Rongomaraeroa-o-nga-hau e wha. NZ Army Marae Waiouru - Source NZDF

Rima Tekau

This is the 50th article I’ve posted on Admittedly, they’re not all new – I also use my blog as a place for the ‘ghosts of musings past’ to hang out in.

In recognition of this milestone, I thought I would post something a little different – softer and more organisationally introspective – some thoughts on organisational design and culture.

My interest in the subject of defence structures goes back a long way but was piqued lately because of a two-part article by Nicholas Drummond regarding the rank structure of the British Forces. I agree with Drummond’s general premise that today’s rank structures do not reflect modern society, warfare or what we know promotes great teamwork and performance. Further to that, our rank structures are purely British in origin, while kaupapa Maori has become an integral element of NZDF culture.

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), has steadily shrunk in size to its current shape of around 14,500. Of these, just over 9,000 are full time uniform, about 2,500 are reserves and a slightly larger number are civilian employees. Yet, our inherited rank system has 17 levels (10 commissioned and 7 non-commissioned) and 36 different rank /classification levels (the latter are Navy Able Rating & Leading Aircraftsman). The Navy even has two different badges of rank for their top three officer levels depending on what the occasion is!

Here’s a visual summary of these ranks. Not shown is Midshipman/Officer Cadet and Ordinary Seaman/Private/Airman:

NZDF Commissioned Ranks
NZDF Commissioned Ranks
NZDF Non-Commissioned Ranks
NZDF Non-Commissioned Ranks / Classifications

These ranks (with the exception of the Air Force who adapted their ranks from the other two services) have largely remained unchanged for centuries. However, as has been well described by Nick Drummond, many other factors have changed:

  • Society is no longer highly stratified. When it was, the rank system reflected that.
  • Smaller overall force size.
  • Greater situational awareness and lethality of individuals, teams and crews.
  • The nature of leadership has changed with a focus on self-discipline over coercion.
  • Better education across all ranks leading to capability for self-management and decision-making. Self-management of learning underpins our school system.
  • Volunteer forces rather than conscription.
  • Flatter structures are the norm across society brought about by better communications and factors listed above.

So, what should a modern rank structure look like?

First, I challenge the utility of the arbitrary division between officers and ‘other ranks’. There is no justification, in this day and age, to label something by what it is not. Yet, we persist with the term ‘Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs).’ I’ve written about this tendency for inverse labelling in another article about reference to reservists as being ‘non-regular force’.

A far more useful grouping might be those who operate in the combat sphere i.e. warships, special forces, battalions, regiments and squadrons versus those that undertake the staff and logistics functions. Both are equally important but quite different skill sets. We already move NCOs and particularly Warrant Officers directly through to commissioned rank. Many specialist functions are operated entirely by NCOs. Why not be able to move someone who is arbitrarily in the group called commissioned officers into a different, more specialised and currently NCO-tagged role? If pay is the only impediment, then that is easily fixed. The rest is simply about snobbery.

Education can’t be used as an argument. There are NCOs with master’s degrees and officers with no university education. Leadership is leadership. If table manners, dress sense or other ‘ORTs’ are a concern, they can be taught. No-one ever won a battle by choosing the correct piece of cutlery at a formal dinner or saluting the enemy into submission on the parade ground.

There are really only, at best, seven levels of command currently in use in the NZDF. These are:

Level of Command (equivalent) Numbers of Personnel Approximation to Current Ranks
Squad, Section, Small Team Up to 10 Leading Rating, Corporal
Inshore Patrol Vessel, Platoon, Air Flight 20-50 Lieutenant(N), Captain/Lieutenant/Second Lieutenant, Flight Lieutenant
Offshore Patrol Vessel, Company, Air Squadron 35-200 Lieutenant Commander, Major/Captain, Squadron Leader
Frigate, Battalion/Regiment, Air Wing 180-650 Commander, Lieutenant Colonel, Wing Commander
Fleet, Brigade, Group Up to 5,000 Captain(N), Colonel, Group Captain
Component (Maritime, Land, Air) Up to 12,000 Commodore, Brigadier, Air Commodore
Single Service Command, Joint Command Up to 12,000 Rear Admiral, Major General, Air Vice Marshall
Chief of the Defence Force Up to 15,000 Vice Admiral, Lieutenant General, Air Marshal

The CDF/VCDF is a necessary one-off. However, I take issue with the Component versus Single-Service Commander model. At best, it’s a duplication of roles and, at worst, jobs for the boys. In theory, the single service chiefs raise, train and sustain their forces and the three component commanders deal with the operational aspects of those forces when handed over to them for deployment. The original model for the creation of a joint forces command did not specify two-star single service chiefs. It doesn’t even need single service headquarters. Proper ‘Jointness’ should do away with single service stovepipes and the preparedness of service elements should be handled by the component commanders in Joint Force HQ. HQ NZDF is perfectly capable of doing the rest. The old guard had its way, though, and we have three two-star and three one-star (single service deputy chiefs) positions that we do not need as a result.

I support the idea that the CDF and Commander Joint Force (and their staffs) should not wear their single service uniform but rather an entirely different one (not suggesting purple BTW) to clearly signal the joint role they have.

We have four ‘orphan’ ranks – Lance Corporal, Staff Sergeant (equivalent), Warrant Officer Class 2 and Second Lieutenant (equivalent). I won’t say any more but let you ponder that.

Why shouldn’t a capable and qualified Sergeant or Corporal be able to apply for and be permanently posted (rather than acting) to a platoon commander role? If the only reason those jobs are held for newly graduated young officers is to give them experience for the future, there are probably better ways of achieving that for many of them – like operational experience among international allies.

If we are going to discuss a truly egalitarian, simplified rank structure let’s address the elephant in the room – a legally bi-lingual New Zealand. The NZ Army has led the way in integrating kaupapa Maori and especially the Maori warrior tradition with those of the British regimental system. Ngati Tumatauenga – the tribe of the Maori god of war and peace is the result. Navy has followed suit as has the Air Force. What a unique opportunity exists! Simplifying the ranks so that, no matter what service you serve in, there is a shared kaupapa which is reflected in a uniquely Kiwi set of bi-lingual rank titles and insignia. Why be an Ordinary Seaman, Private or Aircraftsman when your rank could be Toa – the Te Reo Maori word for warrior?

We won’t be the first to do this. Canada operates a bilingual rank system and the sky hasn’t fallen in. So too does Ireland. Both of these countries operated effectively within the NZ Battalion in East Timor.

The rate of change in the world is accelerating and no organisation can stand still. It’s important to challenge supposedly sacred cows and our military rank system is one of those.

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