WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The New Zealand Defence Force includes more than 8,700 uniformed personnel, with nearly half serving in the Army, which Maj. Gen. John Boswell has commanded since September 2018.

Among its total inventory, the Army is equipped with Javelin anti-armor missiles, 105mm light guns, and eight-wheel drive light armored vehicles each featuring a 25mm gun. Recently introduced equipment includes the 5.56mm MARS-L rifle and the Australian-made four-wheel drive Bushmaster infantry vehicle.

Like the country’s naval and air forces, the Army has suffered severe attrition in recent years, partly due to remuneration and the state of military housing. Nevertheless, the finance minister announced in January 2024 that government agencies must identify annual savings, including 7.5% from the Defence Ministry and 6.5% from the military, ahead of the budget, due May 30.

In February, the armed forces said that amid gaps in end strength, they were worried about the remaining staff who are “shouldering significant burden” to ensure major equipment and platforms remained at the ready.

Then on March 25, the chief of the defense force, Air Marshal Kevin Short, announced that Boswell will retire June 9.

During his 40 years of service, Boswell served with the United Nations in Angola, East Timor and the Middle East. Defense News recently connected with the Army chief to discuss the state of the force, ongoing modernization programs and the lingering effects of the pandemic. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What were your goals as Army chief?

On assuming command, I focused the Army’s effort very clearly toward becoming a modern, agile, highly adaptive, light combat force. Modernization involved giving momentum to the Network Enabled Army and Protected Mobility Capability programs as well as continuous improvement through the ongoing soldier modernization program.

Agility is the need for an army — even a small one — to provide the government with options across the spectrum of conflict while maintaining force structures able to task, organize, and — if required — reorganize as quickly as possible and as often as needed to meet changing requirements.

Our operating concept was to be framed by highly professional, highly capable special forces and light infantry, artillery and armor supported by agile, responsive combat support and combat service support.

How is the Network Enabled Army program coming along?

The program is a foundational requirement to achieving a networked, combat-capable force able to operate in a multidomain, multinational combat environment. It will provide the Army with a range of capabilities with which it can collect, transmit, manage and disseminate data in the contemporary operating environment.

Significant progress has been made in this space as we identify and introduce into service the equipment and systems that will enable our Army to better meet the challenges of an increasingly complex and uncertain security environment.

What are the easiest and most challenging aspects of your job?

The smoothest was, without question, having the support of incredibly competent commanders and staff at all levels across the Army. We really are fortunate with the caliber of people within the Army, and having the opportunity to lead them was both humbling and an honor.

With respect to the most challenging aspect of my time as the chief of the Army: the COVID-19 period, and the Army’s decisive commitment to our nation’s COVID-19 response, which was significant. [The pandemic had] wide-ranging impacts on the Army — mostly negative.

Challenges with retention, the generation and maintenance of individual and collective capabilities, and the effective introduction into service of new equipment, vehicles and infrastructure have all been impacted. A lot of work took place in the last 12 or so months to give energy, purpose and direction to the Army’s post-COVID-19 regeneration, but we still have some ways to go.

Without question, the toughest thing to deal with has been how environmental factors have, in a relatively short space of time, impacted the number of experienced professionals within the Army. For the vast majority of our command and specialist appointments, we can’t recruit directly and have to attract, train and retain these people.

In the last three years our Army has lost some absolute treasure due to disillusionment with our role during COVID-19, a lack of operational deployments, and external employment opportunities offering more variety and significantly better remuneration.

Commanders at all levels, both within Army and across the New Zealand Defence Force, have worked hard to shift the dial in this space. We are now seeing the results of that effort. It is, however, a circumstance we won’t quickly recover from and are going to have to remain focused on.

How is the hiatus on training and operations that took place during the pandemic still affecting the force?

We are still able to provide the government with immediate response options across the spectrum of conflict, should it choose to commit the Army to an operational theater. Sustaining those commitments for an extended period is problematic because of the gaps we currently have, post-COVID-19, in key specialist, trade and command appointments.

What is foremost on your wish list for the Army, in terms of personnel and equipment?

With respect to personnel, the chief people officer, with support from across the New Zealand Defence Force, including the Army, is leading a range of initiatives reviewing remuneration, conditions of service and allowances. Landing this effort and then resourcing it accordingly will not be easy, but it has to happen, and it has to happen quickly.

From an equipment perspective, giving real momentum to the Network Enabled Army, Protected Mobility Capability and soldier modernization programs will both enable aging capabilities to be replaced and ensure the force is equipped to operate effectively in the contemporary environment.

How does the Army contribute to the defense of its Western allies?

The New Zealand Defence Force is a combat-capable military force, trained, equipped and ready to respond every hour of the day, every day of the year. We contribute to international peace and security and the rules-based order through deployments of importance to New Zealand.

The New Zealand Army has a bilateral service cooperation plan, dubbed Plan Anzac, with the Australian Army. How has that impacted your force?

Plan Anzac reflects a broader defense relationship, one that is open, based on mutual respect and is enduring. It reflects the value of land power to both nations, and the value that interoperability between the Australian and New Zealand armies brings to combined joint operations.

The agreement makes sure both armies can work as efficiently as possible, complementing each other’s capabilities and capacity. It provides a focus and framework to take ongoing conversations and engagements between allies and mates, and then formalize these to improve existing cooperation.

We are able to better share lessons across capability development, doctrine for training, and many other areas related to the generation and — in the New Zealand Army’s current case — the regeneration of land combat capability.

Is the New Zealand Army’s culture at risk amid Australian input, or vice versa?

We have much more in common than we have differences, but we will always be who we are as Kiwis. And our Aussie mates will always be who they are. Ultimately we are a pretty potent mix and always the better off when we come together in pursuit of a common cause.

How will the military recover from attrition and a lack of experience before the next conflict breaks out?

The New Zealand Defence Force recognizes it will take some years to fully recover the workforce due to the time needed to train suitably qualified and experienced personnel. Despite this, the program to retain, recruit and reenlist people is showing dividends, with the regular force’s attrition reducing from over 15% this time last year to 10.3% as of Feb. 29, 2024.

Over the past year or more, specific targeted payments to critical trades, and a general forcewide retention payment, have been made as part of a range of initiatives to address attrition rates. These payments have been largely funded from unspent personnel expenditure. When facing workforce challenges, steps need to be taken to address them, so prioritization has been given to critical areas of need across the New Zealand Defence Force.

Are the public and politicians adequately aware of national security threats?

New Zealand is becoming more aware of the geostrategic challenges that we face as a nation. Without question, various agencies of government have a key role to play in monitoring and advising security threats. But equally it is important to recognize the role that other institutions play, such as academia and the media.

Is the military making the best use of domestic industry and academia?

Like anything we do, there is always room for improvement. The New Zealand Defence Force’s relationship with both industry and academia is no different and will only keep going from strength to strength, given the mutual respect and positive engagement that occurs between all parties.

How does climate change affect the balance between training for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and practicing for combat?

The primary focus of the Army’s training is and always will remain combat. Forces led, trained and equipped for combat can rapidly adjust to the requirements of support operations when the need arises.

Who are your heroes?

My family. They have sacrificed so much to allow me to serve for as long as I have and in the way that I have. I owe them a debt of thanks that I’m not sure I can ever repay.

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

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