WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s military has tested some of its beach-landing equipment in an overseas environment for the first time — a type of exercise one officer admitted hasn’t happened for a while amid recruitment woes and the pandemic.

For years, the Defence Force has experienced retention and recruitment problems, and within the last few years it was tasked with supervising COVID-19 quarantine and isolation activities.

The two-week drill in Fiji — dubbed Operation Mahi Tahi — took place in March and April to ensure the New Zealand Defence Force can respond to disasters throughout the Pacific.

“We haven’t practiced this type of amphibious landing for a while,” said Lt. Callum Wilkie, the amphibious beach team commander with the Army’s 5th Movements Company. “[This] is about making sure that we are ready to assist in the Pacific if we need to respond to a [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] situation.”

The head of the joint task group that oversaw the exercise said responding to disasters across the Pacific region is a key role for the military. “We need to train as often as we can in order to deliver this critical capability when it’s needed,” Col. Mel Childs said.

What took place?

The operation involved the 430-foot military sealift vessel HMNZS Canterbury, and nearly 300 personnel attended the event for air, sea and amphibious training scenarios.

“[We] deployed four vehicles across the beach in two [movements], exercised laying the beach mat and also exercised in pushing a ‘stuck’ [Landing Craft Medium] off the beach,” Cmdr. Bronwyn Heslop, the commanding officer of the Canterbury, told Defense News. “There wasn’t anything that didn’t go as planned.”

“The pinnacle for the [amphibious beach team] for this trip was a real-time extraction of personnel and relocation, albeit ‘giving them a lift’ back to [the Fijian city] Suva, rather than evacuating them from a stricken island,” she added.

The Canterbury had carried 107 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion Fiji Infantry Regiment from Kadavu Island to Suva.

And at Lomolomo Beach on the Fijian island Viti Levu, one of the ship’s two 75-foot landing craft unloaded a beach preparation extraction vehicle, or BPEV. The vehicle is used to clear, construct and maintain beach lanes. This involves removing debris, such as logs and boulders; filling holes and eliminating berms; preparing the beach for laying beach matting; and pushing beached landing craft back into the sea.

The vehicle can also recover immobilized equipment by using its rear winch, said Wilkie.

A converted 20-ton Caterpillar 938K loader also operated from the landing craft. The platform can roll out a temporary trackway over soft sand to allow light vehicles — like the Pinzgauer truck or non-four-wheel drive vehicles — to get ashore.

“Having this opportunity to deploy on the Canterbury to Fiji has been a great chance for us to build up experience within the team and test the capability,” Wilkie said, “and this is the first time we’ve used both the BPEV and Cat 938K overseas, so it’s really great to see it deployed here at Lomolomo Beach.”

The Canterbury can also accommodate tractor and bridge layer vehicles, and has hangar space for up to four helicopters, including the A109 and NH90.

The Canterbury entered service in June 2007. It is New Zealand’s first purpose-built strategic sealift ship and has often deployed to the South Pacific for training as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. For example, in 2016 it deployed in response to the tropical cyclone Winston, but in recent years deployments have slowed.

“The next steps are to continue building on this capability — Canterbury working with the [amphibious beach team] more — and for it to become business as usual again,” Heslop said.

Playing catchup

Independent defense consultant Gordon Crane told Defense News the operation was essential for the military, should it need to conduct amphibious operations.

“Being tasked to supervise New Zealand’s COVID quarantine and isolation in recent years has not only increased attrition but reduced morale and prevented the military from maintaining its operational proficiency, which means the Defence Force now has to exercise as often as possible, both domestically and overseas,” Crane said.

The value of Operation Mahi Tahi cannot be overstated, he added. “Such activities both motivate people to join the armed services, and improve the skill and experience of serving personnel.”

Figures released by the military show that, during 2021-2022, the regular force lost nearly 30% of its uniformed, trained and experienced staff. Last year, the Army sought to recruit 539 people, but attracted only 212.

As of June 30, 2022, the Defence Force included 9,215 uniformed personnel, with the Army accounting for 4,519, followed by 2,477 in the Air Force and 2,219 in the Navy. There are also 3,000 reserve personnel and a similar number of civilians serving in the force.

This year’s attrition rate for the Army is close to 17%.

But the problems aren’t new: Attrition soared in 2011 when the country introduced the so-called civilianization project — a money-saving effort that saw more than 900 Defence Force personnel resign or declared redundant. Its name stemmed from the military’s attempt to convert some military positions into civilian jobs.

By June 2012, the cumulative attrition rate for all three regular armed forces — the Air Force, Army and Navy — exceeded 20%. It reached about 23% for the Army.

Now, the Defence Force has started paying bonuses to personnel at up to NZ$10,000 (U.S. $6,203) each to keep them in their jobs.

The chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Kevin Short, named plumbers, electricians, carpenters, special forces personnel, Navy propulsion experts and middle managers as some of the most critical trades within the military. While he expressed hope recent cash payments might persuade people to stay, Short said it could take up to four years to train people to replace those key roles, and almost a decade to get those same skill levels back.

The New Zealand government was to release in March 2023 a defense policy and strategy statement, but has not yet done so. However, in January this year, the vice chief of the Defence Force, Air Vice-Marshal Tony Davies, invited New Zealanders to take part in an online survey regarding the country’s future defense policy and strategy. Submissions closed on April 4.

Two weeks later, on April 18, the New Zealand Army announced a bilateral service cooperation plan with the Australian Army, called Plan Anzac. The chief of New Zealand’s Army, Maj. Gen. John Boswell, described the agreement as a significant step forward for the trans-Tasman strategic partnership.

The plan focuses on improving interoperability, maintaining bilateral cooperation in strategic areas, and addressing capability, training, readiness and common personnel issues.

Nick Lee-Frampton is the New Zealand correspondent for Defense News.

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