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Tom Clonan: Our Defence Forces are effectively on life-support

Tom Clonan says the government’s new Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces must not delay in tackling the many crises faced in the forces of this country.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

OUR DEFENCE FORCES are in crisis. Exactly two years ago, in September 2018, along with hundreds of other veterans, I took part in a protest outside Leinster House against the low pay and poor working conditions of our armed forces.

I wrote about this unprecedented protest in TheJournal.ie at the time and highlighted the recruitment and retention crisis that confronted our Army, Naval Service and Air Corps.

Two years later, the situation has deteriorated to the point – as predicted – where the Defence Forces capacity to conduct routine operations is gravely compromised.

A dangerous moment

Last week, the naval vessel LE Niamh was unable to undertake a scheduled maritime patrol due to a lack of trained personnel.

This is the third time in recent months that a naval patrol had to be cancelled or postponed due to chronic crew shortages. In addition, a number of our naval vessels – capital assets of the state – have been temporarily mothballed and placed in ‘reserve’ due to crew shortages. This is a national scandal.

Our naval service has an establishment of just over a thousand sailors. These few women and men are required to patrol over 220 million maritime acres of ocean, 15% of the EU’s territorial waters.

With minimal resources, our navy routinely conducts over a thousand boarding, arrest and detention operations of vessels per annum.

Our sailors protect our precious maritime environment, patrolling breeding grounds and protecting fish stocks whilst also interdicting millions of Euros worth of cocaine, weapons and other drugs shipments bound for Ireland and neighbouring EU countries.

The fact that navy ships are now tied up – unable to leave port – represents a boon to international drugs cartels who use our waters as trafficking routes to Europe.

Unfortunately, things are not much better in our airspace. Our air corps is currently operating at just 724 personnel, 162 short of its tiny establishment of 886.

Such is the chronic shortage of experienced aviators and technicians, the Air Corps is no longer in a position to train its own pilots. Helicopter pilots are now being sent to US military bases such as Fort Rucker in Alabama to do their conversion training.

Other junior pilots have been sent to Australia to complete flight training – at enormous expense to the state. This is a grave situation. When a military entity can no longer replicate and generate its own core competencies and skill-sets – when it cannot retain and develop its essential corporate knowledge, it is destined to fail in its mission and ultimately, to fail as a military organisation.

Lack of political will

This is not the fault of Air Corps personnel or the General Staff. The fault lies with successive governments who have failed to pay our service personnel a living wage. The fault lies with a polity that does not understand or value a credible and viable neutral defence.

Despite these limitations, our hard-pressed Air Corps crews still complete hundreds of emergency aeromedical support missions and emergency air ambulance missions annually.

They also transport our Taoiseach and cabinet ministers in considerable style and luxury aboard the government jet. These VIP passengers would do well to consider the poor terms and working conditions of these loyal public servants as they ferry them around Europe in a time of global pandemic and Brexit negotiations.

The Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs – who also doubles as Minister for Defence – should also take a good look out the window of the government jet as they fly through Irish airspace.

We are the only country in the EU that cannot monitor its own airspace by primary radar. Nor can Ireland patrol its own airspace with even the most basic jet interceptors. That function – remarkably – is carried out for us by the RAF.

Despite the fact that 75% of all EU transatlantic air traffic passes through Irish controlled airspace, Ireland has no capacity to secure or monitor this vital air corridor with primary radar. This is a fact that is exploited by Russian military aircraft who regularly enter our controlled airspace to test RAF response times.

For precisely the same reasons, Russian nuclear submarines also are increasingly patrolling in Irish waters, probing our coastal approaches and testing Royal Navy detection and reaction times. The Russians, like everyone else, know that we have almost zero capacity to monitor our airspace or territorial waters.

On the ground, our army is operating under similar pressure. Recent surveys indicate that up to 25% of experienced army personnel are actively considering leaving the organisation.

This is due to the perfect storm of poor pay and long hours – with many working 64-hour weeks as part of a dwindling pool of personnel available for vital domestic security duties in military installations and in sensitive locations such as Portlaoise Prison.

Security – a very real issue

Overseas, our troops are equally stretched, deployed to international conflict zones such as Mali, Syria and Lebanon. This year, due to Covid restrictions, our troops will deploy to these missions with no home leave during their six-month deployments.

Ireland’s White Paper on Defence, updated in 2019, identifies a growing range of domestic and international threats to Ireland’s security. Notable among them is the threat posed by international ‘organised’ crime and its intimate links with domestic and international terrorism.

The drugs and trafficking gangs that are now well established in Ireland have been implicated in scores of horrific murders here – involving torture, dismemberment and execution-style killings.

Weapons smuggled into Ireland by these gangs, from their bases in other jurisdictions have been linked to the murders of members of an Garda Síochána and recently in the murder of journalist Lyra McKee.

The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy has identified linkages between terrorism and so-called ‘organised’ crime as a growing international threat. It poses a particular threat to Ireland – a threat to the security of the state similar to the one posed by paramilitaries here during the Troubles.

This threat is amplified by growing right-wing extremism, Islamist fundamentalism and other radical ethno-nationalist narratives that are gaining traction across the EU.

A properly resourced and remunerated Defence Forces could make a significant contribution to combating this threat in support of an Garda Síochána – particularly in the areas of surveillance and the development of national technical means for intelligence gathering, particularly in the digital and cyber realm.

The White Paper on Defence also highlights the growing and emerging threat posed by hybrid warfare and cyber attacks on critical national infrastructure, intellectual property and data storage facilities on this island.

Cybersecurity

In recent years, our EU neighbours have noted an increased level of cyber attacks – from state actors such as Russia’s GRU – against national assets and the multinational tech and pharma sectors.

Ireland is a global leader in terms of foreign direct investment in these areas. Ireland currently has 54 separate data centres for international tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Unlike other countries, however, Ireland has no credible cyber response. If we value our FDI, we need to act on this deficiency immediately.

For man-made threats, on land, sea, air and cyberspace, Ireland is provocatively weak in defence and security terms. As we enter a period of accelerating climate change, Ireland will also be confronted by a wide range of natural disasters, from severe weather events to rising sea levels.

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In each and every one of these disaster scenarios – including global pandemics – our Defence Forces has a vital role to play in providing aid to the civil authorities.

In June of this year, the government set up a Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces. It has been given one year to report on the strategic direction of our armed forces for the next decade.

The Commission needs to take a robust approach. As Europe’s ‘weakest link’ in defence, intelligence and security terms, Ireland cannot claim to be a neutral state.

The Commission should take a holistic, integrated, multi-agency view of the manner in which our Defence Forces can meaningfully respond to the twin threats of terrorism and organised crime here.

A similar view ought to be taken of the role that our Defence Forces and Reserves can contribute to the emergency response and crisis management required of increasingly frequent climate change-related challenges.

In combination, both of these approaches will contribute to a credible and precious neutral status. But most importantly, if we value a credible defence – which is crucial to our invaluable neutrality – we need to value the people who serve this country in uniform.

At a minimum, the first priority of the Commission on the Defence Forces is a living wage for the men and women whose sacrifices and service won Ireland a seat on the UN Security Council this year. The contribution to the state of Óglaigh na hÉireann needs to be recognised – and more importantly – rewarded.

 

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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