questions will be vetted so be careful what you ask for.
WELLINGTON — For a relatively small Navy, with just over 2,100 personnel, the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) covers a lot of sea, with even its offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) ranging from Antarctica to almost the equator. Women have served in the RNZN for decades, and it is expected that a woman will soon command one of the Navy’s Anzac-class frigates.
Both frigates now have new and more powerful diesel engines, thanks to midlife upgrades, and a weapons upgrade that begins next year will arm them with the MBDA Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missile. The Navy’s latest missile, though, is the anti-ship Penguin carried by the eight Kaman SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopters currently being delivered.
The Navy’s flagship is the amphibious support ship Canterbury, recently dispatched to provide the people of Vanuatu with humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
A replacement tanker needs to be ordered soon — the Ministry of Defence issued a request for tender for a “maritime sustainment vessel” in March — and will be helicopter-capable, unlike the present tanker.
New Zealand’s next defense white paper, due this year, will likely provide an indication of what sort of platform could replace the Anzac frigates and, crucially, how many ships will be ordered. Three is definitely better than two for a viable combat force, argues Chief of Navy Rear Adm. Jack Steer.
Q. How is the recruiting and retention of sailors?
A. We’re doing pretty well at the moment. Attrition rate’s about 7.8 percent, down from 23 percent in 2012. There were about seven people applying for each position in the last intake, so we have no shortage of the right people. We still have some gaps in certain areas: engineers, watch keepers, combat systems specialists and divers. We’re getting the ships to sea; it just puts, in some areas, a lot of strain on a few people. But we’ll grow out of that.
Q. Is it deliberate that you have so many women sailors?
A. It’s deliberate — I love telling other navies that we have 23 to 24 percent of women in our Navy. We’re working to make it even higher. We’ve had women at sea for about 30 years. There’s no jobs in the Navy they can’t do, and we’re a better Navy because of it. After we made just about every mistake you could think of, we are now in a place where women are a full part of our Navy. There will be a frigate commanded by a woman in the future; it’s not that far off.
Q. What’s the status of the Joint Task Force?
A. It’s progressing reasonably well. By 2020 our vision for the NZ Defence Force is to have an enhanced combat capability, and the Joint Task Force is part of that.
The Army’s new MAN trucks have been tested on Canterbury. We now know we can embark them and take them on and off, using the ramps, the crane — and with LCMs [mechanized landing craft].
The Seasprite helicopters work fine off Canterbury. We know we can get the NH90 on and off, we just need to go and do more of it.
A better radar for helicopter control has been sorted, the ops room [is] much better, more functional and we’ve improved the hospital. The [rigid hull inflatable boat] launching and recovery [process] has been resolved. The line handling for the LCM — 60 tons of unhelpful metal at times — is a work in progress, but it’s coming along well.
You’ll never see Canterbury storming onto a hostile beach; that’s not what we do. When it sailed to Vanuatu [for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] a few weeks ago, that’s a great example of what we can do. It’s for doing things in a joint way. We are a long way along a very long road.
Q. How are the Army’s soldiers on board Canterbury?
A. It’s a strange marriage. When soldiers first came on, they didn’t really know how to be on a ship; sailors didn’t know how to treat soldiers. We spoke different languages.
Now we have soldiers come on board, they know where to eat, what the routines are like. We understand as sailors how to help them [fit in] on a ship. It’s not perfect, but we can work together very well now.
We’re growing a capability that we always dreamed Canterbury would give us, and now it’s becoming a reality, it really is good.
Q. Any UAV news?
A. Under an Air Force umbrella probably, Navy will have UAVs of different types. Perhaps something like the Schiebel helicopter, which has been on the back of other nations’ OPVs. It just gives [you] a much greater horizon.
So we have a keen interest. But they cost a lot of money and we don’t have a lot of that, but it is the future.
Q. What about the acquisition of eight new Kaman SH-2G(I) Seasprites ?
A. It’s a bit of a success story. It’s pretty much on budget, and came reasonably quickly. And we got a simulator, glass cockpit, better avionics, better communications, [longer] range, bigger missile. It’s a better capability for our Defence Force, with the same airframe that we [already] know how to maintain, so it was a pretty smart buy. We’ve got three here now, and the rest arrive before the end of the year. And Peru’s buying the old ones.
Are there better [naval helicopters] around? Yes, there are; they cost a hell of a lot more, they require much more to operate. We’re really happy with what we’ve got. We’ve got great pilots, great maintainers. It’s upgraded our aviation capability for the next 10 years.
Q. Any issues with Seasprite maintenance personnel?
A. Yes, there is. But they’re not show-stoppers. Look, in our Army, Navy and Air Force, we always have personnel number challenges. That’s how we live, and that’s fine, but we don’t have a surplus of maintainers, or pilots, or aircrew. But we have enough.
Q. Next year, you’ll have the Sea Ceptor missile?
A. Yeah, cool, eh? The frigate [combat] systems upgrade is a huge step, starting the middle of next year with HMNZS Te Mana. Sea Ceptor is good at what it does. The British have it, Brazil just bought it, the Chileans are thinking about it, so it’s gaining momentum as an alternative to the Standard missile that the Australians will stick with.
We’ve upgraded the [frigate’s] engines already. We get a higher speed out of our diesels, so we have much bigger legs on our Anzacs now. It’s a significant difference. So the next step is to upgrade the sensors and the weapons. We’ve restructured the operations room. The frigate upgrade project is really cool.
Q. Are you confident there will be two new frigates replacing the two Anzac frigates?
A. No. I would like to think that whatever we get, we get three of them. Then you have a better availability. With two, you might get two available — but you might get none as well. With three, you have a good chance of at least having one and maybe two.
We are a maritime nation with a huge ocean around us. We also have a large commitment to a number of [defense] arrangements; we are expected to have a combat capability in our Navy. Three slightly used combat platforms is fine; three brand new ones is fine. I just think we need to get away from two. I’d like to think that whatever replaces our combat capability is here in time for the other two to move on gracefully, so we don’t have a gap. That’s my only concern.
If you look at a New Zealand-centric map, there’s a lot of water around us and we tend to forget that. Oceans are the bridges that link us. Our Navy would change fundamentally if we didn’t have combat-capable platforms. It’s a maritime century, after all.
Q. What are the plans for acquiring the Endeavour tanker’s replacement?
A. Yep, the project’s in place, the [request for tender] has been issued. It will carry more fuel than Endeavour, it will be able to take an NH90 helicopter and some containers. There is a quite a lot of interest, so I think we’ll get a good product out of this. The other option [is] to make it more ice-capable, so that it can resupply the McMurdo and Scott bases in Antarctica.
Q. What lessons has the Navy learned from the piracy mission?
A. We’ve learned a lot taking part in anti-piracy stuff off the Gulf of Aden. There’s a lot fewer hostages now and a lot less of it going on. The concern is that if we stop, will the [pirates] come back out?
We’re working with Pakistanis, Chinese, Americans, British and others. We’ve commanded Task Force 151 twice. There’s only about 30 hostages [being held by pirates in that region] at the moment. There were over 700 at one stage.
Q. How are the patrol vessels performing?
A. Our offshore patrol vessels are fantastic. They’re our work horses, they go from just south of the equator to the Antarctic. They really are capable, sea-worthy, very, very useful ships for New Zealand. We have dog kennels on them, we can carry extra boats, other government agency people. We can do boardings by day and by night. They’re a very capable asset for us. Our inshore patrol vessels provide our young people [with] command opportunities you normally don’t get before you go to a bigger ship.