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Armed forces

by Jim Rolfe

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.

Historical overview


New Zealand has had its own armed forces since the early days of European colonisation. The first unofficial military organisation was the Kororareka Association (1838–40). Local volunteer forces were established in the early 1840s but were disbanded when the Militia Ordinance 1845, which authorised the raising of compulsory militias to supplement imperial (British) troops, was issued. Imperial troops were stationed in New Zealand from 1840 to 1870.

Militia men

Under the Militia Ordinance 1845 all able-bodied European men aged between 18 and 60 could be called out for compulsory training or service within 25 miles (40 kilometres) of their town. Militia service was unpopular because the pay was low, and communities and families suffered economically when their men had to leave paid work to attend. Militia forces saw active service during the New Zealand wars, and the last force – the Taranaki Militia – was released from service in 1872. Militias were never used again but provision for their use remained in legislation until 1950.

Volunteer units were established during the New Zealand wars. The first permanent military force was the Colonial Defence Force, which was active from 1862. This was replaced by the Armed Constabulary, which performed both military and policing roles, in 1867. After being renamed the New Zealand Constabulary Force, it was divided into separate military and police forces in 1886. The military force was called the Permanent Militia and later renamed the Permanent Force.

In 1910 the Territorial Force was established, replacing Volunteers. This reserve force formed the foundation of the army. By then, the Permanent Force had evolved into the Royal New Zealand Artillery. This, along with the Royal New Zealand Engineers and the New Zealand Staff Corps (who were in charge of the Territorial Force) became the army’s professional, permanent centre.

New Zealand naval volunteers were first formed in the 1860s. The New Zealand Naval Forces and a New Zealand branch of the Royal Naval Reserve were established by the Naval Defence Act 1913. The first warship (HMS Philomel) was purchased in 1914. This was followed by the formation of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in 1921 and the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1941.

New Zealand’s air force has its origins in the gift of an aircraft to New Zealand by the United Kingdom-based Imperial Air Fleet Committee in 1913. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force was created within the army in 1923, and the name was changed to the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1934. It separated from the army in 1937.

Compulsory military training and conscription

Compulsory military training (CMT) began in 1911 and formed the basis of the Territorial Force. During the First World War the compulsory scheme was, in effect, replaced by conscription for overseas service from 1916. CMT continued after the war, but budget restrictions limited its scope and it was suspended in 1930.

Conscription was reintroduced early in the Second World War. During both wars, conscription was used because the number who volunteered did not match the needs of the war effort.

CMT was introduced again in 1949 but could not meet the technical needs of the navy and air force, and produced more servicemen than were required for the army. The scheme ended in 1959 and the strength of the Territorial Force declined almost immediately. By this time the balance had shifted from amateurs to professionals. Large-scale warfare was now unlikely, and highly trained permanent or regular forces were needed mostly for more localised conflicts overseas.

A more limited form of national service (selective conscription by ballot) was introduced in 1961. This ended in 1972. The Territorial Force became a voluntary reserve service which supplemented the regular, professional force.


During the First and Second world wars, the armed forces expanded to meet the needs of global warfare. In the Second World War 194,000 men (67% of those aged between 18 and 45) and 10,000 women served.


The armed forces diversified over time. Compulsory training initially did not apply to Māori, but some had volunteered for the Volunteers and Territorial Force. A small contingent of Māori fought in the First World War, but it was not until the Second World War that Māori participation became more prominent.

As Māori moved into the cities after the war, their proportion in the armed forces increased and they became moderately overrepresented compared to their proportion of the general population. In 2011 Māori comprised 17% of the regular force (compared to 14.6% of the general population in the 2006 census).


Women served as nurses in the First World War. In the Second World War women’s roles diversified, though no women actually fought. After the war women’s armed services were retained but participation was low – around 4–5% of the forces in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over time more branches of the armed forces were opened to women and separate women’s services ended in 1977. However, human-rights laws reserved the right of the armed forces to give preferential treatment on the basis of gender in relation to combat roles. The Human Rights Commission Act 1977 and the Human Rights Act 1993 both contained particular provisions which allowed this discrimination. These provisions were repealed by the Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Act 2007. By this stage, restrictions on women’s service had already been lifted by the New Zealand Defence Force – the change in law reflected an existing change in practice.

By 2000 all restrictions on women engaging in combat had been lifted. In 2011, 16% of the regular forces were women.


Homosexual acts between men were illegal in New Zealand until 1986. During the first and second world wars, members of the armed forces found to have engaged in homosexual acts were imprisoned for disgraceful conduct and then ignominiously discharged. From 1950 most were discharged from the forces without prosecution.

The Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 decriminalised homosexuality, but the armed forces were exempted from its provisions. Discrimination based on sexuality in the armed forces became unlawful after the passing of the Human Rights Act 1993. The chief of defence force approved the establishment of an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) support group in 2011.

Contemporary armed forces

Three forces in one

The armed forces are based on the three military services – the Royal New Zealand Navy, the New Zealand Army and the Royal New Zealand Air Force – and their respective reserve (part-time territorial) forces. Combined, they make up the New Zealand Defence Force. In 2020 the force comprised some 9,350 regular (permanent and full-time) servicemen and women, 2,700 reservists and more than 3,000 civilian staff.

Armed forces’ best friend

Animals have made an important, unarmed contribution to the armed forces’ activities. Horses were the most prized animals during the First World War, though donkeys were also very useful. Their contribution was symbolised in Horace Moore-Jones's well-known watercolours depicting a soldier with his donkey, painted around the time of the First World War. Dogs and pigeons have also been used. Dogs still formed part of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s team in the 2000s, taking part in security patrols on bases.

Conditions of service

The minimum age for serving in the armed forces is 17. Applicants must have at least eight credits in NCEA level one English and mathematics and be either New Zealand citizens or permanent residents of at least five years standing – or have been citizens of Australia, Canada, the United States or the United Kingdom for at least 10 years. People who do not meet this citizenship test can be enlisted if they satisfy other criteria, but they cannot serve overseas.

War veterans who have a disability related to their service may be eligible for a veteran’s pension.


Regular armed-forces personnel are employed in over 100 trades within each of the three military services. Trades include plumbing, hospitality and engineering. Some personnel become officers and have management responsibilities.

Orderly appearance

Members of the armed forces must conform to rules pertaining to appearance. Men’s hair must be no longer than 15 millimetres above the collar and no shorter than a No. 2 comb. Sideburns must be trimmed and no longer than the middle of the ear. For women, those with short hair must wear it at least 15 millimetres above the collar and long hair must be tied so it sits at the same length. Hair must not be visible on the forehead when a beret or hat is worn.


The Royal New Zealand Navy is tasked with the maritime (sea-based) defence of New Zealand and has peacekeeping and security responsibilities overseas. It is based in Devonport, Auckland. In 2011 the navy had 1,923 regular and 312 reserve personnel.

The navy is divided into different forces:

  • the combat force – two Anzac-class frigates, HMNZ ships Te Kaha and Te Mana
  • the support force – fleet replenishment vessel HMNZS Endeavour and multi-role ship HMNZS Canterbury
  • the patrol force – off-shore patrol vessels HMNZ ships Otago and Wellington, and in-shore patrol vessels HMNZ ships Rotoiti, Hawea, Pukaki and Taupo.
  • the hydrographic survey force – HMNZS Resolution
  • the mine counter-measures force – diving support ship HMNZS Manawanui.

Routine operations occur throughout the South Pacific and South-east Asia. In the 1990s and early 2000s naval personnel served further afield in Bosnia–Herzegovina, Israel, Korea, East Timor and Afghanistan.


The New Zealand Army is an integrated force of regular and reserve (territorial) soldiers and is responsible for the land-based defence of New Zealand. Troops also serve overseas. Army camps are located in Papakura, Waiōuru, Linton, Trentham and Burnham. In 2011 the army had 4,457 regular and 1,859 reserve personnel.

The army has three main components:

  • the New Zealand Land Training and Doctrine Group (Waiōuru)
  • the 2nd Land Force Group (Linton)
  • the 3rd Land Force Group (Burnham).

The Land Training and Doctrine Group is responsible for army schools of instruction and training. The two land force groups act as administrative headquarters for command and control purposes.

In addition there are four force troops:

  • the 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Group (the SAS, based in Papakura)
  • the 1st New Zealand Military Intelligence Company (Trentham)
  • the 1st New Zealand Military Police Company (Trentham)
  • the 1st New Zealand Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron (Trentham).

Top secret

The 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Group – more commonly known by the acronym SAS – is the elite combat unit of the armed forces. Its purpose is to undertake, in the words of the New Zealand Defence Force, ‘unconventional warfare’.1 It was established in 1955. The SAS predominantly carries out missions overseas, though soldiers are trained to support police in the event of a New Zealand-based terrorism incident. The work of the SAS is highly secret so New Zealanders know few details about the missions. Some light was shed on the unit’s activities when member Willie Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2007, for bravery while serving in Afghanistan.

The army’s major equipment includes light artillery, light armoured vehicles and limited engineering equipment. In 2011 major overseas deployments were to Afghanistan, Solomon Islands and East Timor.

