Army bosses have been told to go ahead with a restructuring which will boost the role of territorials, even though the law required to make the change has not been passed.
The instruction has brought a warning from Labour, saying the military needs to operate in accordance with the laws passed by Parliament.
A leaked memo on territorial restructuring includes orders to categorise troops in a way intended to build a leaner territorial force able to carry a greater load.
The memo was passed to the Herald by officers concerned about the reorganisation, which will see six battalions merged initially into two then three company-sized groups.
It told army bosses the Defence Amendment Act 2011 was "yet to be passed but in anticipation, and in accordance with Cabinet direction, this directive is to be applied as if the legislation was in place".
Army Reserves director Colonel Jon Broadley said the NZDF needed the law change before it could actually put the changes into effect.
The memo was intended to brief commanders on how to categorise their troops while the actual changes would have to wait for the law change.
"We are going to need the legislation before any action is done," he said.
He said concerns about the number of reserves reducing were unfounded. The current reserve numbers of 1850 people would see 1350 broken out as "ready reservists" who were actively training. The remainder would stay on the reserves list but have a lower level of involvement.
The leaked memo told commanders to rank more highly those reserves who have qualified on battle skills, weapons training and fitness levels in the past year. It warned about "an initial overhang of personnel who cannot be fitted into the new unit structures" or officers who "cannot be accommodated at that rank level". The third company unit would take the overflow, it stated.
The plan will see the nation's territorial army made leaner and carry a greater load following a review which urged greater use of reserves to get the best value out of the defence forces. It will dismiss the "weekend warriors" label, as territorials face greater training requirements and more challenging roles on operations.
It comes after the role of the reserve force was raised in the 2010 Defence White Paper and reviewed in 2011 in a report led by retired Major General Lou Gardiner. His report stated: "Defence Forces composed of predominantly Regular Forces have become prohibitively expensive". It found "costs could be saved" by using more territorials on operations.
Labour's defence spokesman, Iain Lees-Galloway, said he was concerned the changes appeared to be under way while the Defence Act amendment hadn't been passed by Parliament. "It's reasonably typical of this Government's contempt for the rule of law and democracy," he said.
"It is a very dangerous precedent for the Government to authorise the military to act outside the law and to act in a way which usurps Parliament's authority."
Mr Lees-Galloway said potential sticking points in the Defence Act amendment included changes to the chain of command, which would remove the ability of air force, army and navy commanders to appeal to the minister. The proposed changes would see everything run through the Chief of Defence Force.
RSA national president Don McIver, a former NZ Army Chief of General Staff, said it was "unfortunate" the battalions were being merged into the new units but the reasons were clear.
He said defence chiefs had pledged to keep the proud histories of those battalions alive in the new structure.
"Given the constraints they are working with, it seems to me that the choice that has been made is the best choice under the circumstances."
The Army Reserve is the part-time component of New Zealand's Army. Current intake requirements are:
Aged 17 or over.
Have completed at least three years of secondary school.
Have a proven ability in English and Mathematics at NCEA Level 1 (8 credits per subject) or equivalent, as a minimum depending on trade preference.
Be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident and have lived in New Zealand for at least five years.
Source: NZ Army