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An Irish soldier in training.

Senior army officer slams government defence plan as 'catastrophic' and 'act of self-harm'

Lt Col Conor King has written a scathing assessment of the government’s major 2023 defence strategy.

THE GOVERNMENT’S PLAN for defence is “inadequate” and will not deliver the required capability for the State to defend itself, a senior military officer has said. 

Lieutenant Colonel Conor King, writing for Irish security think tank Azure Forum, has launched a scathing assessment of the Government’s strategy to transform the Irish Defence Forces into a modern force. 

King, who is the general secretary of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, also said that military personnel are not buying into the transformation plans and still leaving in numbers.

He has also made strong criticism of a proposed “gagging order” in the new Defence Bill proposed by Minister for Defence Micheál Martin. This would block military representative bodies from criticising policy decisions by Government.

“If allowed, this will have a catastrophic impact on Defence Forces morale and retention and would be a major act of self-harm,” he said. 

His most detailed criticisms are focused on the transformation strategy which originated out of the Commission on Defence Forces report – which is a study that found Ireland was near to defenseless.

That document had based its recommendations on three Levels of Ambition (LOA) – with the status quo of poorly functioning military capability at LOA One, while LOA Three would be the highest level.

That would require a massive injection of funding over multiple years to bring Ireland in line with the capability of other nations in Europe.

King believes that the Government’s selection of the middle ground is “inadequate” and is causing more harm than good. 

“In the end, the Government perhaps unsurprisingly decided to opt for LOA Two to attempt to address priority gaps in our current capabilities to defend Ireland’s sovereign interests, serve on high intensity missions abroad and contribute to national resilience and security.

“The Government chose LOA Two in the knowledge that, according to the Commission, this would not deliver the capability required to develop full spectrum defence capabilities on a par with other sovereign European countries,” he said.

King said that the reported annual defence budget increased to €1.21bn in 2022 and €1.23 bn in 2024 with an annual capital spend of €176m in each year.

“Although this has been hailed as a record capital spend provided to Defence, it is coming from a very low base, and Ireland still spends, and appears set to continue to spend, the lowest amount on defence in the entire European Union (EU),” he said. 

That statement is backed up with by figures released by the EU

Conor King Lt Col Conor King speaking at a United Nations event. RACO RACO

LOA Two, he said, is designed to fill the immediate gaps in capacity – with an increase of 2,000 personnel to a total of 11,500.

King said this would provide for a range of fixes to the current staffing crisis including double crewing of naval ships, increasing staff resources for a number of units and providing the resources required to “undertake the necessary human resources and command and control structural reforms”.  

However he said that military personnel are not confident that it will deliver the desired effect. 

“Since the Commission reported in February 2022, Defence Forces strength has fallen by a further 1,000 personnel, to its current low of approximately 7,500 all ranks.

“This suggests that not all members have bought into the transformation effort, and this will require listening to ‘employee voice’ to ensure buy-in, rather than sidelining it,” he added.

The officer said that the Commission’s own estimate of the cost of a step up to LOA Two, is an annual increase of some 50%, which translates to €1.5 billion per year.

The step up to LOA Three, which he claims is the only viable route to protect Ireland adequately is €3 billion euros. This estimate is based on what other “comparator countries” spend.

King believes the gradual move towards the bare minimum “LOA Two by 2028 “arguably ignores the significant destabilising developments” in geopolitical security precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ultimately King believes much work has been achieved to date arising out of the Defence Action Plan and said there are signs of “green shoots of recovery”. He made particular reference to the increased allowance for sailors working at sea in the Irish Naval Service.

Despite that the officer said that the positives are outweighed by a sense of too little too late.  

“The most important Key Performance Indicator, and measure of whether employment policies and conditions of service are attractive and effective is the strength of the organisation,” he added. 

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