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Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Vice Admiral Mark Mellett.
Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Vice Admiral Mark Mellett.
Image: Irish Defence Forces

Outgoing head of Defence Forces says Government cuts to military have caused 'frustration'

Vice Admiral Mark Mellett is set to retire in the coming months from his role as Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces.
Aug 1st 2021, 12:05 AM 36,890 31

OUTGOING CHIEF OF Staff of the Defence Forces Mark Mellett has said that Government cuts to military resourcing have caused “frustration” in the Defence Forces.

In an interview, Vice Admiral Mellett said that there have always been tensions between the military and the Department of Finance when it comes to financing the Defence Forces, with the Defence budget falling as a proportion of spending over the past decade. 

Mellett is set to retire in two months’ time after four decades in the naval service and six years as the top leader in Ireland’s military.

This week he sat down in the Naval Base in Haulbowline with The Journal to talk about his career and the challenges faced by the men and women he leads.

In a wide-ranging interview Mellett spoke at length about funding difficulties, his role as a military advisor to Government, the threat of misinformation and cyber security, and the future for Óglaigh na hÉireann as the State celebrates 100 years.

He spoke passionately of advocating for the serving members of the military but also accepted the frustrations experienced by members in the cuts environment of recent years. 

The Defence budget as a factor of Ireland’s GDP stands at 0.27%, a significant decrease from 2009 when it was at 0.6%. In 2019 it was 0.29%.

Mellett said that the ‘churn’ rate – the percentage of people leaving the Defence Forces prematurely -  is around 10%, and as high as 14% in the Naval Service alone. Both figures are significantly higher than the generally accepted rate of 5% for military personnel for Ireland.

Cuts to Defence

The Journal has reported extensively on the funding problems in the Defence Forces with recent articles on the shortfall in staff at the CIS Corps, a unit tasked with cyber crime, and the inability of the Navy to put ships to sea.

Asked about the impact the cuts and resulting retention crisis have had, Mellett spoke about the pressure on him from all sides. 

“I know the tensions that are there. I know the actual environment that is there, the politics, and I know the pressure I get from the men and women of the organisation who would say [that] I need to do more.

“I know the pressure I get from the politicians who say, I’ve done too much, (that) I’ve overstepped the line, and you know, if I’m being hit from both sides, I know I’m probably getting it just about right,” he said.

Mellett said such attacks go with the territory.  

“Of course, it translates into frustration. Should I change my strategy at this stage? I’m not going to change my strategy. I will retire in two months time,” he said.

Mellett said that the pandemic and the 500 days of work carried out by the men and women of the Defence Forces during it have shown the value of the military to the Irish people and the Government.  

He noted that there was a significant tension between the Department of Finance and the needs of the Defence Forces, not just in recent times but throughout the history of the State.

53rd-infantry-group-exercise Source: Niall Carson

He said his role is to offer advice to Government but said there had been “challenges” for him in making the case for more funding. 

“It (Government) prioritises its resources against the broader playing field in which it looks at where the challenges are.

“I think there’s a litany of [examples] since the foundation of the State of that tension that exists between the Defense Forces and in Finance, for instance.

“And that’s a simple reality whereby the Defence Forces is seen as a cost centre, that it consumes resources, that may well be allocated better elsewhere.

“And that is a challenge for me in terms of making the case [for more funding],” he said. 

Retention Crisis

In regard to the retention crisis, the Chief of Staff said that because of the churn effect there wasn’t an “efficient” return on the investment in training of members.

He accepted the arguments made about pay, that higher wages would insentivise people to stay in the military, but believes that the crisis goes deeper than that. 

He spoke about the problem of losing institutional knowledge as new members leave, taking the lessons learned with them which in turn increases risk.

“But the issue is not about the starting pay, the issue is about the actual retention and the attractiveness of of remaining in the organisation where individuals can go to their bank and get a mortgage, and that they can actually have that security of tenure in the Defence Forces,” he said.

