Dwindling numbers: The Defence Force is experience a high attrition rate, which is depleting its units and ranks.
The army’s attrition rate has risen above 15% and units and ranks are being severely depleted as more soldiers leave the Defence Force.
New figures for the army’s attrition, obtained by the National Party, show that in the year to August 2022 the attrition rates was at 17.4%, significantly higher than the 7.9% forecast to June 2023, and leaving some army trades with 25% fewer staff.
Defence Minister Peeni Henare provided assurance the Defence Force remained capable of responding to emergencies. But National’s defence spokesman Tim van de Molen said the attrition rates across the military required an urgent plan from the Government.
“There are some fundamental issues around the operational readiness of our defence, and if we don’t address this urgently, then we are going to struggle to deliver the outputs,” he said.
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The army attrition figures show certain trades within the army had a 12-month attrition rate greater than 25%: combat, combat engineer, and electronic warfare operator. Armoured combat specialists had a 33.5% attrition rate.
Certain ranks within the trades also had high attrition: more than 50% for privates in the armoured division, lance corporals in electronic warfare, and sergeants in the combat trade.
The highest attrition had occurred within the army’s military police, with 62.7% attrition overall.
A single unit in the Navy had attrition of 31.7%. The unit was not unspecified by the defence minister in a response to a parliamentary written question.
Attrition has been rising in the past year, and pay was at the centre of much of the frustration for defence personnel. A 2022 survey of staff found 60% disagreed their pay was fair for the work they did.
A comparison of defence force pay rates with equivalent civilian sector jobs found most were at least 5% below.
“Our Defence Force is very good at plugging gaps and they have been doing that so far … it’s not sustainable. What we need to see is a clear plan from the minister to turn around these attrition issues with greater urgency,” van de Molen said.
He said the Government should better use available funds to increase soldiers’ pay – pointing to the Government spending $5.6 million over three years on an inspector general of defence – and improve conditions including below-standard housing on defence bases.
The Government did allocate $90m over three years for wages in Budget 2022, and has invested to improve defence housing.
“They’re doing some of the work, yes, but actually, what we’re seeing from these attrition numbers is this is an incredibly urgent situation, and we need an urgent response.”
Henare said attrition was at the “forefront” of his agenda, an issue he discussed with the Defence Force multiple times a week.
“We’ve got lots of challenges in defence, it’s one of the forefront matters … It’s a multiple pronged approach to be able to tackle this challenge, and it’s a big one.”
He said the Defence Force had assured him it retained its necessary readiness, including for the upcoming cyclone season in the Pacific.
Chief of Defence Air Marshall Kevin Short was travelling this week and unavailable for an interview. A spokesperson, in a statement, said it was difficult to retain personnel who were attracted to higher pay elsewhere in a strong labour market.
There were “significant impacts” to the Defence Force’s work, though it could still respond “to a range of contingencies” though possibly not in full, the spokesperson said.
Targeted retention payments, “where funding allows” was one policy change hoped to improve the situation, and more funding for wages was being discussed with the Government.