Irish neutrality is ‘over’ and Defence Forces are ‘vulnerable’, Finnish military expert claims

Lieut Gen Esa Pulkkinen urges investment in Republic’s Air Corps, Naval Service and cyber defence

The era of military neutrality for nations like Ireland is “over” and significant investment in the Defence Forces will be required if the State wants to defend itself from changing threats, Finland’s senior defence official has said.

Lieut Gen Esa Pulkkinen, a retired former senior officer in the Finnish military, said the lack of investment in the Irish Army, Naval Service and Air Corps has left the country “vulnerable”.

Those vulnerabilities are coming into greater focus with the “world order is in flames” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He said Ireland needed to be able to monitor its seas and airspace and, given the economy is so dependent on technology, there should be capability to identity and respond to cyberthreats.

Lieut Gen Pulkkinen was a member of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which examined the state of the military, determined where investment was required and assessed the threats to the Republic before publishing its report 12 months ago. He believes Irish spending on defence needs to be doubled or trebled.


“The Irish deserve that,” he said of proper investment in defence and security. “Irish people deserve to have a good and proud Defence Forces; not too big, but reflecting the level of your society. You are part of the Europe Union and the European Union it is not neutral. It has already taken a very strong stand to support Ukraine.”

Lieut Gen Pulkkinen, now director general of defence policy at Finland’s ministry of defence, spoke to The Irish Times in a week when it emerged that the strength of the Defence Forces had fallen below 8,000 personnel for the first time. The membership of 7,987 is some 1,500 personnel short of what its strength should be.

The LE Róisín and LE Niamh last week became the latest two vessels to be mothballed because the Naval Service does not have enough personnel to crew them, leaving just four ships available to carry out patrols. Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin said the move would not impact the capability of the Naval Service, though military sources strongly disagree with that appraisal.

Lieut Gen Pulkkinen said a lack of resources within the Naval Service and Air Corps represented a serious “vulnerability” for the Republic. He agreed that, at present, if a significant threat emerged – such as the presence of a hostile nation’s military in Irish airspace – Ireland would be dependent on Britain’s Royal Air Force responding to investigate or, in an extreme scenario, take more lethal action.

Defence Forces officers also remain very concerned that Ireland does not have primary surveillance radar to monitor the country’s airspace, which they describe as “basic” technology.

Asked what Ireland’s defence vulnerabilities were and how they should be addressed, Lieut Gen Pulkkinen said: “Provide your Defence Forces with sustainable and reasonable long-term funding, that’s one of the vulnerabilities you have inside your military.”

Due to the changing security climate – with a much more aggressive Russia and cyberthreats coming from teams of hackers backed by rogue states – he believed “traditional neutrality is over”. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said all countries had to “adapt” in their preparedness to defend themselves, starting with being able to monitor their seas and airspace.

Lieut Gen Pulkkinen said the consequences of the war – higher inflation, increased fuel and energy prices, and millions of displaced Ukrainians – demonstrate how “everything could be weaponised… food, energy, human beings”. This, he said, underlined the need for a “strong and agile” Defence Forces.

In reply to queries, the Department of Defence said that since the commission’s report was published last year a number of measures have been implement to help retain Defence Forces personnel. This included “significant improvements in pay and allowances for new recruits” as well as a tax credit for Naval Service personnel.

It said the Government had recently announced “a record allocation of €55 million” towards investing in Defence Forces buildings this year. Furthermore, the Naval Service would take delivery of two inshore patrol vessels from New Zealand by the middle of this year.

It said an increase of 10 per cent in defence funding in the budget “demonstrates the Government’s continued commitment to ensuring that our Defence Forces are equipped with modern, essential equipment” to “fulfil a multitude of flexible roles in an ever changing world”.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times