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The Joint Amphibious Task Force: The Maritime Dimension

The fleet concentration in Cook Strait during the Navy’s 70th Anniversary celebrations was an opportunity to bring together the maritime elements of the NZ Defence Force’s planned Joint Amphibious Task Force. 

The Joint Amphibious Task Force (JATF) is a core element in the NZ Defence Force’s strategic plan which charts the shape and capability of the Defence Force out to 2035.

“The strategic direction for the NZDF is extremely positive,” said Maritime Component Commander Commodore John Martin.  “We now have a long-term plan for an NZDF which is combat-capable, maritime in outlook and expeditionary in nature.”

“Naval capability will be a key component of the Task Force,” says Chief of Navy Rear Admiral Tony Parr. 

“Almost all of the Navy’s capabilities have a role to play.  Our frigates will provide a defensive shield and offensive support to the JATF.  The multi-role vessel CANTERBURY will transport troops, vehicles and helicopters, and the tanker ENDEAVOUR (and eventually her replacement) will sustain the JATF with fuel and supplies.  The Navy’s Offshore Patrol Vessels may also contribute to task force operations by undertaking surveillance, policing and transport tasks.”

“What this means for Navy is we continue to do our core business – exercising with friends and allies and protecting our coast and territorial waters – and add the skills around joint operations in a maritime environment.  It’s a coherent and achievable strategy and I’m determined that Navy will deliver on the plan.”

The maritime elements of the NZ Defence Force's Joint Amphibious Task Force together in the Cook Strait during the RNZN's 70th anniversary

Developing a Joint Amphibious Task Force

Development of the Joint Amphibious Task Force capability will be staged over a number of years, with the long-term vision charting a course out to 2035.

“The first stage for NZDF is reorganising our existing front-line operational and support units so we have the JATF operational by 2015,” said Commodore Martin. 

“For the Navy this will include a package of work to fix the outstanding capability deficiencies with CANTERBURY, especially those relating to the operation of landing craft and supporting amphibious operations.  While the ship has done some excellent work as a sealift vessel, we haven’t yet delivered most of the ship’s potential in the amphibious area.  In this period, our frigates will complete a mid-life upgrade of their control systems and it’s likely the replacement or upgrade of the maritime helicopters will get underway.”

The outcome by 2015 will be a task force that can work independently in the South Pacific or as part of a larger coalition operation further afield.  

“After 2015 it starts to get really exciting,” said Commodore Martin.  “This is the period when we begin to strengthen and add new capability, and develop our tactics and doctrine for undertaking amphibious military operations.  Right now we do elements of amphibious operations, but we haven’t yet integrated Navy, Army and Air Force into one amphibious force.”

Commodore Martin said that between 2015 and 2020, the Navy would add important new capability. 

“The key projects are the acquisition of a replacement vessel for HMNZS ENDEAVOUR,  and a new Littoral Warfare Support Platform to enable mine counter-measures, military hydrography and diving operations.  In this timeframe, we’re also planning to upgrade the frigate’s self-defence capability, which will provide an improved defence screen for the JATF as a whole.”

“All these projects are integral to the JATF concept.  The ENDEAVOUR replacement envisages the acquisition of a logistics ship with sealift capacity that can sustain a task force with food, dry stores and fuel.  Having such a capability is essential if the JATF is to operate independently in the Pacific; it will also boost significantly our ability to operate with existing partners and friends.”

Beyond 2020 – 2035  the strategic plan sees the strengthening of capabilities across the three services. It is later in this period that the frigates, the Inshore and Offshore Patrol Vessels and the Amphibious Sealift Vessel are due to be replaced. 

JATF and Navy Doctrine

“It’s important to realise that the development of the JATF will build on, not replace, the Navy’s existing capability, operations and doctrine,” said Commodore Martin.

“Deployments of individual and multiple ships will continue.   For the naval combat force, the military skills and capability we need in a task force context, such as anti-air and anti-submarine defence, can best be developed during exercises with our partners and allies.  We intend to continue taking part in exercises organised under the Five Power Defence Arrangements or the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) in Hawaii.  The skills we learn in these exercises can then be applied in a task force context.”

“The same is true of the rest of the fleet.  CANTERBURY will continue to undertake sealift and humanitarian and disaster relief operations.  ENDEAVOUR will operate overseas and across the Tasman.  Our Offshore Patrol Vessels will still be patrolling the Pacific and Southern Oceans.  We need to do these things to maintain core elements of our combat and operational capability, not to mention delivering on the Government’s security expectations.”

Commodore Martin was clear that maintaining ongoing operations would not distract from the task of developing new skills.

“We will have to refocus, make no mistake. As a military we need to better understand what being an amphibious force means.  You can envisage a spectrum of situations where amphibious forces might operate, from humanitarian and disaster relief operations, to sea lift of Army and Air Force assets up to sustained military operations, perhaps in a peace keeping scenario.

Within these scenarios there are core skills we need to develop – like maritime sustainment of a joint force, integrating our ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) with Air Force and Army and the whole command and control construct.  Navy needs to take leadership on some of these skills, and be good at following when it’s Army or Air Force who take command.”

“The pay-off for Navy and NZDF is that developing our skills around amphibious operations will strengthen our ability to work with our international partners in our traditional alliances, such as FPDA.”

The people challenge

For Commodore Martin, one of the biggest challenges in the new strategic direction is developing the people. 

“Joint operations are challenging by their very nature, and developing the range of skills needed for amphibious operations, be it sea-based sustainment and logistics, protecting our assets or the command and control of operations, will be a big challenge.”

“We will need to create amphibious task force commanders and staff officers. Amphibious task force training needs to be entwined in the professional development of our people. I aim to build naval officers who have amphibious operations in their blood.”

Commodore Martin said exercises are already being planned to develop these skills.

“To achieve the first stage of our capability build, we have exercises planned early in 2013 and in 2015. These exercises will have about every force element in operation including sealift, the combat force, OPVs, the P-3s, the NH90s, the SH-2Gs, the ISR as well as the C2 piece.”

Looking beyond 2015 and 2020, one of the major challenges will be bringing together and integrating the C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computing, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). 

“The objective after 2020 is to strengthen our capability to operate independently.  That means developing our command and control skills, and extending these to networked operations and integrated ISR.  In the past, we relied on plugging into someone else’s organisation.  In the future, the goal is to have a New Zealand-led joint and inter-agency focused operation.”

A challenge

Rear Admiral Parr believes the challenge of delivering the NZDF strategic direction make this an exciting time for the Navy.

“Undertaking sustained operations in the Pacific mean operating in a maritime environment.  That’s what Navy does well, and that’s the core skill we’ll bring to the NZDF as we build the task force.  What’s exciting about this direction is the opportunity it gives our people to demonstrate the value of their core skills and then add new skills and capability to the mix“

“Navy will deliver what’s needed – that I am sure of.  By 2015 the task force will be operational, and by 2020 we’ll be able to put it into theatre, sustain and protect it as envisaged in the strategic plan.”

Timeline and Context

In November 2010, the Government released the Defence White Paper, which outlined the strategic context and overall direction for New Zealand’s Defence Force over the next 25 years.  The White Paper includes an assessment of current global circumstances, pressures and trends, and analyses future possibilities and likelihoods.  It concludes that the next 25 years will be more challenging for the international system and focuses New Zealand’s efforts on the Pacific, particularly Southwest Pacific.

The 2010 White Paper was supported by a Value-for-Money review that examined the Defence Force’s financial position and recommended ways to generate savings and improve efficiencies in order to fund new capability. The Government agreed to ring-fence the Defence Force budget, meaning that the NZDF can fund new capability out of savings made to existing operations.  To fund the Defence Capability Plan, the NZDF aims to make around $350  - $400 million in savings annually.

In October 2011, a Defence Capability Plan was released charting a ten-year programme of equipment and personnel capability development to achieve the goals of the White Paper out to 2020.



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