Spanking new ships unable to sail because the navy doesn't
have enough sailors - how is that possible with so many young
people out of work? Geoff Cumming, of The New Zealand
If John Key is genuinely worried about the likelihood of
''boat people'' washing ashore here, perhaps he could look at
the navy's hamstrung capacity to patrol our seas instead of
expecting it to trim millions from its budget each year.
It's easy to sheet home the navy's staffing woes - which have
kept half its patrol fleet tied up at Devonport for much of
the past year - to Wellington. The Government is certainly
the most popular target of contributors to online forums,
many of whom show inside knowledge of the issues affecting
the three defence forces (army, air force and navy).
But responsibility goes wider - to the way the Defence Force
bungled its response to the Government's cost-saving drive
and to a sea of simmering issues denting morale, which all
crashed ashore at once.
The detritus of the wave of change which landed in 2011 left
the navy short of experienced sailors in critical positions.
Though 168 naval staff were made redundant under Defence's
''civilianisation'' project, hundreds more left voluntarily
in the 2011/12 financial year. By June, annual turnover in
the navy had reached 22.96% - nearly one in four staff had
left in the preceding 12 months.
As a consequence, HMNZS Wellington, one of two new offshore
patrol vessels, has been tied up at Devonport since June.
Only two of the four inshore patrol vessels (IPVs) have been
in service at any one time and have spent fewer than their
target days at sea, because of staffing issues.
Despite unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds running at
18.5%, no quick fix is in sight. The shortages are in
critical areas, including engineering officers, technicians
and watchkeepers where lengthy training and experience are
required. Indeed, 18 Australian sailors are now helping to
plug gaps in the ships' complements.
It means the huge taxpayer investment in the reshaping of the
navy - the Project Protector fleet - is unable to meet
expectations. The $650 million purchase of the six-strong
patrol fleet and multirole vessel Canterbury stemmed from the
Labour Government's decision to realign our defence forces to
reflect modern realities: peacekeeping and emergency
response, regional (Pacific) security, and keeping our vast
economic zone secure from threats - including fisheries
protection and border security.
With the Orion fleet of six patrol aircraft also at reduced
strength while upgrading continues, it means surveillance of
our exclusive economic zone is well shy of desired levels.
The heightened risks are wide-ranging: increased illegal
incursions by foreign fishing fleets, rule breaches by our
own fishing companies, biosecurity breaches and the signal it
sends to asylum-seekers and drug-runners that they have
little chance of detection should they wish to sail our way.
Then there's politics - if we expect Australia to watch our
back in regional security, we need to at least carry out the
limited functions we commit to. These regional
responsibilities also (theoretically) extend to helping our
Pacific neighbours safeguard their economic zones.
The patrol fleet's current availability is not just breaching
the navy's own targets - it is a fraction of the target set
in 2002 by government agencies which are the fleet's main
customers, including Customs, Conservation and Fisheries.
Citing the greatly increased need for surveillance and
detection, the agencies settled on annual targets of 1371 sea
days for surface patrols and 2000-3000 hours' flying time for
Project Protector was conceived with these agencies' needs in
mind. Before the fleet's commissioning in 2010, the navy
anticipated having ships on the water for up to 840 sea days,
an average of 140 days per ship. But, in 2011/12, it set a
reduced target range of 534-590 days for the inshore patrols
and achieved only 397 days. One inshore patrol ship, the
Hawea, spent just 59 days at sea, or 43% of its target.
The Government's response was simply to lower the targets for
2012/13 to a range of 484-585 sea days for the inshore
patrols. That the offshore vessel HMNZS Wellington has been
tied up since June confirms staffing issues are continuing to
limit the navy's capabilities.
Nor are the Orions meeting targets, flying just 1553 hours on
EEZ patrols last financial year against a target of 2250
None of the ''partner'' agencies will publicly express
concern about our unguarded waters. The most telling comment
is from the National Maritime Co-ordination Centre, which
last year described the navy's availability as ''adequate''.
The fishing industry is not so acquiescent.
Seafood NZ spokesman Don Carson said the industry relied on
monitoring and enforcement of regulations to convince
overseas markets we were fishing sustainably. Diminishing
global fish stocks were increasing the likelihood that
foreign fleets might risk venturing into our waters, Mr
Carson said. Any lessening of surveillance would be
Fisheries researcher Glenn Simmons said the shackles on sea
patrols added to the evidence that ''fisheries surveillance
is a joke''.
''Foreign charter vessels are out of control,'' Mr Simmons
said. His research sparked the government clampdown on
charter fleet employment abuses.
''There's no oversight and no enforcement. They dump as much
[unwanted catch] as they can.''
Lance Beath, a former Defence staffer now with the Centre for
Strategic Studies in Wellington, said New Zealand needed to
meet realistic targets and maintain a presence in Pacific
waters to show it was pulling its weight in regional
''And if they are not out there as much as they should be,
that obviously has impacts on training and capability. Why
would you buy new ships and not put them to sea?'' He said
the reduced operational capability had a perverse outcome -
helping Defence to meet its savings targets.
The arrival of the seven ships had been expected to revive
moribund naval morale, ending years of frustration over
budgetary restraint and outdated ships and equipment. The
navy's changing role promised more action of the type that
attracts recruits: chances to travel, to be physically
active, to perform valuable roles in emergencies, to gain
experience with other countries' forces and ships.
