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Five mile sniper: On the hills of north Cork with Irish troops and NATO evaluators

The evaluation of Irish artillery is part of a European wide NATO military effort to make all armies capable of working together.

Moving into position: Irish soldiers deploy 105mm artillery guns during the NATO evaluation.
Moving into position: Irish soldiers deploy 105mm artillery guns during the NATO evaluation.
Image: Irish Defence Forces

THE MOORLAND OF north Cork was knee deep in mud as intermittent rain drenched the green painted faces of dug-in Irish troops. 

For decades Irish soldiers have trained on the high uplands of Kilworth ranges, located just off the old Cork to Dublin road between the towns of Fermoy and Mitchelstown. 

Back down the hillside from the wide expanse of gorse-covered mountain hillside is Lynch Camp, where the troops base their training and equipment. 

The laughs and banter of the Irish accents were mixed with foreign voices on the day The Journal visited. There are a host of European uniforms from Germany, Czech Republic, Austria and other locations and even a US uniform mixing with the various men and women. 

It is a hive of activity, orders being given, vehicles coming and going, troops readying their kit for a reconnaissance mission, the tinny sound of radio traffic and Irish soldiers dressed for battle. 

Among the command posts, around maps and equipment are yellow vest wearing soldiers taking notes with a distinctive patch on their arms. These are, uniquely in an Irish setting, NATO assessors.

They were in north Cork to assess the basic capabilities of Irish soldiers and their use of artillery fire support in complex missions with foreign forces. 

One of those assessors is US Navy Commander Sam Mason – Mason now works in the Netherlands as part of the European command of NATO.

Mason is on loan from the US military and is working as part of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) – the NATO command.

He sat down for a brief chat with The Journal to explain his role and why NATO was in Ireland.

“I’m here with an international team of evaluators and training to conduct a NATO evaluation level one.

“This is the culmination of a series that units throughout Europe will go through in order to ensure that they are interoperable with other NATO units. And it’s guided by a program called the Operational Capabilities Concept evaluation feedback program. It’s a standardisation across NATO, essentially.” he said. 

52501295127_054c4ee44c_o Irish army officers directing artillery operations. Source: Irish Defence Forces

Mason said he and his NATO colleagues were assessing the Irish army’s ability to perform in tandem with international armies.

“It provides certification at level one and that is really a jumping off point for further progress but it ensures a baseline standard of interoperability.

“That’s the buzzword that we use but essentially, it encapsulates this idea that we’re speaking the same language.

“In general, we’re using the same doctrine in general, our equipment can mostly work together with the intent being if I needed to pluck a unit from another country, you fill in the blank, and put it into a larger hierarchy, a larger structure of multinational military units, it would be able to play nice with others.

“So that’s the baseline standard that we are looking for,” he explained. 

Evaluation

It is not the first evaluation – the Army Ranger Wing has already gone through the process with an exercise in Cork Harbour. 

The Irish representative on the OCC team is Commandant Daire Roche who explained Ireland’s military connections with NATO.  

“It’s part of a program that is for partner nations within NATO. And Ireland is a partner, nation and a member of a program called Partnership for Peace, which is known as PFP.

“Ireland joined PFP in 1999, along with a number of other countries. And at the moment, I think there’s over 50 nations involved,” he said. 

Roche said that the NATO model of military standards was seen as best practice across the world and the OCC process was designed to bring all partner nations up to the same level. 

“It’s a program for partners within NATO. And it’s basically about helping those partner nations come in line with international best practices, which are recognised within the military world as being NATO practices.

“NATO is recognised as the benchmark for best practice at a military level. And this program is about ensuring and helping partners come in line with those high standards,” he said.

Most of the troops involved in the exercise are drawn from Cork’s Collins Barracks but other soldiers have been plucked from units from Athlone to Limerick and other locations to join with their colleagues for the 72-hour exercise. 

52502248270_3f6a9cb9a2_o Lt Col AP Keohane, commanding officer of One Brigade Artillery Regiment. Source: Irish Defence Forces

The leader of the hundred or so men and women under the NATO spotlight is Lieutenant Colonel AP Keohane – a hugely experienced military leader from west Cork.

He is the officer commanding One Brigade Artillery Regiment which is divided up into several different groupings known as batteries. For the exercise one of those batteries, known as Papa Battery, is being assessed. 

