The Royal New Zealand Navy

Page 7 – New directions

Organisational changes

The independence of the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) as a service came to an end when the Ministry of Defence (created in July 1963) was reconstituted to incorporate all three armed services on 1 January 1964. Navy chief Peter Phipps, who had been promoted to the rank of vice-admiral as chief of the defence staff, had been heavily involved in establishing the new structure. Although the Navy Department (which had been set up in 1954 from the previous Navy Office) ceased to exist, the naval board continued to sit as the RNZN’s governing body until 1971, when all the service boards were abolished. (Apart from Phipps, only two other RNZN officers, Neil Anderson (1980-83) and Somerford Teagle (1991-95), have held the highest rank in New Zealand’s defence organisation.)

In November 1989, when the New Zealand Defence Force was created, separate from the Ministry of Defence, the RNZN’s status as a separate service continued – as it does today, despite an increasing emphasis on joint operations.

Anti-nuclear protest

In June 1973 the Norman Kirk-led Labour government dispatched the frigate Otago with a Cabinet minister on board to the vicinity of Mururoa Atoll to protest French nuclear testing there. Otago was later relieved by Canterbury. A National administration would take similar action 22 years later when it sent the research vessel HMNZS Tui to the same location with ministers aboard.

Anzac frigates

During the 1980s, as a stopgap measure, two Leander-class frigates, HMNZS Wellington and Southland, were acquired as replacements for Taranaki and Otago. The four frigate force limped into the 1990s, but crew shortages impacted on the ability to keep Waikato in service.

In 1989 the Labour government reluctantly agreed to the purchase of two Anzac-class frigates, to be built in Australia with significant involvement of New Zealand industry. Part of an Australian initiative to boost naval power in the South Pacific, the project caused much contoversy in New Zealand. HMNZS Te Kaha and Te Mana duly joined the fleet, replacing Wellington and Southland in 1997 and 1999 respectively. An option on two further Anzacs was not taken up.

When Canterbury decomissioned in 2005, the RNZN was reduced to a two-frigate navy (and New Zealand thus returned to the 1880s configuration of two major warships in local waters).

Peacekeeping roles

With the end of the Cold War following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, New Zealand focused more heavily on peacekeeping operations. Among these were efforts to end conflict in the Balkans following the painful break up of Yugoslavia and also closer to home in the Pacific. The RNZN supplied personnel for a number of peacekeeping operations, including Cambodia in the 1990s; they were involved in river and coastal patrols. In 1990 three RNZN warships provided a venue for peace talks in Bougainville.

The frigates Wellington and Canterbury were also involved in policing UN resolutions relating to Iraq in the Arabian and Persian gulfs as part of the Multinational Interception Force in 1995-96.

The largest peacekeeping operation involving the RNZN occurred in 1999 in East Timor. When Indonesian militias went on a rampage following the East Timorese decision to separate from Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand deployed forces to the island as part of INTERFET. Te Kaha (later replaced by Canterbury) was involved as part of an international naval force deployed in the vicinity of the island, supported by the supply ship HMNZS Endeavour.

RNZN personnel have served in the provincial reconstruuction team that New Zealand has maintained in Bamiyan Province since 2003, and continue to do so.

Assistance to the community

The navy continues to assist the community in a variety of non-military fields, both as a matter of routine and in one-off situations. New Zealand warships are deployed from time to time to provide relief in South Pacific islands stricken by extreme weather events. Within New Zealand the RNZN’s activities in the field have ranged from the 1951 use of naval personnel on the wharves during the waterfront dispute to assistance to earthquake-battered Christchurch in 2011. Search and rescue and fisheries protection are other important areas in which naval assistance has been provided – and continues to be.

The RNZN has had long involvement in hydrography. From 1949 this role was undertaken by the survey ship HMNZS Lachlan, later replaced by HMNZS Monowai. Until the 1990s the RNZN had regulatory functions in this maritime sphere. The current hydrographic vessel, HMNZS Resolution, was acquired during the 1990s.

The navy today

Apart from the two Anzac frigates, the RNZN today is configured to support Defence Force operations. A multi-role vessel, HMNZS Canterbury, commissioned in 2007, is capable of carrying 250 troops. The fleet also comprises a replenishment ship HMNZS Endeavour, two offshore patrol vessels HMNZS Otago and Wellington, four inshore patrol vessels, a diving support ship and a hydrographic survey ship. On 1 January 2011 the navy had 2135 regular personnel, 332 naval reservists and 375 civilian staff. Almost a quarter of the RNZN’s personnel are female.

How to cite this page

'New directions', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012