Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Samoan Tsunami First Live Test of HMNZS Canterbury

The devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck Samoa yesterday is a regional tragedy which will test the ability of our defence/civil defence services' capability to respond.

The civil defence and emergency management response to the tsunami threat to New Zealand yesterday was not particularly impressive. While a warning was given which allowed mariners to secure their craft the public response was somewhat apathetic.

With a local threat over the immediate question has become what can New Zealand do to help Samoa - a nation which for many New Zealanders is still "home".

The Airforce has, as usual dispatched a Hercules with medical supplies. This is a good start but while some bandies may be useful, a helicopter and heavy equipment would be a lot more useful.

This is where the HMNZS Canterbury was meant to come into her own. Ironically Canterbury brought four Iroquois helicopters home from Samoa earlier in August following exercise Tropic Astra as part of a tour of the region which ended September 8. The question now is can she re-embark those helicopters and get to Samoa while they are still needed ?

This is not an entirely fair question. The real problem with Canterbury is not Canterbury herself but that the Navy has only one of her. With only one such ship its not surprising she may not always be available for emergency missions at short notice. On the other hand who's fault is that?

The hypothetical force proposed in my Review would easily respond to the Samoan situation. Its assets include:

  1. Long range operations jets, which would get the bandies and medical teams in place faster
  2. Long range heavy transport aircraft, for urgent heavy equipment
  3. A Pacific Aid vessel always in the Pacific (with one at home)
  4. Two long range landing craft for heavy construction equipment
  5. and if necessary helicopters capable of self-deployment even over these vast distances

While the hypothetical force has some heavy construction equipment this is limited to a small emergency team because it is generally easier to rent civilian equipment already on hand.

The reason the hypothetical force is better equipped is that it is fundamentally designed for rapid long-range logistics missions and the NZDF isn't. The point being that if you can rapidly deploy and support aid missions you can also rapidly deploy and support military missions as well.

It would be nice to think that the current review being carried out by the Government will monitor the performance of the NZDF response to Samoa cogniscent of the close similarity between emergency humanitarian and military missions, however this is unlikely. As a bunch of old boys tasked primarily with saving money and following National's policy of begging Australia for everything I rather doubt that they are capable of initiative.


An RAAF C-130 Hercules has carried an RNZAF Iroquois to Samoa and Canterbury is on standby possibly able to sail in four days. It would be nice if we could carry our own helicopters but our C-130s are being re-engineered.