From Timaru boy to top brass

00:38, Nov 16 2009
Rhys Jones
Top brass: Major General Rhys Jones speaks at the war memorial unveilling at Caroline Bay

Chief of army Rhys Jones is seven months into the job. The former Timaru boy talks to feature writer Claire Allison.

Nine years ago, top brass told Rhys Jones his army career was over.

Now Jones is top brass.

Rhys Jones
Cheif of army Rhys Jones

Major General Jones is seven months into the role of chief of army, with 7500 staff and a budget of about $400 million.

Not bad for the Timaru-born boy who broke the family mould by going into the army.

And not a job even he had in his sights when he signed up after he left school. He jokes that he's the black sheep of the family – the unsuccessful one. But that's more a reflection of the direction he took, rather than any lack of success.


Born in Timaru in 1960, Jones was the son of a Methodist minister and the youngest of a family of nine – six in his immediate family and three half-brothers, the best known of whom is Timaru-based author Owen Marshall.

The family moved around the country a fair bit. Jones attended Wanganui Boys' College and when he left school, spent the next four years at the Royal Military College in Duntroon, Canberra.

"I was always interested in military history and for a long time in a military career."

And while he discovered much later that Owen had been involved with the territorials for a time, Jones had no family tradition to follow.

"There's no military history in my family for a couple of generations. Both my mother's and father's families were farmers during World War I and II, so they were primary producers – none of them served overseas."

So how well was his decision to enlist received?

"Not that well from a father who was a Methodist minister. They were supportive, but I wouldn't say that they were keen for me to join.

"Both my parents left school when they were 12, so for them, education was important. They were happy I was going to university, but would have probably preferred me to become a teacher, or something like that."

The move to Australia to study was a big step towards independence.

"When I joined at the end of 1978, most of the people joining went to officer cadet school in Waiouru or Melbourne. But those eligible for university went to Duntroon."

And while it was an overseas experience, Jones says it wasn't the traditional OE, but rather studying in a military environment and being part of an organisation that took care of its own.

He missed out on the party life that most university students enjoy, but graduated with a bachelor of arts, majoring in politics.

"Although I now describe it as ancient history – it was mostly in communism and Cold War politics."

The focus in the first three years was on study – although the military element was ever-present. Students were in uniform the whole time, and military training was included throughout, including on weekends and during term breaks.

"It was a good way to grow up and become a young adult."

Jones graduated into the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps at the rank of lieutenant. The Armoured Corps suited his style – although he jokes it was because they get to play with the big boys' toys and you don't need to make the noises with your lips.

"I like the technical, equipment side of things, and also the style of operations – it's decentralised, and that suited my style. There's a lot of independence from a junior level. You have to deal with or relate to seniors in other corps from quite an early level. Early credibility and early tactical competence is required. So I thought I'd like to do that."

A number of postings followed – nine years at Waiouru, 10 years in Australia on and off, operational postings in the Middle East and Lebanon; further education in the United States, a masters degree in strategic studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and later, a diploma in qualitative futures.

The variety and opportunity is something he rates.

"You're not going to do the same job for years. Although your career is in the army, it's as if you change jobs every couple of years. When I joined the army, I wasn't thinking in 30 years' time, I want to be the chief. I thought hey, it's an interesting career, I'd enjoy that. When I stop enjoying it, I'll get out. But I'm still enjoying it.

"The whole idea to me is doing something different, taking on a new challenge."

But there was one challenge that almost spelled the end of army life. In 2000, Jones was sent away from New Zealand and told his army career was over. He's discreet about the reasons behind that, referring to "some disagreements with the chief of army at that time" over armoured vehicles.

"I was told I wouldn't be promoted, I'd stay where I was, and was sent to Australia. I was effectively blacklisted. But it was like getting a letter of censure from Hitler ... he (the chief of army) was discredited and the army moved on and they brought me back."

The training he'd done in the meantime, in futures, long-term planning and how to think in a different way, has since served him well.

"I think my reputation is as someone who enjoys thinking 30 years out, creating and shaping the organisation, it's one of the challenges. Most other organisations, they're doing strategic planning two, three years out – for me, we're looking 25 to 40 years out. If we are buying light armoured vehicles, they're likely to be staying around that long.

"Defence comes under a lot of funding and manpower squeezes. Defence equipment is getting more expensive at a fantastic rate.

"We are a conservative organisation operating in a dynamic environment."

Jones is married with three children, and at 49, heads the 14th-largest employer in New Zealand. As chief of army, he has a budget of about $400 million a year, and is responsible for 7500 people. Of those, 5000 are fulltime uniformed soldiers, just under 2000 are part-time territorials, and the remainder are civilians within the army.

"It's a constantly developing job. I could be going out and earning 10 times what I'm earning now in another environment, but I wouldn't get the job satisfaction and enjoyment of what I'm doing here."

