Story: Armed forces

New Zealand’s armed forces were first established in the 1840s. They expanded considerably during the First and Second world wars. In the 2000s the armed forces had limited combat capacity, but played an important role in international peacekeeping operations and other activities such as disaster relief.

Story by Jim Rolfe
Main image: Army engineers desalinating water, Christchurch, 2011

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Establishment of armed forces

Volunteer armed forces were set up in the early 1840s, but disbanded when the Militia Ordinance 1845 allowed compulsory militias to be organised to support British troops.

Volunteer forces were established during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s. A permanent military force was set up in 1862.

The Territorial Force was set up in 1910 to replace volunteers.

There were naval volunteers from the 1860s. The New Zealand Division of Britain’s Royal Navy was established in 1921 and the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1941.

The air force was originally part of the army. It became the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1934, and separated from the army in 1937. In the 21st century the air force had no air combat capability.

Compulsory military training and conscription

Compulsory military training – meaning all boys and men had to train as soldiers for a period – was introduced in 1911. It was abolished in 1930 but was reinstated from 1949 to 1959.

Men were conscripted for overseas service in the First and Second world wars. The armed forces expanded during these conflicts – 194,000 men and 10,000 women served in the Second World War.


In 2011 Māori made up 17% of the armed forces (compared to about 15% of the population).

Women served as nurses in the First World War. They played a greater role in the Second World War but did not fight. By 2000 restrictions on women in combat had been lifted. In 2011, 16% of the armed forces were women.

Armed forces today

The Royal New Zealand Navy, New Zealand Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force make up the New Zealand Defence Force. In 2020 there were about 9,350 permanent servicemen and women, 2,700 reservists and more than 3,000 civilian staff.

The Ministry of Defence focuses on policy and procuring equipment.

Alliances and peacekeeping

During the Cold War New Zealand joined military alliances with other countries, particularly ANZUS, an alliance with Australia and the US which was suspended for more than 20 years from the mid-1980s.

Since the early 1990s the armed forces have taken part in United Nations and other international peacekeeping efforts, including in the Balkans, East Timor and Afghanistan.

Other tasks

The armed forces also carry out other tasks, including community aid and responding to natural disasters, such as the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The armed forces also work to support New Zealand’s Antarctic research programme.

How to cite this page:

Jim Rolfe, 'Armed forces', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Jim Rolfe, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 April 2020