But enthusiasm waned as delivery dates blew out and, when the
ships were accepted, they had multiple defects. The delays
led to a spike in departures as officers trained for the new
vessels lost patience.
Then came the civilianisation project, which followed a
government edict to Defence to trim $350 million to $400
million from its budget by 2014/15. This came after a ''value
for money'' review led by former State Services Commission
head Rod Deane, and a government white paper in 2010 which
proposed a suite of cuts and savings. Part of the drive was
for Defence to retain the savings to put towards the huge
upcoming costs of ships and other equipment due for
replacement in the next 15 years.
Civilianisation meant converting many military positions to
civilian appointments with lesser allowances and conditions.
The Defence Force identified 1400 positions, mostly ''back
office'' administrative posts and logistics and training
roles for civilianisation in 2011. But it did so without
identifying how many military posts it would need to retain,
an Audit Office inquiry released this month found.
Halfway through, Defence discovered it needed more military
staff overall. Although it moved to scale back the project,
it was too late.
''NZDF always intended to reduce the number of military staff
through the civilianisation project but has lost far more
military staff than intended,'' Auditor-general Lyn Provost
''The loss of so many military staff ... has made it more
difficult for the NZDF to do its job.''
Across the three services, 500 people were made redundant,
two-thirds of them uniformed (front-line) staff, former
defence minister Phil Goff told Parliament last year.
But up to 1500 more left voluntarily, disillusioned at the
handling of the process. There were complaints of selection
bias. Those who valued job security and signed 15-year
contracts felt betrayed.
The Audit Office report hints at the damage done to ''the
bonds of camaraderie, integrity and commitment'' that are
part of military culture and the resulting impact on morale
and staff turnover. The navy had even warned Defence that its
workforce was about right and that being forced to reduce
military staff increased the risk of not being able to put to
sea. The army and air force also expressed reservations.
In 2011/12, turnover in the navy doubled ''from a manageable
11.25% at the start of the financial year to an unsustainable
22.96% at year's end,'' the Defence annual report said. The
shortages of trained personnel began to significantly limit
operations early last year. The shortages were in ''several
critical specialist areas essential to the safe and effective
operation of the ships.''
But civilianisation was just the final straw for many.
Turnover had been an issue for more than a decade, with the
navy's justifiable practice of training recruits in skilled
trades such as engineering, and paying tertiary education
costs, leaving it vulnerable to the higher pay rates
available in the private sector. Australia's mining boom,
bringing companies here in search of recruits, lured more to
On top of the problems with the new ships, pay became an
issue. Staff went four years without a pay rise until last
year, when cost savings from the civilianisation project
allowed an adjustment. But it was not evenly distributed
(senior ranks got most) and, in some cases, conditions and
allowances (including superannuation entitlements) were
''It was a case of giving with one hand and taking away with
another,'' Labour's defence spokesman, Iain Lees-Galloway,
Those with a longer-term view point to societal changes. Gone
are the days when school-leavers eyed the navy as a 30-year
career, although the job security, while reduced, was still
an attraction. Weeks at sea on overseas deployments had
downsides for married couples and those raising families:
temptations to step back into ''civvy'' life grew over time.
For women, who now comprise a third of the naval workforce,
issues of sexual harassment and assault, equal opportunities,
maternity leave and pregnancy duties still cause some
friction, an Equal Employment Opportunities survey found.
Mr Beath said staff retention was a regional problem, with
Australia's Defence Force looking to plug its gaps by
recruiting New Zealanders.
But on top of all the push-pull factors, civilianisation was
like a dambuster. The impact of the loss of senior hands goes
beyond the inability to put ships to sea. Those left talk of
the pressure of increased workloads, covering for several
vacancies and of safety fears arising from young recruits
being promoted beyond their experience levels.
Defence has raised the possibility that one or more of the
ships could be sold.
From the horizon, it might seem that our navy lurches from
storm to storm with few sustained periods of fair weather.
This could be explained by media focusing on the storms.
But Defence was keen to emphasise things had moved on from
''the dark days'' of late 2011. Turnover had fallen - though
it was still a worrying 18%. Last year's pay rise was a
government acknowledgement that the squeeze had gone too far.
Sources said though morale could be better, it could be
worse. They talked of the pride that came with doing
meaningful work for their country - rescuing yachties,
responding to Pacific cyclones or the Rena grounding. Our
sailors maintained an international reputation for their
abilities and enthusiasm in such crises, even if their
equipment sometimes limited their capabilities.
Australian officers had been warmly welcomed; part of a
reciprocal arrangement which would give New Zealanders
opportunities to gain experience on Australian ships. Many
ex-Royal Navy sailors had been recruited and there were
exchange arrangements with Canada. Mr Beath said the healing
military relationship with the United States should allow
more exercises with the world's biggest navy.
Vice-chief of the Defence Force, Major-general Tim Keating,
says HMNZS Wellington was due for recommissioning in April
and a third inshore patrol vessel would go back to sea in
June. The fourth would be engaged in training.
Maj-gen Keating said the navy was moving away from ''sea
days'' as a performance measure and was discussing with
government agencies how to better employ the ships. Instead
of having an IPV at sea for 200 days ''going up and down,
hoping to bump into something'', it might be more effective
to target use of the ships to operations and areas where
illegal activities were known or suspected to be taking
place, he said.
''We have great people - we want to use them smartly.''
But what will do most for staff retention and morale, as Mr
Beath pointed out, was getting ships out to sea.