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Black Swans and a Second Front

The resilience of a nation is a difficult thing to measure. It reflects a unique combination of assets, plans, people and training. The Kiwi attitude without a piece of number 8 wire is just that – an attitude. So, what lessons can we already draw from the COVID-19 pandemic response? For me, the most obvious is that we could not effectively respond to a second concurrent event – in particular one involving the New Zealand Defence Force, Police or health sector.

In my consulting work, my business partner, Heather Roy and I design and deliver business simulations for clients (known in many quarters as business war games from the military plan testing technique). Corporate plans are stress-tested around most likely and most dangerous courses of action from several perspectives and sometimes tested to destruction.

For the purpose of this article, I propose two very different scenarios as potential ‘second fronts.’ Scenario one is a natural disaster – a severe earthquake in Wellington during the current lock-down period. Scenario two is a request for a NZDF+ (i.e. defence force led with all of government support) force as a part of a combined force to deal with a civil uprising in a Pacific nation caused by COVID-19 restrictions. In either scenario the point being made is the same one and most readers will be able to instantly deduce what the outcome of a ‘second front’ would be.

The size, configuration and level of capability of the NZDF is largely driven by the Purchase Agreement between the Government and the Chief of Defence Force. While the detailed annex is confidential (for obvious reasons), it might state how many battalions or company groups must be available for deployment, to where, at what period of notice and specifies how long that capability must be able to be sustained for. These deployments include ‘Aid to Civil Authorities’ (like COVID-19 or other civil defence events), counter-terrorism and contribution to peacekeeping activities in the world. It’s then up to the CDF to configure and prepare the NZDF accordingly.

Some might disagree but I believe that constant reductions (largely through rising costs outstripping defence funding, changes in workforce expectations and the imposition of accrual accounting) have left the NZDF a ‘one-shot force’ when it comes to any significant engagement. Twenty years ago, we deployed 6 infantry battalions in sequence over 3 years to the troubles in East Timor. Even then, that could only be achieved by rotating the two RF battalions twice (with supplementation from other countries) and four composite battalions of engineers, armoured troopers, gunners, other corps and services (also internationally supplemented) – and Reservists – all deployed as infantry. The latter accounted for nearly a third of the total deployed force and domestic duties replacements.

Today, that is impossible. From Afghanistan and Iraq on, the government has focussed on a couple of sustainable company groups or a single-use battalion. The Reserve Force is a fraction of its former size. This creates a dilemma for CDF. In a situation with the potential scale of support to COVID-19, he cannot afford to allow the NZDF to become decisively engaged i.e. to the point where he has no more resources to address another of his responsibilities should they arise concurrently. However, the Government (and probably most people) think that’s what they have spent all the money on defence for – to be able to call on them in times like this. The fact is, enough hasn’t been spent.

The dilemma of two fronts is currently being wrestled with by much larger defence forces around the world. Some Australians, for instance, are asking why more ADF resources aren’t being deployed to assist with COVID-19. The ADF is holding back much of its testing and care capability to ensure its own people are safe and well when they are needed. ANU has described potential concurrent security events in this diagram and it relates closely with potential challenges for the NZDF.

ANU Diagram of Potential ADF Demands

No country is immune from ‘Black Swan’ events. By definition, they are hard to predict and catastrophic. But a flexible response capability can be developed.

NZ’s recent policy statement, ‘Advancing Pacific Partnerships’ promises the same level of response in the Pacific as at home. That’s a big call and unachievable now and into the foreseeable future.

The bottom line is that a country has traditionally had two choices: it can have a large standing force (with little to no reserve force) which is capable of dealing with multiple fronts. Or it can have a smaller, full-time force and a much larger Reserve Force to provide surge capability, flexible response options and specialised capabilities. NZ has neither.

However, there is a third way which properly utilises the significant number of veterans – both those who have deployed during service and those, who through no fault of their own, didn’t. Most importantly, it doesn’t require conscription or compulsory recall of those who have recently left the force.

These men and women don’t necessarily want to belong to the Reserve but they are happy to step up if the nation needs them. To make that work, we need to identify them and provide some level of connection over time. I discussed this in an article regarding ‘White Force’ civilian participants in Defence exercises and more recently discussing temporary re-enlistment of ex-service personnel. V-Force (Veteran Force) would not be a standby replication of existing structures. It would be a perfect opportunity to work with new structural ideas – a team of teams. It would be an opportunity to modernise thinking about rank structures.

If we were to stand this ‘V-Force’ up now, they would be ready quite soon to take over many RF tasks domestically in the response to COVID-19 should the NZDF be required elsewhere. Medical and Police are doing this now but not Defence. This is a real opportunity that CDF should grasp with both hands. Even if they (we) are not needed, we will have had a practice mobilisation. Imagine the planning and operational potential of a properly rounded out defence force with a similar number of full timers as now, two to three times that many (i.e.20-30k) reservists and twice that number again (i.e.40-60k) V-Force. That would be a truly significant ‘Force for New Zealand’ at little extra cost in the context of what is being spent of national emergencies.

In other news, the Defence Minister posted a picture on social media of a spider in his wood chips at home today.

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Coming soon – a Kiwi crime thriller involving gangs, drugs and some not so straight cops!