The New Zealand Army is rapidly adapting to 21st century warfare and upgrading frontline technology to be compatible with big brother allies. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer sits down with Chief of Army Major-General John Boswell to talk about how things have changed over his 36-year military career and how today's high-tech Kiwi soldier can make a difference on the global stage.
The unmistakable smell of new carpet triggers conflicting thoughts for Major-General John Boswell.
He remembers when that old carpet at Burnham – a place that still feels like home - was first laid down.
It was around that time, as a young platoon commander, he was posted to Singapore, perfecting jungle warfare and counter-insurgency tactics, using a prismatic compass and Vietnam-era radio.
But like that Burnham carpet, those tactics, archaic equipment and training environments eventually wore threadbare and needed replacing.
Now, the smell of newly laid carpet, with no doubt technologically enhanced fibres, signals the ongoing changes to the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) for its Chief of Army.
Boswell, former Commanding Officer of the storied 2nd/1st Infantry Battalion based at Burnham Military Camp outside Christchurch, is coming up two years in the top job.
He is overseeing some of the biggest changes in the organisation's history, aiming to transform it into a "modern, agile, highly-adaptive light combat force" that can plug in with coalition partners, in particular other Five Eyes nations – United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
New Zealand's future high-tech soldiers will be satellite-tracked and wear linked-up helmet-cams on the battlefield, allowing them to communicate directly with comrades and take orders from officers.
Drones will become "as ubiquitous as section machine guns", while drones, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data are being considered for the Army's arsenal.
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The second tranche of the Network Enabled Army project, backed by a capital investment of up to $106 million rolled out over four years, is underway.
Boswell says the digitising of command and control systems will allow the army to "operate in the information-rich environment that is the contemporary battle space".
"We've got to get this right," he told the Herald during a recent visit to Burnham.
"This is fundamentally important to the future of the New Zealand Army and our ability to be both effective in support of our community, our nation, and globally, but to be interoperable with our partners and allies. And that's tracking pretty well."
Soldiers are getting a makeover, too. The old Multi Camouflage Uniform (MCU) is being replaced by the New Zealand Multi-Terrain Pattern (NZMTP) uniform. Troops on training exercises at Burnham Military Camp last week were seen wearing the new uniforms, similar to those worn by the British armed forces.
There's also a major programme looking at upgrading the army's vehicles, which Boswell says comes as a "direct result of the proliferation" of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used on the modern battlefield, and used to devastating effect during the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although the Covid-19 global pandemic has disrupted many planned training exercises, including the scaling back of Southern Katipo which involves all three services, Boswell says big joint training exercises are still "critically important to us".
Exercises like the recent vast multi-national Joint Warfighting Assessment provide a perfect opportunity for the NZDF to exercise and train alongside its likely partners and allies, and to test interoperability – a key military buzzword that constantly crops up in discussions with top brass across Five Eyes nations.
"The New Zealand Army enjoys a great relationship with the Australians and the Americans based in Hawaii and any opportunity train alongside them is an opportunity for us to confirm our interoperability with them and to demonstrate what our value-add is to a coalition environment, and that's really important," Boswell explains.
He cited the example of the "world-class" digital command and control facility at the US Army's Schofield Barracks on Oahu, Hawaii. Boswell says the NZDF is looking to emulate that with a similar mission command training facility at Linton Military Camp near Palmerston North, which will have connectivity with the US and Australia, as well as throughout New Zealand.
"Therefore we don't even have to leave the shores to ensure that our command and control procedures are appropriate and allow us to easily operate alongside our key partners and allies," Boswell says.
Boswell's also on a major recruitment drive. The NZDF Defence Capability Plan aims to increase NZ Army personnel numbers from about 4700 to 6000 by 2035 – while the Defence White Paper talks about 5150 personnel by 2025.
He thinks the economic fallout from the devastating coronavirus pandemic could attract fresh interest for many in a career in the armed forces.
"It may well be that there is an opportunity in that space that will allow us to progress appropriately along that pathway to 5150 [personnel] by 2025," he says.
Boswell is buoyant about the future of the army. When he took up the Chief of Army post 18 months ago, he came with a clear vision of a helping create a modern, agile, highly-adaptive light combat force.
And he says they are well on track.
"It's really incredibly satisfying and quite humbling to see how we're now starting to attack that plan and realise that vision."