The arrival of HMNZS Canterbury in Timaru shows clearly how short-sighted the acquisition of this ship actually was. Built at a cost of around $186 million the ship is a very small ferry adapted to carry a company of infantry 24 LAV IIIs and 4 NH-90 helicopters. That is a most of the strength of the 3/1 Battalion, quarter of our LAV IIIs and half our helicopters.
The problem is not so much the performance of this ship itself. For the money Canterbury will provide an excellent expeditionary force carrier, particularly around the South Pacific. The problem is there is only one of her. This creates a planners dilemna.
If there is no emergency worth carrying some LAVs and NH90s into the Pacific for, what is Canterbury meant to do? Sit in port and twiddle its thumbs? That is a very expensive waste of $186 million given that she is unlikely to have an emergency to respond to every year. The alternative is that she sets sail into the Pacific for 'goodwill' visits with a couple of NH90s and a dozen LAVs carefully wrapped up in greaseproof paper in case they turn out to be needed. But then what happens if she is needed? She can head for the nearest port and embark personnel flown in by B757 but she will still be relatively under strength in terms of helicopters and LAVs.
And what if Canterbury is showing the flag miles away in East Timor or Chile? Relocating to the Solomon's will take rather a lot of time.
The simple fact is we have always needed more than one Canterbury. However when you break it down there are actually two tasks. One is 'goodwill' visits to the Pacific. The other is moving a lot of materiel in response to political or natural disaster very quickly. If the Navy planners had thought a little harder this is what they might have come up with:
Two aid/hospital/transport ships to provide constant contact with the islands, gathering intelligence, providing hospital services and carrying troops or refugees. Such a ship would be based on the Aranui-3. A freighter/passenger ship that sails between Tahiti and the Maqueses Islands. In place of the tourist facilities the ship would have extensive medical ones and a heli deck. This would make it useful in times of both disaster or conflict. Another good model is the Aquiles a transport used by the Chilean navy to resupply Chiles Antarctic mission - a capability we notably lack.
Naturally such a ship can't land heavy equipment. To do that these large ocean-going landing ships are used by the US Army would seem to be the ticket. Not only can they carry tanks or other heavy equipment they can delivery it on to the beach if needed. They can also carry a helicopter.
The cost of these ships is notable. Aranui-3 cost US$22 million and the land ships cost US$26 million. For the price of the Canterbury we could have got two aid ships and two landing ships. While this would have increased operational costs somewhat it would also increase operational capability enormously.
Of course they wouldn't have been quite as shiny as Canterbury - and maybe that's what this ship is really all about.