WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A third of Royal New Zealand Navy ships are docked due to a shortage of sailors, causing a loss of “significant flexibility,” the service’s top officer told Defense News.
Last month, the 279-foot offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington became the third ship to enter a period of idleness, joining the Navy’s other offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Otago and one of the two remaining 180-foot inshore patrol vessels, HMNZS Hawea.
The other six ships are two Anzac-class frigates, HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Te Mana; one inshore patrol vessel, HMNZS Taupo; one replenishment ship, HMNZS Aotearoa; one sealift ship, HMNZS Canterbury; and one hydrographic ship, HMNZS Manawanui.
“We have lost significant flexibility,” said Rear Adm. David Proctor, “and we have lost the ability to undertake a number of concurrent activities.”
But “I wouldn’t describe it as a catastrophe,” he added. “We are still able to deliver the expectation of government from an agreed-outputs point of view. Having a third of the fleet alongside is certainly less than ideal. I would love to be able to offer New Zealand and the government more options to respond.”
Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short said putting the Wellington dockside would free up engineering personnel amid workforce attrition. Placing a ship into care and custody will consolidate the workforce and allow better management of the effects of attrition, he argued.
The Navy currently has funding for 2,230 people, but Proctor said the service’s ideal end strength is about 2,340. As of Nov. 30, it had 2,117 in service, he said.
The service has “often struggled” to hit recruitment targets, Proctor noted, with the group coming in next year representing half of the service’s goal. Part of the problem is the highly competitive labor market.
“If the current attrition rate of 16.5% can be arrested, it is expected [that we] will have sufficient sailors to operate the rest of the fleet,” a Navy spokesperson told Defense News. “However, there remains a level of uncertainty until this attrition rate is reversed. This requires a number of initiatives to take effect, including addressing the widening gap between our sailor remuneration and what the highly competitive job market is offering.”
Still, the Navy’s two frigates are still operating — a ship type Proctor said can respond quicker than offshore patrol vessels and carry more personnel. But using frigates in place of OPVs means “I then don’t have a frigate to respond to whatever else may occur in the region,” he noted.
“From [the] ability to undertake surveillance and reconnaissance, we’re not perceiving any issues, but at this point there isn’t a ship able to undertake enforcement. With HMNZS Aotearoa, we can certainly be present … but until we have a dedicated ship that can operate in ice, or very near to ice, we are unable to undertake that enforcement activity within the Southern Ocean and the Ross Sea. So there’s a policy gap at the moment; I am unable to meet the government’s direction,” Proctor added.
Robert Patman, a professor of international relations at New Zealand’s Otago University, described the idle ships as a “worrying” development.
“We have one of the biggest exclusive economic zones in the world, quite a lot of marine resources to protect, and this is just not the time when we should be signaling or indicating that we are weakening our capabilities in maritime security,” he told Defense News.
Beyond New Zealand’s local waters, he added, the country has an obligation to neighboring Pacific islands, which absorb “about 60% of our overseas development aid and has been defined, particularly by this government, but by successive governments, as our major priority in foreign policy terms and security terms.”
Furthermore, the country should not assume its allies will fill the gap, and the government ought to consider raising its defense expenditure, Patman said.
“We’ve been spending about 1.5% of [gross domestic product]. … If we were spending more … then we could support the Navy to get it into a situation that it is operationally more capable than it is at the moment,” he added. “All governments have problems of conflicting financial demands. It’s just a question of whether we are going to bite the bullet — in a very troubled world — of committing ourselves more unambiguously to raising the level of defense expenditure to a point which matches our national and international interests more commensurately.”
Tackling the personnel gap
Salary is certainly part of the reason the Navy can’t reach its ideal end strength.
“Our sailors are being enticed out by remuneration levels significantly different to what we pay. These sailors are highly competent, highly disciplined, and they want to provide the best for their families,” Proctor said. “If they can see the competitive labor market outside is going to give them [up to] NZ$50,000 extra per annum, they’re going to take it, notwithstanding they wish to serve the nation.”
But pay is not necessarily the major reason for attrition rates, according to independent defense consultant Gordon Crane.
“Many of the personnel ordered to manage quarantine facilities during the COVID epidemic subsequently resigned,” Crane told Defense News.
Indeed, sailors were tapped to manage hotels hosting those under quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. “They weren’t in ships, and they joined the Navy to go away in ships,” Proctor said. “So it’s a mixed bag. In some areas there is high morale, in other areas it’s tough.”
The shortfall is further exasperated by “severe restrictions in some of the critical technical trades,” Proctor added. “It’s a bit of a perennial problem for many of our technical trades, I don’t think we’ve ever had enough in 20 years; certainly it’s been a long time since we had an excess of technical sailors.”
Proctor said some of the crew members of idle ships are helping to fill readiness gaps on other ships, while others are taking leave or participating in training courses. Some personnel will sail with other navies.
”I want our sailors to retain their skills as mariners and sailors, so where we don’t have an ability to send our own ships, I am inviting partners [to see] if they have an ability to help us,” Proctor said. “That’s not unusual; we have exchanges going all the time. It’s just this time we will potentially send larger numbers of Kiwi sailors to our partners’ ships to deliver security outcomes.”
The Navy has responded to its readiness gap with technical and financial measures, in particular the introduction of training simulators that make the process faster and more efficient, according to Proctor.
“We can get them to sea … in less time. We had an engineering training reform project [in which we asked]: Were we training the right things with the sailors that we require at sea?” he said. “Our seaman combat specialist [trade] has undertaken a similar review; simulation has provided similar benefits with them.”
“We are specific in recruiting targets for particular trades. We’ve introduced a training scheme for enlisted sailors whereby they can go and undertake tertiary training — one or two each year — that satisfies their professional desire for development,” he added. “One of the key ones that I am keen on and we are still putting resources into is the School to Seas program. It’s woman-focused on the [science, technology, engineering and math] trades. We’ve run that program once, and we’re running it again next year.”
“Across the Defence Force we have introduced an international operational enabling allowance that’s encouraging people to remain in the service in some of the areas where [living] costs are high,” he added.
Furthermore, sailors that deploy for more than 210 days in a year are now granted two days of extra leave for each month they’re over that balance. “Obviously that doesn’t help them when they are at sea, but they get to do a degree of reconnection with [their] family when they do come home,” Proctor noted.
“We have introduced retention payments for critical trades,” he added. “That’s short term and buys us time to address those core issues that sit behind our attrition.”
Even though New Zealand was aware of its chronic sailor shortage, it still decided to acquire more ships, according to Paul Buchanan, a former defense policy analyst with the U.S. government who now leads the geopolitical consultancy 36th Parallel Assessments in Auckland.
And that’s where it went wrong, Buchanan told Defense News.
The vessels Te Kaha and Te Mana entered service in the late 1990s, while the Canterbury joined in 2007, followed by the Hawea and the Taupo in 2009. The next year saw the Wellington and the Otago join the fleet. More recently, the Manawanui entered service in 2019, and the Aotearoa in 2020.
“I think the acquisition of these [ships] was more aspirational than practicable because they could see that they were having recruitment and retention problems,” Buchanan said. “But they felt the need to protect our [exclusive economic zone] and those of our neighbors, and went ahead anyway.”
Nick Lee-Frampton is the New Zealand correspondent for Defense News.