Defence Paper presents appalling vista

The White Paper on Defence could send the Defence Forces into terminal decline

The White Paper on Defence could send the Defence Forces into terminal decline. This will cause little pain to those who don't appreciate the necessity for Defence Forces. It is an appalling vista for those of us who appreciate the real damage being proposed by those who know little and seem to care less.

The draft has been prepared by civil servants in the Department of Defence. In its present form it sets up Defence Forces weakened by the deafness issue for the coup de grace. In preparing this draft the Department of Defence has apparently ignored the input of the military management and the representative associations.

As such the draft is shoddy. It is, however, transparent in that it is perfectly obvious that the results of the paper were listed first and the body of the paper then fashioned to fit the predetermined outcome.

In these circumstances it is perhaps opportune to put forward a military view of the exercise.


In 1994 the government commissioned a root-and-branch examination of the Defence Forces. This was taken on by the consultants PriceWaterhouse, who employed a Canadian-led military team to assist them. Arising from this, a Defence Forces Reorganisation Implementation Plan was produced by a joint military-civil service team in the Department of Defence.

This became the government decision of March 5th, 1996. The essential elements of the decision were that the Defence Forces were to be reduced from 13,000 to 11,500. A decision to sell unwanted barracks was also taken. These cuts were made to fund a major re-equipment programme for the forces.

But PriceWaterhouse indicated that this would be necessary because of the serious lack of equipment. Indeed, they also felt that there would be a necessity for an additional initial injection, given the fact that the forces had been so under-resourced in the previous 25 years.

Needless to say, none of this happened. The Department of Finance grabbed 50 per cent of the savings, and what equipment was purchased was provided in slow motion and grudgingly when pressure built up. Now with our emerging enhanced role in Europe and increased responsibilities there is a pressing requirement to deliver on equipment. The simplistic answer in this draft is a further cut of 1,000 personnel.

A sovereign nation requires a defence force to underwrite and affirm its existence as such. It is part of the infrastructure which provides a secure base for the development of industry and trade. This is very well understood in most developed countries, but not in Ireland. Defence forces provide a kind of insurance policy for the state.

The military, in peacetime, has traditionally sought 14,000-strong Defence Forces; the Departments of Finance and Defence 6,000 to 8,000. Who is correct?

It is difficult to be definitive, but there are international standards of measurement. These include a cocktail of ratios involving population, national wealth, geopolitical position, foreign and security policy etc.

An easy measurement is a ratio of defence spending to GNP. Ireland's is 0.8 per cent and has been falling steadily since 1990. The European average is 1.7 per cent. Once we have Defence Forces of adequate strength, trained for their main role, other everyday services become available as a spin-off. These include peace-support operations, aid to the civil power, fishery protection and search-and-recovery.

The government decision in 1996 was to have Defence Forces of 11,500. During my time as chief-of-staff the minister for defence accepted the 11,500 ceiling. He promised automatic continuous recruitment up to that ceiling. He did this on TV, in media briefings and in talking to troops. He did not keep that promise.

Instead the Department of Defence allowed the strength to fall to 10,900. The Minister now wishes to bring the ceiling down from 11,500 to 10,500, a cut of I,000. In putting this across he says it is a cut of only 400.

He also promised that the 1,000 cut would pay for equipment needs. That was the 1996 promise. The Defence Forces have already been fooled, not once but twice. It is difficult to see them being fooled a third time.

Comparative statistics are interesting. Denmark is of similar size to Ireland. Its economy is similar. It is a member of NATO. It is a member of the EU. Its defence forces number 29,000, but its defence civil servants number 62.

Ireland's Defence Forces number 10,900 and falling. The number of civil servants is 440.

In 1996, following discussions between the assistant secretary of the Department of Defence and myself, a ceiling of 850 for soldiers serving overseas was recommended. This became the agreed government response to requests for peace-support operations.

This number was set against a background of the then age profile and medically unfit categories. The intention was that once these impediments had been rectified by the reorganisation then under way, the number would be increased to about 1,400. Nothing has happened.

Currently Irish troops deployed overseas are at this ceiling. The White Paper now attacks the 850 limit. It says inter alia that our biggest mission is UNIFIL in Lebanon and that such missions are on the wane. While this may suit the predesignated cuts, it simply is not true.

Missions vary in intensity, and following the Helsinki summit we are promising troops for EU crisis management operations. EU members must earmark 50,000 troops. Even if Ireland was to be responsible for only 700 of these, such numbers will now be impossible to raise. What the White Paper now tries to do is denigrate UNIFIL, hoping to switch the troops saved to fulfil our new responsibilities. Even if they succeed in that they will still have to equip these troops.

EU peace-support operations, unlike UN missions, require the contributor to bring his own equipment and to pay for his own running costs. The incompetence and parsimony of the past will soon come home to roost.

What happened to the Air Corps and Naval Service? We have been waiting for four years for the report on them. Both were included in the 1994 PriceWaterhouse study, but following an outcry in Naval and Air Corps circles about that report, a second Price Waterhouse study was authorised. I received a copy shortly before I retired in August 1998. Nothing has happened since. It is now to be subsumed into the White Paper.

Medium-lift helicopters and basic training aircraft receive less than full support. On the Naval Service side the 10th ship gets prominent mention, but there is no mention of the fact that it is a replacement for an old ship which is bound for the wreckers' yard.

Conveniently forgotten also is the fact that its armament and crewing levels are not agreed between the Department of Defence and the Naval Service.

THE White Paper was intended by the Government to be a first attempt at having a defence policy for this State. As such it was welcomed by the military and by the representative associations.

Unfortunately it has been hijacked by those who wish to revisit the Defence Forces Reorganisation Plan before it is fully implemented. The military has been completely ignored in the exercise. It will make it very difficult to take ownership of the outcome.

The fact that something like this would happen because the Defence Forces were vulnerable on the deafness issue was predicted by me in an article in this newspaper a year ago. The military, of course, will have to accept whatever the Minister and his civil servants inflict on the Defence Forces.

They are a disciplined body who will obey the orders of their political masters. Their sense of honour and obedience is, of course, an anachronism these days. It is, however, a prerequisite for democracy. It should not be viewed as a weakness.

One can only hope that public representatives of all parties will have the good sense to see this cynical exercise for what it is and take control of the situation. This problem will only fester and get worse unless the military is consulted, and decisive, informed, political action taken.