The scenario Keohane and his troops are being assessed on is one that they may experience on peacekeeping duties in places such the Middle East, the Balkans or Africa.

They are providing artillery support to an Irish contingent on a peace support operation – the evaluation, he said, studies the battery operations and the command and control methods used by the Irish troops as they deal with various threats. 

“This evaluates how the pieces interact between what we would call the supported arm commander, or if there was an Irish battalion commander and how we would support him on the ground with this battery.

“The battery is deployed in that overseas type formation, which, obviously, with our own long history of peace support operations and overseas missions, it’s bread and butter, really,” he added. 

Keohane and his troops were training for the assessment for approximately a year and a half in total but it was much longer than that in total with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the troops to take on special roles assisting the State response.

The assessment process began in earnest in December 2021 when a NATO team came to visit Collins Barracks. This was then followed with a self-evaluation in June and then the final examination was held at the start of November. 

Keohane said that the NATO evaluation was akin to a professional body undertaking an ISO standards test.

He speaks of the preparations much like the manager of a sports team about to take on a championship game. He said that the troops under his command have done extra hours to get up to the standard.

“You’re upping the ante to where you’re arriving at an exercise like this, where the soldiers are as ready for this exercise as if we were deploying them into a real operation.

“And I suppose that was really the context I gave my staff and my soldiers, I said to them, ‘we’ll prepare for this if this was a real operation, and that way, we will be interoperable’.

“Most Western forces are meeting that standard now. So we, as the Irish Defence Forces, strive to be the best that we can, and we’re ready to do it.

“So it’s been a long road, a lot of training with two intensive training periods and I’ve no doubt as the regimental commander, that the battery commander and his team, if we deployed them for real on a peace operation with the United Nations, that they will be able to do the job based on the standard of training they’ve come to,” he added.

Down range

The Journal headed up the hill to the artillery crews where they had set up their six 105mm guns. 

The range of the weaponry is 17 kilometres – an approximate reach that would be the equivalent of the distance between Dublin city centre to Terminal One at the Airport.  

The crews were concealed under dense camouflage netting and using the clumps of gorse bushes to hide from the gaze of would-be enemies. 

52501602144_5205e1ebdf_o Gunner Ivan King, who has responsibility for sighting and shooting the gun. Source: Irish Defence Forces

Heavy rain had battered the site leaving rivers and huge quantities of standing water but members of the Engineering teams from Collins Barracks had set up a specialist metalwork roadway to help secure the site.

Chatting to the soldiers there was a lot of camaraderie between them – they were all highly motivated.

All of the troops we met spoke of their hopes for greater funding and an expansion and recruitment in the army. 

They also expect greater more focused funding will bring in more advances in their equipment. 

One of those was Gunner Ivan King, from Ennis, Co Clare and with just two years service in the Defence Forces he was the soldier tasked with pulling the trigger. 

Before pulling the lever King must line up the gun with sights that are aligned with natural features and nearby road signs used as a point of reference. He defines his job as a “five mile sniper”. 

The similarities of the warfare experienced in Ukraine is not lost on this observer with artillery a key feature of that conflict.  

Leading the six gun crews, and the officer with responsibility for identifying the co-ordinates to shoot at, was Lt Joe Everett.

Everett’s office for the 72 hour long exercise is the flatbed of a truck acting as a command post. There he takes in data gathered by dug in reconnaissance troops of enemy activity.

Using maps, computerised devices, protractors and a pencil with a piece of string attached he can calculate the trajectory and location where his gunners need to land their rounds of ammunition. 

He said his job was to get troops out of trouble but also to provide fire before troops move into take over ground. 

52502049279_11f809b41b_o Lt Joe Everett. Source: Irish Defence Forces

“When the full battery fires it is something to behold, it is exhilarating and especially for the gunners on the ground when they are getting six rounds fire for effect. 

“It shakes the ground – we have two systems the 120mm mortars and the 105 guns here. I prefer the mortars myself because it kicks into the ground but when you have a full battery firing like here there is quite a vibration when you are firing multiple rounds.

“This evaluation is an acknowledgement of what we have been doing over the years and what we do on the ground I would consider us one of the best.

“We didn’t have to change much, we are for the most part already NATO compliant. Bringing in these NATO accessors and showing them what we can do – it is nice to have that acknowledged,” he said.

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