NZ Soldier on Stretcher During Exercise - Source NZDF

Curing NZDF’s Long Covid

Part 2 on Defence Force Attrition and Rebuilding

Recovery from the ‘Long Covid’ effects on the New Zealand Defence Force requires rebuilding, repositioning and modernisation of the force while continuing to deliver the outputs specified by Government. In the context of growing insecurity, increasing need for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and a bleak economic environment this will take co-ordinated bold and innovative action by politicians, officials and commanders alike.

This is the second of a two-part article about New Zealand Defence Force attrition which has been caused, in large part, by the effects of Covid-19 on the country and Defence Force. The NZDF reported losses of 1556 full-time personnel (including civilians) between February 2020 and January 2022. Over half of those (878) were from the Army which represents significant loss (18.8%) in a full-time uniformed force of 4,659. Some ranks and trades have been hit much harder than others.

It’s not possible to address all solutions in an article of readable length. I will, however, set out some options for the recovery, repositioning and modernisation of the defence force in the broader context of a national security strategy for New Zealand. The intent is to provide a framework for a broader conversation on the problems and solutions.

Courses of Action

  1. Status Quo. Keep on recruiting at the same or slightly increased rate. Maintain training systems and employment arrangements as is. Try to recover the force incrementally. Maintain a belief that the government will eventually allocate Vote:Defence Force enough new money to ‘fix’ the problem. This may involve the CDF and Secretary of Defence formally advising government that the NZDF is unable to maintain the current purchase agreement and must negotiate a reduction in outputs until force regeneration is complete.

COMMENT: Will take 8-10 years which is too slow in the context of the current security environment. The gaps will travel through the system with the destructive effects of an embolism, as occurred in the 1990s when recruitment was frozen to save money. NZ unemployment rates remain low, borders are open and many of the pressures on attrition will remain. Consequently, it may not achieve anything beyond delaying the inevitable need for real reform. Government is unlikely to agree to substantial change to the purchase agreement.

  1. Tinkering Around the Edges. Increased focus on re-enlistment of former full-time personnel and reservists, lateral recruitment from other countries, more specialist and ‘Commissioned from the Ranks’ officers. Minor changes to courses and career progression. Use of retention and re-enlistment bonuses in remuneration offers. Restructure of some units.

COMMENT: This approach may be partially successful in plugging gaps in the current structure. However, this assumes that the current structure is correct which I and many others, serving and retired, do not believe to be so. Many vacant paralines (the code for a role/rank/unit position) are redundant. The other effect is unintentional culture change. For example, there are numerous anecdotes of experienced soldiers recruited from Commonwealth countries openly showing contempt for the Ngati Tumatauenga concept and even actively undermining it.

  1. National Security-Focussed Transformation. This is a radical reformation of NZDF’s role within the national-security framework of the state. It involves a grass-roots examination of how NZDF functions as part of that apparatus. It is not a value-for-money approach led by Treasury as was disastrously conducted in 2010 but a real evaluation of what defence can and should focus on versus what other agencies could be doing. It should also include a fundamental modernisation and transformation in the way the defence force raises, trains, sustains, deploys, supports and recovers its forces.

COMMENT: Anything that radically changes the status quo will meet with the greatest resistance. There will be many within the Defence Force that see this as a threat to their relatively comfortable life and inertia will have to be overcome at every level. Fundamentals of this include shifting entire responsibilities in non-war-fighting capabilities to other agencies and organisations. A reform of the current top-heavy approach to command and control, major change to training systems and methods as well as a fundamental re-think of the full-time/part-time workforce balance are all on the table in this approach. Attrition may get worse before it gets better during this transformation as those heavily invested in the current system choose to leave. It may be, in order to work around potential resistance, that the ‘New Model Defence Force’ is established in parallel with the existing force with the latter being transferred or attrited over time. The Reserve Force is one way that this could be executed.

There are other potential courses of action and most are some hybrid combination of these three. However, COA 1 and 2 fail a simple test – they cannot make enough change fast enough to lift the NZDF out of its current situation. The question I have put to many who are interested is “what would you do if New Zealand found itself at war tomorrow without national conscription?” The replies are predictable: expand recruitment, re-establish a huge reserve, reduce training systems to the absolute bare minimum, move resources from the ‘tail to the teeth’, drop bureaucratic peacetime policies that inhibit high achievement and stop conducting any activities that don’t directly contribute to war effort.