Air force

The Royal New Zealand Air Force engages in air-based patrols and operations in New Zealand and overseas. It is based in Auckland, Ōhakea and Woodbourne. In 2011 the air force had 2,378 regular and 197 reserve personnel.

The air force lacks air combat capability following a decision by the government not to purchase new fighter jets and to disband the Air Combat Force in 2001. Instead, the air force focuses on:

  • maritime patrols: six P3K Orion aircraft, introduced in 1966 and upgraded to P3K2 standard from 2011
  • fixed-wing transport: five C130 Hercules aircraft and two Boeing 757 aircraft
  • rotary-wing transport: eight NH90 and five AgustaWestland A190 helicopters, introduced in stages from 2011.

Other services include air power doctrine (the study of air power and how it can be used), aeronautical standards and safety, and aviation medicine. The air force manages parachuting training for the armed forces.

In the 2000s, the air force’s largest overseas operation was in East Timor.


Governance of the New Zealand armed forces

Defence Act 1990

The Defence Act 1990 gives the legal basis for the armed forces and their activities. The act affirms both the Crown’s prerogative to raise and maintain armed forces and the principle of ministerial authority over the armed forces. The act establishes the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and defines the respective roles of, and relationships between, the minister of defence, the chief of defence force and the secretary of defence.

Purposes of the armed forces

Under the Defence Act 1990, the armed forces are raised and maintained for the following purposes:

  • defending New Zealand and any area which New Zealand is responsible for defending
  • protecting the interests of New Zealand anywhere in the world
  • contributing forces under security treaties and other collective arrangements
  • contributing forces to the United Nations (UN), or in association with other organisations or states in accordance with the UN Charter
  • assisting civil powers during emergencies in New Zealand or elsewhere
  • providing any public service.

Constitutional authority

The governor-general is commander-in-chief of New Zealand and presides over the executive council. As such, he or she is constitutionally the supreme authority in defence matters in New Zealand. The governor-general exercises powers only on the advice of the minister of defence and all other ministers of the Crown.

Change of hats

In August 2011 Jerry Mateparae, the former chief of defence force, was sworn in as New Zealand’s governor-general. This harked back to the 19th century, when governors were mainly military men.

Political authority

The minister of defence has the power of control, but not of command, of the NZDF. Command is exercised through the chief of defence force.

There are checks and balances with respect to political authority. The minister may authorise in writing the use of the armed forces to provide public services in connection with industrial disputes. The minister must inform Parliament of that authorisation.

Assistance by the military to non-military authorities to aid law enforcement must be authorised by the prime minister, or next-most senior minister, acting on information supplied by the commissioner of police or deputy. Any assistance provided by the armed forces remains under the control of the police, and the authorising minister must inform Parliament of the authorisation.

Military authority

Higher command and control of the armed forces is exercised by the chief of defence force through chiefs of staff of each of the three forces, from Headquarters NZDF, which is located in the same building as the policy- and procurement-focused Ministry of Defence. Operational control of all operational forces is vested in the commander joint forces. Chiefs of staff for each service are responsible for employing, training and ensuring the military readiness of staff, but have no operational role.

Bureaucratic authority

The Defence Act 1990 established a Ministry of Defence headed by the secretary of defence (chief executive). The ministry is responsible for the formulation of defence policy, major equipment procurement, and the audit and assessment of Defence Force functions, duties and projects.

UFO files

Members of the public can access the Ministry of Defence Unidentified Aerial Sightings – or, as they are more commonly referred to, Unidentified Flying Objects or UFOs – files. The first batch of files, which date back to the 1950s, was released in 2010. The files contain eye-witness accounts of alleged UFO sightings, many complete with sketches. They are available for public viewing at the Defence Force Library at Defence House in Wellington.

Relationship between the NZDF and Ministry of Defence

The chief of defence force and secretary of defence have both separate and shared responsibilities. The shared responsibilities require the secretary to formulate advice in consultation with the chief of defence force and from time to time undertake a defence assessment, including a review of different options for achieving the government’s policy goals. In practice, the two officials and their respective organisations work closely together over the full spectrum of defence policy and operational issues.


In the early 2000s the armed forces were funded at around or just below 1% of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP). This was $2,911 million in 2011–12 – around 3% of government spending. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, defence spending has declined from between 1.5 and 1.6% of GDP to the current levels.