Mellett said he believes the new Minister for Defence Simon Coveney when he says he is  committed to better financing Oglaigh na hÉireann.

49320376168_09b44cecdc_o The LÉ Eithne with other naval vessels on exercise. Source: Irish Defence Forces

Castlebar to Haulbowline

The Castlebar man joined the Naval service in the late 1970s, and has made a steady and purposeful rise through the ranks since he was commissioned in 1978. 

He joined the navy in 1976 in Haulbowline Naval Base in Cork Harbour having been introduced to sailing while in the Reserves (known then as the FCA). He trained in the Curragh and then with the Royal Navy before returning and starting work as a junior officer onboard a naval vessel.

His naval career is a whistlestop tour of some of the most extraordinary events in recent Irish history. He worked in Bantry Bay at the Betelguese disaster as divers searched the sea bottom for bodies.

He was onboard the LE Eithne mapping the debris field above the Air India disaster site – watching on the sonar as the beacon of the black box sounded.

Mellett says he is a firm believer in the use of naval vessels as a tool for diplomacy and to bring Ireland Inc to the world, and he has travelled on board the LÉ Eithne to the US and South America over the years in that diplomatic role.

His first command was on the LÉ Órla, which had a previous life as a coastal patrol vessel in Hong Kong.

It was during this period that he developed a tactic which would play a major role in fishery protection work and drug interdiction. It involved keeping the naval vessel hidden over the horizon and two rigid inflatable boats would monitor the target vessel.

That tactic was used to launch surprise boarding of vessels so that fish catch numbers could not be faked but also proved very effective when Mellett and his crew made a giant haul of drugs in operations targeting organised crime smugglers.

In July 1993, off the Kerry coast, two tonnes of cannabis resin, worth €25 million, were found after a boat was intercepted by Mellett and the crew of the LÉ Orla.

The naval boarding party found a computer on board that brought about the demise of a British linked organised crime group.

He describes being part of a NATO mission, when he was dispatched to Afghanistan to help make the elections in the country free and fair, as one of the highlights of his career. 

In taking over the role as Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Mellett believes that was a sign of a shift away from the traditional army dominance of the Irish military apparatus.  

30450615625_9c797f6edf_o Vice Admiral Mellett with troops on a training exercise. Source: Irish Defence Forces

Future

He believes that the future for the Defence Forces does not rest alone with the infantry on the ground but the new battlespace of cyber.

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He believes the current Commission on the Defence Forces will recommend a hybrid command structure that will enable the Defence Forces to meet that threat. 

“This is not about just creating a cyber defence capability for its own sake, this is a resource that gives us a strategic response with depth.

“And it could be built around a mixture of the permanent Defence Forces, and the Reserve Defence Forces.

“It would need a Cyber Reserve whereby you could create this resource that can be in the time of extremists and respond to the threats to the State.

“A link to that, obviously, is the professionalisation in terms of an intelligence service within the Defense Forces, which is something we’ve advocated for, and also an intelligence school,” he added. 

Mellett’s successor will be Major General Seán Clancy who is currently Deputy Chief of Staff (Support). 

Mellett said his advice to Clancy is: “He will have all those (critics) gathered at the rows who will be looking on and with a view on everything and an opinion on everything, but they neither have the responsibility nor the authority nor the understanding. At the end of the day, he will draw on his decades of experience and bring that to bear in the context of his day to day activities.”

And for Mellett himself, what does the future hold?

The Vice Admiral holds a PhD in environmental governance and is likely to pursue his interest in that area.

He referenced, a number of times in the interview, that Cork Harbour and the surrounding coast was set to see a boom in renewable energy with massive off shore wind farm.

“(It will be a) counter stroke, to the potential impact of climate breakdown.

“In short, the whole renewable industry, the maritime renewable industry in particular, and given that I have an understanding of the Marine, I have the education in terms of ecosystem governance. And I understand the actual opportunity in terms of renewables, that that’s the space that we’re born into,” he explained. 

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Niall O'Connor

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