Revolving Door of Reserve Force service in New Zealand

Reserve Force Now Largely Ex-RF

The scale of the challenge facing anyone seeking to rebuild New Zealand’s Reserve Force is far greater than previously understood. In previous articles, I have noted the overall decline in numbers and the significant movement of personnel from the Ready Reserve to the Standby Reserve. Several NZDF senior officers suggested digging deeper and official information act requests have revealed that the Reserve Force is a rapidly revolving door and total numbers are only holding up because of the high number of ex-regular force personnel who are transferring in.

The bottom line looks grim. In 2018 the total size of the Reserve (all services) was 2420 however only 1330 were Ready Reservists. In the nearly three years since January 2017, 1106 reservists left the NZDF and a further 604 transferred to the Standby Reserve.

In terms of recruitment and training just 13 officers graduated in that time (206 officers left). Only 222 reserve soldiers completed basic training over 3 years.

The full breakdown of the numbers departing the Ready Reserve since January 2017 is shown in the table below.

Numbers leaving the Ready Reserve of New Zealand's Defence Force Jan 2017 to Oct 2019 Jan 2017 to Oct 2019
Numbers leaving the Ready Reserve of New Zealand’s Defence Force Jan 2017 to Oct 2019

The question must then be why are the numbers only declining slowly when there is such a massive deficit in the recruitment to release ratio? The answer lies in a significant transfer to the reserve of regular force personnel on release from full time service. Since January 2017, 818 ex-RF have transferred to the Reserve. Strangely, the vast majority appear to have no intention of actively training as only 185 (23%) of those joined the Ready Reserve and the rest went straight to Standby. The full breakdown is shown in the table below.


Ex Regular Force Transferring to New Zealand's Defence Force Reserve Jan 2017 to Oct 2019
Ex Regular Force Transferring to New Zealand’s Defence Force Reserve Jan 2017 to Oct 2019

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with RF transferring to the Reserve on release from full-time service. In fact, the total defence workforce model that I have spoken often about provides explicitly for a seamless transition between full-time, part-time, uniformed and civilian service. However, this is a new trend and one which is concealing the extent of the damage to the reserve.

After one year’s full-time service, RF personnel on release from the NZDF have a four year reserve liability. This is different to the Reserve Force. It simply means that the Governor General can proclaim an emergency and recall those whose knowledge and skills are still current. It’s not too different to the Standby Reserve except they don’t have a uniform and can’t apply to attend training. There is no effort made to keep track of where they live or how to get in contact with them – there should be.

The motivation for ex-RF to transfer to the Reserve is very broad. Many want to get out but aren’t quite ready to not see a uniform hanging in the wardrobe. Perhaps they still want to be able to catch up with their RF mates in the mess on a Friday night. The reserve acts as a halfway house. Some want to stay ‘in the system’ in case a new deployment opportunity comes along. Others use reserve duty as a source of income while studying or setting up a new business. In my 25-year career, approximately half was full-time and half reserve service. I briefly transferred back in to the RF to deploy to East Timor. For 4 years I was Senior Lecturer in Command Studies (a defence civilian role) whilst simultaneously serving as XO then CO of a Reserve Battalion Group. This model is the way forward but not at the expense of the organic reservist.

By organic, I mean the service person who joins the reserve and remains largely a reservist – although they can and should seek operational deployments as they arise. Some might serve on a fixed term, full time contract but they remain fundamentally a reservist in head and heart. This is important. A reservist, by and large, thinks and acts differently to those who start with full-time service. They are not indoctrinated in the same way and have a range of skills and experiences beyond the NZDF which contribute to mission success. They are the free-wheeling, irreverent, wave-instead-of-saluting Kiwi soldiers of past wars that we can’t afford to lose. Unfortunately we are and in large numbers.

An effective reserve force is not a part time assemblage of former regulars. It isn’t a case of either/or but both/and. If concepts like the recently announced ‘Advancing Pacific Partnerships’ and climate change being a great national security threat are serious planning considerations then an enhanced and expanded Reserve Force comprising organic reservists and former regulars is part of the solution.

The Minister of Defence, Hon Ron Mark, has publicly stated he wants to see the Reserves back on their feet. Now we wait for action to follow the words.

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