Thursday, 18 September 2014

A journalist goes to sea with the Royal New Zealand Navy

My cousin used to fly the old A-4 Skyhawk jets. And one day he dismally explained that, in the event of an attack, our strike wing could be wiped out in 40 minutes. We were weak. At the time I was only about 11 or 12 years of age but stories like that colour a kid’s perceptions.

Looking back now, he was showing me around Ohakea Airbase just before his beloved Skyhawk jets were mothballed. He wasn’t happy about the decision. I don’t suppose any fighter pilot likes to see their job literally grounded.

My cousin eventually joined the Australian air force to fly real fighter jets but his face that day was of resignation and frustration. That sentiment coloured my understanding of the NZ Defence Force for years.

Then I met Admiral Jack Steer. He and I were invited to observe a new training module built for the New Zealand Navy by the contractor Lockheed Martin Global. Essentially, the module was a 1:1 scale working replica of a navy patrol vessel. There’d been a deadly accident on a ship a few years before and the NZ Defence Force was doing all it could to stop future tragedies.

The admiral wasn’t an overly tall man, and he had already rolled up his sleeves by the time I arrived but he was enthusiastic about the navy. That’s what really stood out. He was beaming wonder as he walked through, over and under the training module, constantly turning to his staff to smile, ask questions and heap praises on almost every new corner and rivet he spotted.

When I talked to him later I floated (sorry) the idea that the NZDF seemed small and insufficient for the country’s needs. Did he think the structure of the navy, for instance, was enough to protect New Zealand? Admiral Steer’s answer was fast and unequivocal. He had full confidence in the capability and professionalism of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

In fact, he said, “We should get you out on a ship so you can see it all for yourself.” Nice idea, but there was something about his posture which made me think he was kidding.

So that’s how I found myself peering at the hazy islands of the Hauraki Gulf in the early Spring sunshine through the wraparound windows on the bridge of the HMNZS Wellington. It’s not that I was overly sceptical of this country’s navy but Admiral Steer sounded so sure of its capabilities.

And I’m not going to gloss over the fact that at heart I’m a boy with deep appreciation for all things military and exploding. I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to observe a naval exercise from inside one of the participating ships. My journalist hat was firmly on, because, after all, I had to sell the story idea to the editor. But I could feel my inner childish curiosity trying to crack a smile.

On exercise with the Japanese

Joining the crew of the HMNZS Wellington was extra special because three frigates from the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) were in Auckland on a 15-stop tour around the Pacific. They planned to exercise with the Royal New Zealand Navy to give their relatively green crew of officers solid experience working closely with Japan’s allies.

Although the commander of the Wellington assured me the Royal New Zealand Navy had quite a bit more firepower than the three Japanese frigates, as he started to describe the advanced missiles mounted threateningly on their ships I was having trouble believing him. New Zealand’s ships looked decidedly puny by comparison. All I could see on the Wellington was a solitary machine gun mounted to the bow. Where were our missiles? I was disappointed already.

And those Japanese frigates are big beasts. I understand the physics of displacement and metallurgy. In concept, there’s nothing magical about how heavy craft float on water. It makes perfect theoretical sense. But seeing them steam over waves and through wind and rain storms was impressive. Humans are clever animals, don’t let anyone tell you different. We’ve figured out how to make metal float on water and it’s pretty amazing.

There was so much chatter as we embarked from the naval base that I wondered what the whole point of computers actually was. If these guys all just used binoculars looking for Saturday morning fishermen and kayaks, why flick the radar on at all? If the catamaran on the starboard side heard what the officers were saying about his every move he’d be a bit nervous about taking his boat shoes off too suddenly.

Lieutenant Commander Graham MacLean called me over to the port side of his ship (yes, that’s the left side, I paid attention!) while we loitered in the gulf waiting for all the Japanese craft to join us. We were about to begin some exercises with one of the best navies in the world but it was early in the morning on a weekend. I didn’t spot any yawns as I came aboard but one of the officers definitely had bed-head.

The commander knew his crew was drowsy. I didn’t notice anything but he knows them better than I do. To knock the cobwebs out he gave me a sly smile before sneakily beckoning me over to the window. We were about to do a man-overboard drill to wake everyone up. It’s a good way, he explained, to both burn time until the Japanese ships arrive and warm up the crew. I suspect he was sadistically chuffed about sending his crew into panic mode too.

I didn’t hear the splash but pretty soon an orange fluorescent object about the size of the average skinny swimsuit model was peeling away from the back of the ship bobbing pathetically in the water. It took about 20 seconds before a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing calmly with just a hint of adrenalin that a man was indeed overboard. Everyone stood or sat up straight and immediately executed a response.

One of the boys on the bridge ran outside and pointed towards the orange dot, which was fast becoming lost in the sun haze and ship’s wake. He’d stay pointing at that figure until it was back aboard the ship. That was his special job, one cog in the machine now quickly grinding into gear.

