A mock tombstone for the term "Regular Force"

Time to Drop ‘Regular Force’

During a meeting in 2009, the Associate Defence Minister, Hon Heather Roy, asked a group of service chiefs whether they thought it acceptable to refer to her as a ‘non-brunette’ (she’s blonde). Unsurprisingly, this caused a distinct level of discomfort in the room and a chorus of “No, Minister”. She asked them if it would ever be acceptable to describe someone by what they were not. Again, the answer was a resounding “No, Minister”. Why then, she asked, was the Defence Force’s systems, manuals and forms replete with the term ‘Non-Regular Force’ or ‘NRF’ to describe Territorial or Reserve soldiers, sailors and air force personnel. The speed with which this was remedied (with the exception of the payroll software which had to be re-programmed) throughout Defence was impressive.

Was this important change or simply a meaningless gesture? It was very important, in my view, as language shapes and controls a debate and through that, attitudes and behaviours are formed. Imagine the outrage if government forms had categories such as ‘non-male’, ‘non-married’ or ‘non-hetero’. However, it’s not just the use of negative descriptors which is a problem for the Defence Force. The use of other legacy terms is also shaping organisational behaviour in a manner which detracts from generating the full potential of the ‘Total Defence Workforce’ (TDW). In particular, I believe that it is time to lower the curtain on the term ‘Regular Force’ (RF).

In its broadest sense, the term Regular Force or Regular Army describes the official armed force of a country – as opposed to private forces, mercenaries and terrorist groups. By that definition, everyone in the New Zealand Defence Workforce is RF as they are all legally sanctioned and trained to contribute to the outputs required of the NZDF. The UK and USA refer only to the full-time standing force as the Regular Army and NZ has copied the approach.

However, the composition of the Defence Force has changed from that which saw the creation of the term. The Total Defence Workforce comprises:

Total Defence Workforce Model
Total Defence Workforce Model

The modern defence force is increasingly reliant on civilians, contractors and personnel from other government agencies. None of these fit the description of regular force. In an era of flexible working arrangements, neither can full-time be equated with RF as there are RF personnel on part-time contracts and Reservists on full-time contracts. All are eligible for superannuation and identical rates of pay. The modern battlefield couldn’t operate without civilian contractors but you can’t claim that a logistics company operating in a war zone supporting NZ troops for profit is RF.

Some commentators have tried to steer the discussion toward a “Professional Force”. There’s no doubt that, in theory, the profession of arms meets criteria such as:

  • An apprenticeship and higher learning
  • A governing body that is self-disciplining
  • An ethical basis from which to act
  • Performs a service that is essential to society
  • Is paid for the service it provides.

However, these criteria are met equally by full and part-time uniformed and civilian defence personnel. A doctor, for instance, doesn’t cease to be a professional if they only treat patients 3 days a week. To equate RF with professional requires you to ignore workforce turnover. Very few defence personnel serve their entire working lives in the forces with many leaving after only a few years. At what point, in terms of service, does someone become a professional?

The main problem with the use of the term RF is that it has become a ‘caste mark’ – an assumed mantle of ‘better’ that is completely without foundation but staunchly protected with hubris. I have served in the RF, TF and as a Defence civilian (university lecturer). I have seen at first hand, the passive aggressive behaviour that undermines the organisation. Defence forces are made up of tribes – corps, regiments, squadrons and ship’s companies. The pride that is generated directly contributes to morale and therefore combat power. However, there is a tipping point, and we are there. As technology replaces humans, enlarges battlespace and enables threats that didn’t exist a few years ago it’s vital that we remove barriers to the generation of optimum national power if we are to protect our way of life.

Some commanders understand this but few act on it as their own career advancement requires keeping in step with peers. Perhaps it will require another well-placed political question? Maybe we need to fundamentally rethink what is valuable in a modern defence force. There are many full-time personnel in so-called ‘combat roles’ who are unsuited to the task. Likewise, there are some true warriors wearing suits in Defence HQ, operating combat service support functions or putting on a uniform for a couple of days a month. Our challenge, as a nation, is to get the best from all of them.

Does the term Regular Force need a replacement? No. All that our defence workforce systems require is a means of showing what contract/nature of service the individual is currently engaged on. A Defence Amendment Bill is required to update the statutes – perhaps this could be added to the current Bill that has been languishing on the Order Paper since 2011?