Elements of Transformation

This is not an exhaustive list but is designed to ‘provoke’ serious critique of some sacred cows that are hindering NZDF’s mass, lethality, performance and resilience. No specific amount of extra money will solve these issues. I believe it viable to create a stable force of 30,000 (10k full-time, 20k part-time) through the initiatives described.

  1. Role. A sharper focus on war-fighting within a whole-of-government strategy.
    1. Creation of a national emergency management force that is not reliant on NZDF personnel and logistics. This could be veteran-led like international organisations Team Rubicon in the USA and Disaster Relief Australia.
    2. Separate coast guard duties (fisheries patrolling, search and rescue etc) and allow the Air Force and Navy to focus on maritime combat and support.
  2. Structure. I have been writing about this for over 20 years.
    1. The NZDF is top heavy. This situation has evolved over time and requires a reset. I recently provided this example to a serving officer to explain how it happens: At a military conference somewhere in the world, an ally demonstrates a prototype milspec cargo mountain bike and trailer (insert any new concept here instead of the bike). NZ attendees report favourably on this concept. The staff get to work on doctrine while MOD looks at specification and whole-of-life management of the bikes. The new doctrinal approach plus implementation into service requires a director, a grade 2 staff officer, a WO1 and clerk. They settle on a 14-day familiarisation course for the new equipment. The latter first requires an instructor’s course and meetings are held over several months before a badge is agreed on.
    2. Merge the ‘raise/train/sustain function of the single service chiefs with the ‘deploy/support/recover’ responsibilities of the three component commanders. Three fewer one-stars is a good start and creates a sinking lid on their staffs. In fact, the Commander Joint Forces could easily be a one-star. The higher the rank, the more staff positions are created.
    3. Gutting HQ NZDF requires rationalisation of what is done in-house relative to the size of our fighting force. Doctrine, for instance could go to an ANZAC centre of excellence. The estate could be managed by MoD or other government agency. There is no case for single service strategy cells.
    4. Army TRADOC does not require its own headquarters.
    5. Identify whole-of government duplication and redundancy. For example, why is there both a Commando squadron within 1NZSAS and Police Special Tactics Group for counter-terrorism? Leave it to Police. Perhaps a Joint Ranger Unit for high performers to aspire to would be more useful? (These sorts of things matter to 20-year-olds who won’t all be special forces material).
    6. Reform and modernise the rank system.
    7. Split the territorial units back out and consider a much wider growth in regional groupings beyond infantry battalions and concrete frigates.
  3. Recruitment. Move from batch processing to real-time.
    1. Recruitment in three days is done by reserve units (Former CGS, Maj Gen Maurice Dodson proposed this). Applications are processed where the candidate lives. They are examined by a local GP. Aptitude tests are administered by Reservists. They are attested and kitted out with partially worn, serviceable kit. If they subsequently fail background checks, they are released. They attend the nearest initial recruit training weekend which is run monthly by the reserve units. Those wanting full-time service are then further processed to complete basic and trade training. Thousands of good candidates are lost every year because of the long wait and lack of contact they currently experience from centralised recruiting.
    2. Ditch the on-entry drug test. Who cares what they did before they joined? I don’t advocate having drug users in the NZDF but it should be dealt with as a health issue. The NZDF is a reflection of the society it defends.
    3. Lighten up on the arbitrary exclusion of candidates who may have court convictions. Take a case-by-case basis rather than damning someone for a poor choice made when young and potentially missing out on a great service person.
    4. Men (or women for that matter!) with beards? Just get over it. Sikh soldiers and those of many other countries are awesome warriors and manage soldiering along with long hair and beards. So too can Kiwis.
    5. New and flexible contracts including short service commissions, specialist NCO entry (especially for cyber and space domains) and re-enlistment incentives.
    6. Require current four year reserve liability for those departing full-time service to be undertaken in the Reserve Force.
    7. Require defence contractors to have a percentage of their staff in the Reserve Force when undertaking defence contracts. This assists with the dilemma of civilians on the battlefield as well as increasing numbers.
    8. Incentivise defence civilians to join the Reserve Force.
    9. Implement voluntary national service (Companion Study to 2010 Defence White paper) as part of a whole-of-government strategy. The former Malone Scheme in the army was a VNS model similar to the US ROTC. It produced many impressive officers and was designed to have a trade scheme as well.
  4. Training. Needs to move from attendance to performance culture. Less time spent on courses. Better access to knowledge.
    1. All unclassified knowledge made available via MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Classified knowledge is delivered on secure networks.
    2. Attendance courses shortened to focus only on skills and collective training that can’t be delivered in other modes.
    3. Rationalisation of the number of compulsory courses required for career progression. Every officer doesn’t need to be prepared for star rank. Link coursing to contract.
    4. Initial Officer training reduced to between four and six months with specialist training occurring after a period in a line unit gaining experience with actual service personnel.
    5. Deploy junior commanders at the earliest possible opportunity.
  5. Retention. This discussion usually moves quickly to rates of pay and how the defence force cannot compete with the private sector. Numerous studies in the field of human resources show that pay lies around fourth on the list of reasons why people leave an organisation. NZDF Exit Surveys show a similar pattern with the top eight reasons for leaving not mentioning pay. Initiatives that will help include:
    1. Returning to older systems of personnel support. It’s too expensive to live near defence establishments now and housing is scarce and unhealthy.
    2. Ditch mandatory posting cycles in all but the most urgent cases. Link willingness to be posted to service contract. Advertise positions internally.
    3. Lateral career progression to enable flexibility with changing interests.
    4. Challenging the arbitrary and in most cases historical rank/position relationship. For instance, there is no reason why one platoon commander position in each rifle company couldn’t permanently be a SNCO – aspirational for high-flying NCOs and a font of experience for the junior officers of the company to draw from. Why do all pilots need to be commissioned officers? It wasn’t so in WWII and won’t work in an unmanned system dominated force to come.
    5. Update policies to cut the chaff more easily. These people are a demotivator/disincentive for others. A force the size of the NZDF cannot afford to carry the number of 20+ year Majors and Warrant Officers (equivalent). With the greatest respect for those who have served long and faithfully, doing the same job every year for 20 years does not equal 20 years’ experience. It equals 1 years’ experience 20 times. This quote sums my view “These unfortunate men either take too long to adjust to reality, through a lack of hard preliminary thinking about what war would really be like, or they may have had their minds so far shaped by a lifetime of pure administration that they have ceased for all practical purposes to be soldiers.” (Michael Howard, 1981, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Parameters Journal).
    6. Amend fitness test levels to reflect force diversity while maintaining incentives for excellence.
    7. Remove arbitrary barriers to advancement such as the army’s ‘ten years to Major’ rule. Reward excellence and those people will stay.