This was my introduction to the agility and power of the Offshore Patrol Vessel. The HMNZS Wellington swung around violently leaving a trail of white foam in a tight J shape. When I say ‘tight’, I mean the wake looked like the curve you’d write on a blackboard if your English teacher was looking over your shoulder while you stood in front of a room full of English teachers with binoculars. It was very tight.

The ship tilted on a who-knows-what angle as the engines whined in the distance. I’m just glad I was on the port side otherwise the orange mannequin might have had surprise company.

We raced to the object, now only about two hundred metres away yet almost invisible despite nearly perfect sailing conditions. The idea, said he commander, was to position the ship between the prevailing wind direction and the orange speck. The boat would then come to “zero” (not “stop”, it never “stopped”) while the wind gently pushed the hulking grey behemoth toward the bobbing survivor. A swimmer splashed his way to the “rescue” before being hauled back aboard by a long rope.

The whole drill lasted 10 minutes. Once he’d saved the doll, the rescue swimmer was all smiles and didn’t really want to come back aboard at all. He earned his stripes in the Italian navy. To everyone’s relief, the mannequin was healthy but scared stiff and a little wet. The ship’s medical officer reported to the commander, without a hint of irony, that the orange-clad plastic humanoid had been stabilised in the medical bay, and, if a little clumsy, should be OK. And that was that. First drill over, everyone was awake.

A ship full of youth

By now, the Japanese ships were straining at the leash to start the exercises. But for me, the Wellington had already displayed an impressive manoeuvrability and competence in a way I simply wasn’t expecting. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be for the young officer pointing rigidly at the bobbing orange object in the pitch black of night. Maybe it’s different at night but we never did another man-overboard drill so I can’t tell you really.

That’s the other thing – it seemed like the entire crew was in their 20s. Many of them wouldn’t qualify for adult rates on car insurance, yet they were able to drive millions of taxpayer dollars’ worth of ship in tight circles around the Hauraki Gulf. Those officers should get a special discount for car insurance. Everything they did was professional and exact. There was no room for error, and they knew it.

I talked to many of them during the exercises and at the meals, which, by the way, consisted of some seriously good food. Join the navy, they say. See the world, they said. Eat like kings – they left out the best part!

The officers oozed excitement about training with the Japanese. The exercises were probably more important for the JMSDF officers-in-training. But the New Zealand ship communicated, watched, noted, critiqued, smiled, pointed, adjusted, studied and acted as if each second of the exercises was invaluable for them too.

The navigator noted how extraordinarily efficient and fast the Japanese were. He was a young man of 26 from a small town wanting to see the world. Already, he said, he’d visited every Pacific island, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Chile, America and dozens of other ports. His observations of the Japanese exercise were of deep respect as the trials were running. Then at one moment his demeanour of awe fell aside briefly during an anti-submarine exercise.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a 137 metre, 4000 ton frigate break unexpectedly out of formation. All four ships were in position abreast of each other equidistant of about 500 meters or so; I didn’t catch the official distance. The idea for the exercise is to both protect each other from suspected submarines and efficiently hunt for them. If they sail in single file or haphazardly, the submarine could pick them off and countermeasures might damage the other ships instead of the enemy sub. The tactic draws on sharp lessons from World War II.

It was all going smoothly before a young officer noticed the second Japanese frigate very quickly dropping out of formation far too early. His immediate comment was exasperation about how rigid the Japanese can be. He assumed the frigate misinterpreted a signal and was moving to the next phase of the exercise prematurely. The Japanese, he said, did not like unexpected changes in an exercise.

Suddenly another officer, peering through his binoculars ahead of the four galloping ships, noticed a triangular white splotch in front of the retreating JMSDF ship. The break in formation turned out to be some cowering ketch about a kilometre ahead of the exercise.

The poor fishermen must have run through every catch they’d made over the past 12 hours, mentally measuring the sizes of the fish in their chilly bin for any irregularities. Looking up to see three, fully-armed warships bearing down on them probably wasn’t the kind of company they expected. The coastguard can be annoying but this is ridiculous!

Little did they know, their tiny craft had forced hundreds of millions of dollars of metal and men to break up a multi-national exercise to skirt skilfully around the tiny white boat trying not to capsize it on the way past. The Wellington commander pointed out just how difficult it is to take evasive action like that without startling the rest of the exercise. The Japanese were good, he said, very good.

They're good but so are we

Four lucky New Zealand sailors were swapped with four Japanese sailors early in the exercise. Two Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats (RIBs) were launched from the Wellington, one with the sailors, the other with a cameraman and myself. The little boats were really quick, and the pilot kept calling me sir. I was told later that a US aircraft carrier moves faster than an RIB. Having raced across the water at top speed, I can confirm that if a ship thousands of times larger can move quicker that’s very impressive indeed.

The RIBs skimmed along the sea surface together before sidling alongside one of the Japanese craft. The Japanese admiral was handed a commemorative coin from the Kiwi sailors before the Japanese sailors climbed aboard the RIBs and we raced back to the Wellington. One of the RIBs stayed out for another hour or so but arrived back early.

Word reached the commander that the photographer had lost his balance slightly smashing his front teeth on a metal guardrail as the RIB launched over a wave. He had just finished thousands of dollars’ worth of orthodontic work earlier that year too and had lost a bit of blood from the wound. The commander visited the sailor in the medical bay but this writer chose to stay exactly where he was, thank you very much.

Aside from missing teeth and errant pleasure craft, the exercises were successful. The commander talked me through most of them but, to me, they looked like a bunch of ships floating on the ocean – which they were – but my point is I didn’t really know what I was looking at. The Japanese were slick, smooth and cut through the water like they’d been doing this for hundreds of years.

The New Zealand ship was keeping right up with them and proving to be just as competent helping to wash away any misconceptions about the force. I watched a young and determined navy performing on parity with a far larger Pacific peer.

So I asked the commander when it was a bit quieter what all this meant and where New Zealand’s Navy fits into the big scheme.

Lieutenant Commander Graham MacLean was born in Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), which, if you can see a map from where you’re sitting, looks suspiciously land-locked. I don’t know much about naval history but I’m pretty sure the Rhodesians don’t have much.

It made more sense when Cdr MacLean clarified that he’d spent eight years in the legendary British Navy participating in the opening coalition salvos of the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. Cdr MacLean has fired a shot in anger, which makes him more than capable of commanding a New Zealand Navy ship.

New Zealand's best asset

Cdr MacLean is a perfect example of New Zealand best naval asset: it’s adaptability and flexibility. That dynamism, he thinks, is cultural and in contrast with the larger navy paradigm. Perhaps that’s what the officer was referring to when he watched the Japanese frigate operate unexpectedly – he expected inflexibility from the Japanese.

Again, I don’t know too much about naval history but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t hear a Southern African accent with a commander’s lapel in the United States Navy. New Zealand appears comfortable prioritising an officer’s proven track record over familial history. Aside from the aforementioned Italian expatriate, there was also a Chilean sailor and a whole gaggle of Australians.

Cdr MacLean says the differences between a larger navy and a smaller fighting force are few in reality. To get everyone working together in exercises with the Japanese for instance, English tends to be the common form of communication. British Navy procedures are very similar to New Zealand’s.

“A lot of the parent doctrines are the same. And that works out well because larger navies operate on those doctrines as well, including Australia. So when it comes to interoperability there’s a common language,” he says.

“There’s also a communications doctrine for most navies. So language barriers don’t often matter. The Japanese planning teams speak English fluently. Initially there was some concern because we were making contact through their defence attaché. But now that we’ve interacted with them it’s been fine.”

The range of nationalities aboard HMNZS Wellington reflects how the navy has evolved over time. It’s now considered another profession, albeit one in which you get to fire guns. Choosing to sail away your days is just as good, if not better, as bashing the keyboard on the 15th floor in a CBD tower. And, because the whole crew wasn’t born in New Zealand, the pieces of the puzzle they bring expand the abilities of the entire operation.

Spending limited money wisely

The NZ Defence Force spends just north of $2 billion each year across the services. That’s miniscule compared with the US Navy, which spends double that figure on fuel. The Littoral combat ship programme cost $1.8 billion. The Arleigh Burke-class Aegis Destroyer programme set the US Navy back another $3 billion. And a new Virginia-class submarine will eventually soak another $5.4 billion.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two forces but the disparity between New Zealand’s responsibility and its capabilities could leave it behind as the rest of the Pacific ramps up defence spending.

“I know from a naval perspective, when we talk about keeping up with the contemporary technology space and military hardware, some of the upgrades will put our ships right up with the technologies of the other Western and Asian nations,” Cdr MacLean says.

“We’ll be partaking in multinational exercises with hardware and training that keeps us in the game at a high level.

“And slightly to the side of that is all the solid work New Zealand does, which is where we have a niche. The Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and search and rescue, mixed with the traditional warfare platforms of the frigates, gives us a spectrum of operations that’s very smart in terms of the budget we have.

“Where traditional militaries stick to their track with a clear divide between other government agencies (customs, fisheries, coast guard, etc), we’re leading in the multi-agency work. If we were hanging on to strictly our military functionality, I don’t think we’d be adding as much value for money to the taxpayer. There’s a whole lot more to the RNZN than meets the eye.”

He thinks New Zealand will have the best small nation navy in the world. The fighting force is an incubator of dynamic thinking and experimentation. The officers on deck each have personal stories of thinking about a better way to do their jobs and approaching a superior officer to get the fix implemented. Senior officers might be stuck in their ways but the young crew are at once more confident with their ideas and comprehending of new technology.

“As you’ve seen on board, there are 65 of us, it’s a very small crew on a very capable platform with an enthusiastic approach to the things we do. Wherever we can, we try to add value and sell the point that we’re out there doing the business,” Cdr MacLean says.

“Mixing government agencies together on compliance, fisheries, Customs and other missions increases the efficiency of New Zealand’s limited resources. And certainly, when we operate down with the fishing fleets, many of the Kiwi commercial ships say it’s great to see the navy out at the coalface enforcing the rules of New Zealand’s waters. We’re using our limited assets smartly,” he says.

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