Soldier Static Line Parachute Exit from C130 Ramp (Source NZDF)

Is Your Reserve Big Enough?

Part 1 of a multi-part post on New Zealand’s Reserve (Territorial) Force.

The New Zealand Defence Force Capability Plan Review is expected to become public by the end of this year. Based on July’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement, it should flesh out the detail as to what capabilities the NZDF needs in order to implement the Government’s intent.

The last Defence Capability Plan was produced in 2016 as a follow-on to the Defence White Paper 2016. It was this document that introduced the proposed spend of $20B on new platforms over 15 years, largely as a result of block obsolescence of aircraft, ships and vehicles.

It’s worth starting with a definition of what a defence capability is. Many think a warship, e.g. a frigate, is an example of a capability. It is not. It is a platform onto which must be overlaid the people, training, logistics and so on that enables the achievement of a desired effect in a specific operational environment. An example, from the 2016 plan, is the introduction of an ice-strengthened maritime sustainment capability for operations in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean.

It’s from this point that the main topic, the Reserve Force, is relevant. In the 2016 Defence Capability Plan the Reserve Force was mentioned once:

The most important component of the Defence Force is its people. The Defence Force is comprised of full time military personnel, reserve forces, and civilians.

The plan then goes on to propose a review of workforce structure, force generation and remuneration models prior to 2018 (page 60).

The remuneration review has been completed and, by all accounts, was well received by soldiers. Under the new Chief of Army, Major General John Boswell, Army Reserve battalions are being moved from Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) to be part of 1 Brigade (once again). There are a few good people, with the best of intentions, engaging with the challenge of getting the best out of our Reserve Force. Despite this, Ready Reserve numbers are in freefall. Most full-timers see the Reserve as an encumbrance to their daily operations.

The plummeting headcount is not immediately obvious and that is because, in public documents, total numbers and gender splits by service are all that are reported. Between 2008 and 2018, the numbers, although light, appear reasonably stable and even a bit positive:

NZDF Reserve Force Total Headcount by Service 2008-2018
NZDF Reserve Force Total Headcount by Service 2008-2018

However, I have received more detailed breakdowns under the Official Information Act which make worrying reading. The next table shows the numbers from 2014-2018 indicating service status. This data is not available prior to 2014.

NZDF Reserve Force Headcount by Status 2014-2018
NZDF Reserve Force Headcount by Status 2014-2018

For those that are unfamiliar with the terms ‘Ready Reserve’ and ‘Standby Reserve’ – here are some definitions:

The Ready Reserve is the status assigned to Reserve Force service personnel who are regularly attending training and completing all their annual requirements for effectiveness such as numbers of days worked, fitness, shooting etc.

The Standby Reserve is for those who, for whatever reason, cannot currently attend training but they and the NZDF believe that this could change. A legitimate example is former Associate Defence Minister, Hon Heather Roy, who was a Sapper in the Royal NZ Engineers. To avoid any perception of conflict of interest, she transferred to the Inactive Reserve (the forerunner of the Standby Reserve) for the period she was a Minister. Other legitimate uses are for people on leave due to being on an extended overseas trip or a trauma surgeon who might be available to deploy if required but whose ‘training’ is everyday work at a hospital. Standby Reservists can apply to attend training but they can’t be compelled to.

The total headcount is at odds with anecdotal reports of hollow units and frustration with resource constraints. The data gained through OIA request shows why. Over the last five years, there has been a massive shift of personnel from ready to standby status with the largest single block occurring this year when nearly 500 soldiers were transferred to Standby status. This is understood to be largely due to non-attendance at training. The normal procedure for reservists who don’t attend training without reason is to discharge them. I believe that this status change is being used to cover up the real situation in the Reserve Force. The full NZDF response to my Official Information Act request can be viewed here OIA-2018-3316_Ewing-Jarvie_response-scan_14-November-2018 Reserve Force Numbers.

Adding to the smoke and mirrors is the use of the Reserve by the Navy and Air Force to employ General Service Hands (GSHs are usually retired service personnel who are employed essentially as unskilled workers). There is also a small number of officer cadets attending university in the numbers.

Without wishing to throw shade on individuals, what on earth are we going to do with a Major General, 4 Brigadiers, 1 Air Commodore, 3 Captains (Navy), 13 Colonels, 1 Group Captain, 15 Commanders, 30 Lieutenant Colonels, 2 Wing Commanders and 38 Warrant Officers (Army) that are all currently in the Standby Reserve figures? It’s certainly the makings for one hell of a cocktail party!

NZDF Reserve Force 2018 by Status
NZDF Reserve Force 2018 by Status

NZ actually has 1330 reservists across all three services ready to contribute to the security of the country now – not the 2420 claimed in public documents. 101 sailors, 1067 soldiers and 162 airmen/airwomen. That’s a national disgrace and I hope that this Capability Plan Review will take steps to redressing the situation.

Subsequent posts in this multi-part Reserve Force series will focus on some of the key elements of the problem of maintaining an effective total defence workforce that includes strong, effective Reserves.

Total Defence Workforce Model

Jump directly to read Part 2 – Reserve Force Law is an Ass

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