Exit Door

High Price for NZDF Op Protect

Now that the end of Managed Isolation and Quarantine at the border is approaching, it is timely to consider what lessons can be learned. Operation Protect is the New Zealand Defence Force commitment to the Covid-19 All-of-Government Response. There have been many anecdotal examples of defence personnel quitting in frustration over the task as well as the consequent inability to run courses that enable professional progression. The purpose of this article is to examine actual data gained under the official information act and draw conclusions where possible.

By the Numbers

Approximately 1200 personnel are involved in Op Protect at any one time which includes those preparing to deploy and those in respite post-deployment. There is a significantly higher number of army staff than the other two services. They are employed in three main streams with numbers as at 25 February 2022 shown:

  1. Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facility (MIQF) staff – 323
  2. MIQF Security – 462
  3. MIQ (HQ) Operations – 12

TOTAL – 797

In addition, NZDF has supported many other Covid response-related operations including police checkpoints at the Auckland and Northland borders, medical personnel for vaccinations, delivery of vaccines to Tokelau and northern Cook Islands as well as assisting NZ Customs Service with maritime security and border monitoring at ports throughout the country. The scale of Op Protect more than doubled on 19 August 2020 after a private security guard put private information from an MIQF on social media. Despite many calls for a phased reduction, the NZDF commitment has remained as is.

This suggests that August 2020 is the start of the period where any impact on retention might be seen. However, it is likely that there was some novelty for junior sailors, soldiers and airmen in guarding hotels at the outset and therefore a lag in any surge of releases.

NZDF Total Voluntary Exits by Month and Year Feb 2020-Jan 2022
NZDF Total Voluntary Exits by Month and Year Feb 2020-Jan 2022

The glaring difference is the totals – 492 left NZDF fulltime service in 2020 (plus January figure). 892 left in 2021. More than 80% increase! With January 2022 included, the NZDF has lost 1556 personnel in two years with more than half of those from the army. January traditionally sees a surge in resignations as people spend their summer break contemplating their future and perhaps job-hunting but the January 2022 figures are about double of the two previous years and a sign that the drain continues unabated.

The second part of the equation is who the numbers represent.

NZDF Total Voluntary Exits by Rank and Service Feb 2020-Jan 2022
NZDF Total Voluntary Exits by Rank and Service Feb 2020-Jan 2022

Two big items stand out. First is the number of Captains and Majors (equivalent) that have left. These ranks represent the engine room of the officer corps. It takes someone about 10 years to achieve the rank of Major(E), the country has invested over a million dollars in them in pay, equipment and training. They have vast corporate knowledge and most likely overseas operational experience. That can’t be replaced with a recruit.

The second is the huge number of junior personnel, especially Private (E) and Junior NCOs. That is the future of the NCO corps walking out the door. Line units are hollow. Anecdotally, I understand that many have stated they didn’t join to be a security guard while others with trade qualifications can get much more money in civilian life due to the skills shortage brought about by border closure.

NZDF EXIT SURVEYS

Moving on from anecdotes, the NZDF undertakes a quarterly exit survey. It is voluntary and does not cover reservists nor those retiring. There are eight of these reports for the period under consideration and they can be downloaded from the following links:

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Jan-Mar-2020

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Apr-Jun-2020

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Jul-Sep-2020

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Oct-Dec-2020

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Jan-Mar-2021

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Apr-Jun-2021

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Jul-Sep-2021

NZDF Quarterly-Exit-Survey-Report_Oct-Dec-2021

I have set out to identify the common themes in highest reported reasons and see if any changes correlate with the surge in NZDF commitment to Op Protect.

Q1 2020 Q2 2020 Q3 2020 Q4 2020 Q1 2021 Q2 20211 Q3 2021 Q4 2021
No confidence in NZDF senior leadership 42% 31% 41% 32% 41% 50% 51%
Not able to use my knowledge and skills 39% 44% 47% 40% 47% 43% 49%
Don’t like how my career is being managed 34% 35% 46% 46% 49% 51%
Unable to manage family commitments 34% 36% 30% 43% 43%
Too much work-related stress 34% 31% 32%
Not able to get the training & development I need 31% 34% 35% 38% 43%
Work was not what I expected 31%
Op Protect Overall34%

Army 49%

Navy 21%

Air 15%

  1. Op Protect question introduced here as a reason for leaving

In Q1 2021, the report splits the top line reasons for leaving into uniform and civilian. The answers are quite different and the figures shown from there are uniformed personnel only. Without the survey methodology, it is difficult to draw detailed conclusions. However, there is likely a correlation in the second half of 2021 in particular with resignations and Op Protect. Army participants cite it as a reason 49% of the time in Q4 2021. It is openly discussed that perception of poor career management (51%), inability to use knowledge and skills (49%) and inability to access training courses (43%) all have strong links to Op Protect.

So What?

The Minister of Defence, Hon Peeni Henare, was briefed by the CDF, Air Marshall Kevin Short in June 2021 on the problem. He told the Minister:

“I am conscious that the NZDF’s ability to respond to a Christchurch [type] of Kaikōura scale earthquake, or a Pacific event of the size of Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji, will remain degraded for the foreseeable future.

The ongoing commitment “reduces the capability of the NZDF to respond to another national or regional emergency with previously expected scale or speed”, made worse by the “wider” impacts of the pandemic on training and supply chains, he advised.

There has also been a “skill fade of core military competencies” with the reduction of usual activities.”

Henare’s response to Radio NZ inquiries in August 2021 was that Covid-19 remained the Government’s priority. In effect, the Minister was prepared to allow long term degradation of the NZDF rather than find other solutions to MIQF security.

The NZDF has a huge hole in its ranks and setting out to solve it through traditional recruitment and training processes will take far too long. Innovation and boldness is called for. In particular, they need to reach out to the 75% of people who stated in their exit interviews that they would consider re-joining or working for NZDF again in the future. The reserve force needs to be built up to assist with that. New approaches to contracts, including short-service commissions, fast-track NCO paths and a major revamp of training systems to shorten courses and make them less attendance focussed are all part of the solution. Why, for instance, do we train every army officer cadet for a year on the basis of preparing for a long military career when the majority don’t stay that long?

In the second part of this article, I will discuss these and other ways of developing a new model defence force that is fit to fight now and in the future and not be used as a disciplined, dispensable labour force by this Labour government or any other in the future.

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A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle

A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle