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Ireland's response to the HSE cyber attack has been undermined by Government cuts to Defence Forces, say senior officers

The Defence Forces unit tasked with solving the problem is struggling due to recent cuts.

Irish Defence Forces IT experts on duty in the Curragh.
Irish Defence Forces IT experts on duty in the Curragh.
Image: Facebook

A HIGH RANKING senior military source and a former high ranking army officer have launched a stinging criticism of the State’s capability to respond to the massive HSE cyber attack due to government cuts. 

The senior source and Dr Cathal Berry, a former officer in the elite Army Ranger Wing and an independent TD, said that the fight back against the hackers has been undermined because of a failure by Government to properly resource the Defence Forces unit tasked with solving the problem.

The military’s cyber defence capability is contained within the Communications and Information Services Corps (CIS).

They are tasked with many jobs in the Defence Forces, including the operation of radio systems and IT networks, and have a number of cyber defence specialists. 

They are seen as a key part of the State’s response to dealing with the HSE hacking. 

However, the CIS has suffered massively during the cuts to the Defence Forces which have taken place since 2013, including the loss of a whole company, numbering more than 50 soldiers, The Journal has learned

In the midst of the HSE ransomware attack, the health service requested help from the military to combat the assault on its network and the CIS provided a specialist team to work with the HSE and co-ordinate activities, a senior Defence Forces source said. 

This team is a key part of the operation to fight the hacking, and has set up “an IT specialist situation centre to track cyber activity, provide IT and cyber security support [and] help re-establish the HSE IT network,” the source said. “This involves ‘re-imagining’ 90,000 computers [by] wiping, cleaning and reinstalling software.”

The senior Defence Forces source, who cannot be identified as they fear retribution for speaking up, said the response to the cyber hack has been greatly undermined by Government’s slash-and-burn approach to funding the military.

They described how despite having a designed strength of around 200 enlisted personnel, roughly one-third of these positions are currently vacant, while almost another third are on overseas deployments – leaving a depleted number of roughly one third of what it should be. 

“Our capabilities, while niche and very proficient, are very limited in terms of the size we can assist the HSE with [due to the cutbacks and vacancies],” the source explained. 

Dr Cathal Berry said that the nation’s response to the HSE hack has been “completely undermined” by the Government’s lack of commitment to retain highly qualified members of the Defence Forces in roles such as cyber security.

Like the senior source, he described how the Defence Force is struggling to retain highly-trained soldiers due to funding cuts, which has impacted its ability to deal with the HSE hacking. 

He said that the CIS Corps “has been completely reduced in effectiveness  – it doesn’t exist, it’s just a collection of individuals, because the unit that was there has lost so many talented people”. 

“The Government is not behaving ethically or morally or honorably. They are continuing to act in bad faith,” Berry said. 

The Government had, in July 2019, agreed to raise technical pay for experts like IT specialists.

It formed part of a €10 million euro package for the Defence Forces but it has not been delivered, according to Dr Berry.  

“The soldiers have completely lost faith in their employer, the Government, and it leaves them wondering have [they] really made the right choice in staying there.

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“They just have had enough because the way they are treated by the Department. The issue is not their treatment by the Defence Forces, it is the Department and Government.”

Cathal Berry Source: Cathal Berry

“They are leaving because they can get better employment elsewhere. These are patriotic people who want to serve their country but it has come to the point where that has become impossible.”

He called on the Government to honour the pay agreements made and to waive a pension abatement. 

“We do a lot of giving out about Boris Johnson backsliding, but our Government is doing the same.

He said that some former members may consider re-enlisting, but only if the “core issues” of how they have been treated by the Government is addressed. 

In response to a query the Department of Defence refused to comment.

“As we do not give out operational strengths of the CIS for operational security reasons, the Department has no comment to make,” a spokesperson said.

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