Editorial: Defence chiefs massacre morale

To fully appreciate the damage done by the Defence Force's bungled restructuring, look no further than the disturbingly high number of personnel who have quit.

In June 2009, recruitment was at a 10-year high as the recession hit home. At the time, unemployment was 6 per cent, and the attrition rate in the forces was 8.34 per cent a year.

By May last year, unemployment had increased to about 6.8 per cent, but the attrition rate across the Defence Force had soared to 21.1 per cent.

A major cause for one-in-five military personnel suddenly walking out on a life in uniform at a time of such economic uncertainty was the so-called civilianisation project the Defence Force embarked on at the end of 2010.

A report by Auditor-General Lyn Provost has laid bare what a debacle it proved to be.

Ordered by the Government to find $350 million to $400m in savings every year, defence chiefs decided to transfer many back-office roles being performed by military personnel to civilians.

The project was to be done over three phases and was projected to save $20m a year.

There were sound principles for the change. Military training is not a prerequisite for many defence roles and it is often generally cheaper to employ civilians to do them.

However, the execution was appalling.

First, the Defence Force failed to ascertain how many military personnel it would need from 2015, before it decided to civilianise 1400 positions. Commanders later discovered that, in fact, a greater number of military staff would be required from 2015 than the Defence Force had before civilianisation began.

As if that was not bad enough, the Defence Force went about the process of telling uniformed staff that they were out of a job in an unnecessarily cold-hearted way. One Defence Force document quoted in Ms Provost's report says letters sent to some personnel were "telling good people they were bad".

Not surprisingly, morale has plunged across all three services.

Worse, as a result of the wholesale shedding of military personnel, the military cannot perform to the level it is supposed to. The most glaring example is the navy's inability to meet its target for the amount of time its four inshore patrol vessels should be at sea. In the 2011-12 year, they achieved just 75 per cent of their scheduled sea days.

The only positive thing that can be said about the disaster is that the damage being done to morale was recognised before the Defence Force went into meltdown. In the end, the project was canned, with just 600 jobs having been civilianised.

Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones, who says he has learnt from the debacle, must now make strenuous efforts to restore the camaraderie and esprit de corps that have been lost. It will not be easy.

The military's rank and file have understandably lost confidence in their leaders as a result of an exercise that had all the hallmarks of a botched military campaign.

It was poorly conceived, badly planned and incompetently executed, with no regard for those who mattered most - the men and women in uniform.

The Dominion Post