How Much?

Transforming the NZDF will require greater investment but it is unhelpful that politicians are currently throwing alternative budget figures around in a bid to show they mean business. The 2% of GDP figure cited by many as the ‘NATO’ standard is one example of a meaningless statement. While the USA might wish it to be binding, other NATO countries consider it aspirational. The appeal of such debates is that percentage of GDP is much easier to measure than actual capability. For example, there is no capability gained from veterans’ pensions and yet they are included in NATO calculations. When I hear New Zealand politicians talking about percentage GDP expenditure on defence, I know immediately that they don’t have a clue.


While many other national missions have crept on to the NZDF’s task list, war-fighting is the only one that cannot be done by any other organisation. The situation the NZDF is in will get worse before it gets better no matter which course of action is pursued. New Zealand does not have the luxury of time in rebuilding and modernising the NZDF and that makes the risks of sweeping structural and cultural change acceptable. The transformational approach offers a renewed sense of purpose to the people that are needed to recover the country’s war-fighting capability.

Of the many lessons that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has offered up is that there is no point having the latest hardware if it is in the hands of the wrong people – no matter how numerous. The right people and culture will make the difference to rebuilding the mass, lethality and sustainability of the NZDF.

While the ‘why’ and ‘what’ is well established, the big challenge is the ‘how’. I doubt that NZDF commanders actually have the power, even if the will exists, to effect the necessary change. They will strike, as before, a combination of organisational disobedience, budget limitations, stakeholder entanglement (e.g. MOD, DPMC, NEMA and single-service self-protection) and political reticence to name a few. Then there’s cultural minefields such as the various veteran lobby groups who would attack anything that threatened their sense of identity. There is need for more research into this paralytic power web that strangles progressive national security policy.

Liddell-Hart quipped in 1972 that there was only one thing more difficult than getting a new idea into the military mind and that was getting the old one out. There is much work to do on this and not that much time before critical mass is threatened. What’s needed now is a hero with the personal mana to fix this mess. That’s someone I could vote for and go into battle with.

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