Last month, Janes’s and others carried the story that the Royal New Zealand Navy is making plans for the replacement of its replenishment ship, HMNZS Endeavour. The staff work is timely: commissioned in 1988, Endeavour should exit service in 2018, after a customary 30 years. The request-to-tender for the new ship is expected early next year, with a final decision by the cabinet in 2016.
Of course, that will mean a foreign builder, as there’s no shipyard in New Zealand that can build such a ship. In fact, there’s actually no major vessel of the RNZN afloat today that was built in New Zealand. Apart from Endeavour herself, built in South Korea by Hyundai, the entire fleet was built in Australia by Tenex (now BAE Systems). Just today, Defense News reported that the RNZN may be selling two inshore patrol vessels to buy another of the larger offshore patrol vessels (it already has two). But again, whether the Navy just orders a third from BAE in Australia, or puts the deal out to tender, we know that the ships won’t be built locally. New Zealander shipyards built some top-notch boats and some fantastic sailing yachts, but they don’t built major warships.
Meanwhile, and as I have lamented repeatedly, the Canadian government wants two new replenishers of its own (HMC Ships Queenston and Châteauguay), and built in British Columbia for a fantastic price—literally fourteen times per ton what the British government is paying for similar ships, but built in South Korea. The differential is in large part explained by two factors. First, the Canadian federal government needs to pay for the shipyard that can build the ships. Second, the shipbuilders will then need to learn how to build the ships, perhaps making mistakes as they go.
But why? Billions is a lot to spend to secure some votes in a riding or two in British Columbia, so perhaps the cabinet really considers this a matter of national strategy. if so, it’s worth asking whether the absence of a shipbuilding capacity caused a problem for New Zealand in the last 30 years. Would the absence of a yard capable of building military cargo ships cause a problem for Canada, even during a major war in the Pacific? If new ships weren't available overseas—South Korea, for example, might not have spare capacity in that case—it’s reasonable to want capacity in Canada for Canadian purposes. But a building yard with a plating facility is a big investment, and in such a war, the RCN could very well need replacement ships much faster than a single large graving dock can produce.
For this reason, I completely understand why the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy calls for the new multi-role 'Single Class Surface Combatants’ (SCSCs) to be built domestically. Buying smaller ships locally makes even more sense—emergency wartime construction of, say, corvettes could be managed in several yards, just as it was in the Second World War. But if buying a new tanker or two is once-in-thirty-years affair, it’s hard to explain why either New Zealand or Canada would want to spend the money on what’s not even a just-in-case investment. The only difference is that with eight times the population, Canada can afford profligacy that New Zealand can’t.