Infantry: A Few Good Men Made Better

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April 19, 2009: Most of news about the New Zealand Army in the last ten years or so has been negative, the major issues being an obsolete inventory of equipment and a manpower shortage that has left the army far below desired strength. In other ways, however, New Zealand’s ground forces are doing better than most would think and have taken major steps recently towards adapting to the new challenges of the 21st century. 

New Zealand is a small island nation with a manpower pool, even smaller than neighboring Australia’s.   Whereas Australia’s military counts 26,000 regular personnel with about 16,000 reserves, New Zealand fields only around two infantry battalions, both of which have to take responsibility for the entire country’s defense and for whatever non-combat and peacekeeping missions the government decides to deploy them on. Pushing aside its traditional conventional defense role, the New Zealanders have begun to get serious about gearing up for the types of unconventional conflicts they are likely to face in the coming decades. New Zealand is also making it clear that they are not simply going to turn into a humanitarian/peace keeping force alone. 

The biggest step towards this goal has been the Army’s establishment of a Combat School, specifically to train their regular infantry battalions in the finer points of counter-insurgency warfare. New Zealand already has its own SAS formation, but this new course is specifically for the regulars. Any major combat deployment (battalion strength or larger) that the country would have to undertake would be bigger than the tiny SAS can handle, and would require regular infantry. 

The Combat School is a week-long course that includes historical lessons on guerrilla warfare, tactical lessons without troops (TLWT), instruction on common insurgent tactics like snipers/IEDs, and culminates in what is called a Battle Efficiency Test (BET), whereby troops are put through a series of combat exercises simulating a counter-insurgency environment. Improvement in marksmanship skills is also emphasized. Unlike preparations for humanitarian operations, the school is based on actually hunting down and engaging insurgents in battle. A common final exercise is to “detonate” an IED in the training area causing “casualties” which have to be taken care of an evacuated, while dealing with hostile civilians. After this, the soldiers are deployed into patrols to track down and eliminate the insurgents in the war game. This scenario enables the instructors to test both non-combat and combat skills that are necessary for fighting unconventional conflicts. 

The goal of the Combat School is to teach the infantry how to find and engage the insurgent fighter on his own terms instead of making the mistake of attempting to draw him out into open battle. The fact that the New Zealanders are taking this so seriously is not surprising, as they have a long history of success in counter-guerrilla theatres. Furthermore, the Army typically trains as it would fight in combat. In Vietnam, their troops quickly gained a reputation as expert jungle fighters, relying more on ambushes and aggressive patrolling than the overwhelming firepower deployed by the Americans. In any case, manpower and equipment shortage or not, New Zealand continues to produce quality troops who know their jobs and do them well.  

 


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