That satisfaction comes from dealing with people, and being in an organisation that's well regarded – although that's not always been the case in Jones' 30 years in the military.

"When I joined, we were coming out of the Vietnam era. There was almost the cringe factor. Now, because of what we are doing, in the Solomons, in disaster relief, the feeling and the feedback that we get from the surveys really does show that the army in particular is held in quite high regard.

"Now we can feel quite proud of the good feedback when we are travelling. When I joined, we didn't want to travel in uniform. Now we do it deliberately to show that the military is part of public life."

Public accountability is another difference.

"If I was running a commercial organisation, if I make a mistake, we will lose money. If I learn from that mistake, and do better next year, everyone gets their money back. If I make a mistake in the military, people die.

"So there is huge accountability – not just in the public sector for funding, but I have 7500 lives that I'm responsible for. And that creates the challenge, enjoyment and responsibility that few others in New Zealand have."

For Jones, the biggest group of people he's accountable to are the soldiers who are sent on operations.

"I have to be able to look them in the eye and assure them that we are doing the best for them; the best training, the best equipment that we can get for them."

And the people are the best part of the job.

"The thing I love, and that challenges me, is that you are dealing with people all the time. In every single job, because life's about people. The air force and the navy are about equipment, the army is about people.

"If you are a people-focused person – and that doesn't mean you have to be an extrovert – the army is a fantastic career, because it's all about leadership."

However, he believes it is not for everyone.

"One of the recruiting lines for a while was `have you got what it takes?' It's not just everyone off the street who can do it."

While combat has not been to the fore in recent years, ultimately the army is all about combat.

"We are soldiers first, and we have a particular trade after that. One of the issues that I'm facing now as chief of the army is that for the last decade, we've been involved in Timor, the Solomons, other places, which are almost like high-end policing rather than military operations.

"And because we've been so busy, there hasn't been enough time for the army to focus on core capabilities, the ability to survive in a combat zone, to ensure that we are tough enough and skilled enough to survive in that combat environment."

Jones says the army has a good reputation overseas, and the role it plays is often offshore.

"We don't have a defence policy, we have a foreign policy that defence supports. It's not about defending New Zealand, it's about us supporting a stable global environment.

"The New Zealand Army is seen as being some of the better troops to do that – we have an affinity with others, and don't tend to assume because people have a different skin colour, or a different language, or because they're poor, that they're also stupid."

That sees the army able to move things on from the "heavy shooting bit at the front" into the nation-building phase as soon as possible.

"But we still have world-class capability. Just because we don't, doesn't mean we can't. We have got to handle that tough edge."

Jones' three-year appointment sees him work from Defence HQ in central Wellington.

"One of the things I have to be careful about is sitting in the ivory tower making decisions in isolation. My job is to give the broader direction, and encourage subordinates to make decisions.

"So I get out and about and see soldiers during training, talk to them, ask them, `is what I'm trying to achieve working, is my message getting out there'?"

He believes that individuality is a strength the army has over the other services.

"Every soldier on the ground has to make their decisions. Unlike a ship's captain, who might have 15 to 20 years' experience, someone might have been in the army maybe only a couple of years. So it's more about saying here's the information and what we are trying to achieve, some guidance on what we are allowed to do, and trying to encourage everyone to move in the same direction and make their individual decisions about what's applicable to them.

"It's teaching people how to think, not what to think. The army, of the three services, is probably the one that emphasises education rather than technical training."

With his qualifications, Jones is leading by example. He's rated highly within the organisation as an intellect, and is challenging the perception of the army being the lesser of the services.

"It's clearly not the case, and we are seeing that change in perception now. The army is rating well above the others in its credibility, professionalism and reliability, because over the last 10 years, 80 per cent of people on real operations, that's fallen on the army, so we're the ones that are actually doing the job."

That positive perception is also showing up in recruiting.

"Over the past 10 years, we've not had a problem with recruiting, we've always been pretty full.

"The issue has not so much been recruiting, it's been retention. People get their training and then move out.

"Now my problems are different, because of the current economic situation, less people are leaving. We really want 350 people to come into the army every year – if we've only got 10 new recruits, we're not going to have the new leaders."

Jones will be the army's leader for the next three years – possibly longer if his term is extended to run in tandem with next year's appointment of a new chief of defence force.

He still describes Owen as the successful member of the family, but says all his family can be proud of the fact that their parents, while having little formal education themselves, taught the children how to think.

"Each of us have benefited from that. We're all independent, all able to think.

"When I read Owen's stories, they really click with me, the attitudes and environment of how we grew up. The ethics of the family, a bit of humour, and not self-promotion.

"One of the most difficult things with this job, you're expected to talk about yourself, and I always hate that."

The Timaru Herald