BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT – The incoming government should extend the six most senior commanders in the NZDF for another two or three years (staggered) as a priority. The New Zealand Defence Force Galaxy comprises a 3-Star, six 2-Star (do the maths) and somewhere less than twenty 1-Stars. This ‘dwarf galaxy’* of an Air Marshal, Rear Admirals, Major Generals, Air Vice Marshals and Brigadiers (equivalent) represent the celestial command body of our armed forces. At the highest level (2-Star and above) their three-year appointments end in a matter of months.
Chief of the Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short’s term ends on 30 June 2021. Vice-CDF Air Vice Marshal Tony Davies, Chief of Army Major General John Boswell and Chief of Air Force Air Vice Marshal Andrew Clark all face a term expiring in September 2021. Time is up for the Joint Forces Commander, Rear Admiral James Gilmour and Chief of Navy Rear Admiral David Proctor in November 2021.
This state of affairs would never be acceptable in any organisational scenario I have encountered in decades of business consulting assignments. It is the handywork of the outgoing Minister of Defence, Hon Ron Mark. While many repeat the mantra “Never write off Winston,” I am prepared to state my position clearly that I predict there will be a new Minister of Defence later this year. Who that might be is the subject of another article. The point of this piece is how to ensure the senior leadership of the NZDF remains stable through what is looming as a period of global uncertainty and significant change in operating platforms.
Most informed commentators agree that the current three-year electoral cycle is too short and a four or five year parliament would be preferable. The arguments are simple – learning the job, doing something then seeking re-election makes for a very inefficient parliament. For those who think that three years is a long time to wait to rid yourself of a poor government then consider this – there has been only one single term (72-75) and one two-term government (84-90) since 1972. All the rest have had 9 years in office. Prior to 1972, the National Government had 12 years at the helm. By contrast, the Governor-General can withdraw the Warrant of a poorly performing service chief at any time.
The typical logic is that Defence Force command appointment decisions are left to the incoming government. But hold on – isn’t the NZDF apolitical in a two-way sense? Sadly, that hasn’t been true for a very long time but that’s not to say it’s right! A very damaging consequence is that a new Defence Minister, while trying to learn their portfolio, simply extends the contract of the incumbent CDF by twelve months. This has occurred several times in recent years. The result is a ‘lame duck’ 3-star who can’t implement any meaningful change (or even apply for other jobs) because they have to wait on the Defence Minister’s call while other officers nip at their heels vying for ‘their turn.’
Lt Gen Sir Jerry Mateparae was one such example. After his initial three years, he was extended twice for short periods, suffering the death of a thousand lip bites in the process. He was then put in to run the Government Communications and Security Bureau for an even shorter period (5 months). He got lucky and eventually pulled the Governor-General gig followed by High Commissioner in London. Sadly, that’s the only happy ending in this story and it’s about him, not the NZDF.
At the current time, New Zealand is in a major re-equipping phase as we move out of a period of block obsolescence brought about by an earlier re-equipping cycle – from British to American hardware – in the 60s and 70s. From now until at least the mid-20s, we have a major challenge bringing on new aircraft, ships, vehicles and digital technologies. It is a time for stability – not arbitrarily moving people across and out of the service.
When I joined, careerism was limited. The few that pursued this ‘dog eat dog / climb over everyone to further your own career’ were known as ‘Thrusters’ and treated accordingly. By the time I hung up my uniform in 2002, it was becoming a problem. Now, it is endemic. The officer corps has split in three. The first tranche (General or G List in Army terms) – those from where you would expect to find your future service and defence chiefs – are those who join before twenty-five years of age, go through a traditional officer academy of several months to 4 years duration and follow a path of training, command and staff appointments plus overseas deployments.
The second tranche comprise the Quartermaster (QM, CFR or DC) and Specialist (SPEC) commissions. The former are Senior NCOs and Warrant Officers who are evaluated and ‘rebadged’ as Lieutenants, Captains and in some cases Majors (equivalent). The intent of this category of commission was to provide experienced people to run stores, workshops and training facilities. SPECs are people with recognised civilian qualifications such as doctors, nurses, psychologists and chaplains. They do a very short course to familiarise themselves with the NZDF but otherwise are there to use their civilian professional skills.
Many of these officers are now being employed as ‘G List’ officers in command, operational (including deployed roles) and similar positions for which their training and education has not prepared them.
The third tranche, which has grown in the last twenty years since the advent of three-year re-appointment contracts is that of the ‘career major.’ This is a term I have used to describe those who agree to trade rank for time in order to remain in the service. There are examples of people who have risen as high as Brigadier who are now serving as Majors (some with Lieutenant Colonel acting rank for representational purposes). Others are out of uniform but doing the same job they had as a Colonel.
These galaxies inevitably collide. A significant number of G-List officers leave before the age of forty to ensure they can study and re-establish themselves in civilian careers. Others in this age bracket leave because they have decided that their partner’s career will take precedence. If the NZDF was smarter, it would retain these people through the Reserves but the damage to the Reserves has already been done.
A second departure lounge exists at the Colonel to Brigadier (equivalent) level because they not only want to re-start their lives in civvy street but they see that, even if they win the political popularity contest to be a service chief or CDF, they will potentially be spat out in their prime earning time of mid fifties to early sixties by the roll of a political dice and a three year contract. Some go to international roles in peacekeeping and the like. Most look to change uniforms in a comfortable public service job with a suit where, through no fault of their own, they will be under-employed – with regard to their ability – for the rest of their working life.
It’s not hard to see how this turmoil rolls down through the command chain. It can’t all be solved in one go. I’m not in a position to evaluate the service chiefs in detail but I do know that they haven’t done a bad job. In the context of stability being the best thing for New Zealand’s Defence Force right now, I recommend extending them. It’s going to annoy a few careerists who have been planning for ‘their turn’ but the effective security of New Zealand is a much bigger consideration.
*Astronomical reference which has nothing to do with the height of the incumbent officers, their propensity for drunken wrestling bouts or desire to be thrown around the headquarters! A Dwarf Galaxy is a small galaxy of stars, planets, gas and dark matter. Dwarf galaxies’ formation and activity are thought to be heavily influenced by interactions with larger galaxies.
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