Partnerships and international deployments

Alliances and partnerships

During the Cold War struggle between capitalist and communist countries (1945–91) New Zealand developed military alliances and relationships with a number of countries. The main relationships were with Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The ANZUS defence treaty was signed between New Zealand, Australia and the US in 1951. In this period New Zealand’s armed forces fought in Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam. The ANZUS alliance effectively came to an end after the 1984 election of a Labour government which did not accept the Cold-War premise of nuclear deterrence (a policy of stockpiling nuclear weapons in the belief that this would deter other countries from using theirs first). New Zealand refused entry to an American warship (on the grounds that it might be carrying nuclear weapons) in 1985, and banned visits by nuclear-armed or -powered ships in 1987.

Sport and politics

In late 1979 and early 1980 New Zealand armed forces were part of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The purpose of this force was to monitor the ceasefire between Rhodesian security forces and the African nationalist Patriotic Front group. At first the Patriotic Front objected to New Zealand joining the force because the national rugby team, the All Blacks, had played rugby in apartheid-era South Africa. These concerns were allayed when it became known that Māori soldiers were part of New Zealand’s force.

Since then, New Zealand has entered into partnerships which provide many of the benefits of alliance without the formal commitment this entails. The armed forces continued to work with the United States despite the end of the formal ANZUS alliance, and have always remained close with the Australian forces. The armed forces’ capabilities have been maintained at a level that allows them to function effectively in low-level military operations. They have very limited capacity to fight in conventional inter-state war.


The armed forces have participated in United Nations and other international efforts to ensure security and stability in the international arena since the 1950s.


Between 1992 and 2007 New Zealand contributed observers, liaison officers and (from 1994 to 1996) a 250-person infantry company to international missions in Bosnia–Herzegovina and Kosovo.

East Timor

New Zealand armed forces were deployed to East Timor in 1999 as part of an Australian-led mission. Troops remained there until 2012, At different times New Zealand contributed a battalion group (more than 500 soldiers), helicopters and military observers. One army soldier was killed while on patrol in 2000 – New Zealand’s first combat death since the Vietnam War.


New Zealand armed forces were deployed to Bamyan province in Afghanistan in 2003 as part of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), and remained there until 2013. The PRT provided security in the province, advised and supported the provincial governor and identified development projects. Special Air Service (SAS) personnel have also worked in Afghanistan. Eight soldiers have been killed by enemy combatants while serving there, and two have died in non-combat situations.

Solomon Islands

Alongside Australia, Papua New Guinea and Tonga, New Zealand troops were part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which was formed at the request of the Solomon Islands government in 2003. The mission was considered necessary following a period of riots, internal conflict and a breakdown in governance. the RAMSI mission ended in 2017.

Other deployments

In 2011 members of the New Zealand armed forces also served in Egypt, the Middle East, Sudan, Iraq, South Korea, the United States, the Cook Islands, Malaysia, Singapore, Tonga, Vanuatu, Antarctica and Bahrain.

Other significant deployments in previous years included to Bougainville, Cambodia and the Arabian Gulf.

Non-military tasks

As well as their clearly military operational roles, the armed forces undertake other tasks as required by the government.

International politics: Fiji, 1987

Following the first Fijian coup in 1987 and the hijacking of an Air New Zealand aircraft at Nadi airport, Prime Minister David Lange directed the armed forces to prepare to send a team of Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers to Fiji. The requirement was later upgraded to military personnel sufficient to protect New Zealand’s interests.

Because of the coup, the defence leadership considered the use of the military in these circumstances to be problematic, and delayed acting on the prime minister’s instructions on the grounds that the Defence Council rather than the prime minister should give such directions. The hijacking was overcome before the troops could be deployed, but the incident left a pall of mutual suspicion between the prime minister and the defence leadership.

Community aid: Canterbury earthquakes

Following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the New Zealand Defence Force assisted in the response and recovery effort. Surveillance aircraft, helicopters, warships, troops and base support facilities were all employed.

Cooking in bulk

One crucial but less obvious contribution by the armed forces in the wake of the 2011 Canterbury earthquake was the provision of food. In one 24-hour period, an army catering crew produced 1,646 breakfasts, 1,893 lunches, 2,009 dinners and 600 midnight meals.

Responding to natural disasters is not a role for which the armed forces train, but it is one that they are capable of undertaking because of their equipment and skills. The armed forces routinely also support international disaster operations, through, for example, the use of transport aircraft to move stores and people to a disaster area, the provision of images of the affected area, and search-and-rescue activity.

Supporting scientific activity: Antarctica

New Zealand’s Antarctic research programme has been supported by the armed forces since 1956 through the provision of search-and-rescue support, naval and air transport, terminal operations in New Zealand and Antarctica, ship offload operations and support to the programme’s Scott Base. At any time during the summer and winter seasons, between 20 and 60 personnel may be involved in Antarctic activities.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jim Rolfe, 'Armed forces', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jim Rolfe, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012, updated 1 o Āpereira 2020