Defence Forces chief on a mission to modernise

Vice-Admiral Mark Mellet emphasises need for co-operation to safeguard State security

Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett has been Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces since 2015. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett has been Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces since 2015. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Breaking down barriers is central to what Mark Mellett sees as his role as Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces.

The obstacles are within the Defence Forces itself and between them and the outside world.

He believes that the way to penetrate these resistant mindsets is through strategic and mutually beneficial engagement with academe and the private sector, on the one hand, and also by the Defence Forces participating – in keeping with government-determined policy – in military initiatives further afield.

Having risen through the ranks of the Naval Service to senior command and taken part in several high-profile operations (including recovery work in the wake of the Whiddy Island oil ship explosion disaster and Air India jet crash off the west coast), Vice-Admiral Mellett, who has a doctorate in political science, began to think more than a decade ago about leadership on a larger playing field.

“What makes institutions collaborate?” he asks. “I began to get a sense of why diversity and innovation were good and why silos and egos were bad.”

It is to Mellett’s prescient good fortune that he assumed overall command of the three branches of the Defence Forces – the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps – at a time when budgetary pressures at home and threat trends abroad pointed towards greater collaboration as the key way to mitigate risk.

“Increasingly, the answers to our challenging problems lie outside our organisational boundary,” he says. “Where you have an acceleration in the growth of technology, and new ways of doing things, you really have to be looking outside your organisation for a couple of reasons.

“First, to remain apace with those developments and, secondly, if you are not doing it, you won’t see where the next shock is coming from.”

Looking relaxed but energised, Mellett spoke in the officer’s mess at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin.

“The military have challenging problems to which we need to drive solutions . . . But if you partner with academia, who are looking for real world problems [and] who actually work with you in partnership, and then the win, win, win is when you have an enterprise outcome from that whereby there is a job creating spinout or an SME that comes out of it.

Mellett declined to confirm a much reported foiled attack on Ireland’s electricity network

“If we play this right, that will help shift the Defence Forces being seen as a cost centre, closer to being an investment . . . that could be driving as a profit centre.

“That is what I see the future as.”

Hybrid warfare looms large in the threats he identifies facing the country. Implicit to this form of struggle is the potential for a malign third party to take down critical national infrastructure through cyberattacks (Mellett declined to confirm a much reported foiled attack on Ireland’s electricity network).

“I would be foolish not to have a concern with regard to vulnerability of critical national infrastructure. So therefore, one priority for the remainder of my term is, first of all, a double-pronged strategy in terms of cyber – to ensure that we continue to develop our capacity in terms of cyber to ensure our own resilience. That means having the resources there to protect our own networks.”

And does he have them?

“Not at the level I’d like, but it is something I am putting effort into,” he replies.

“Second, it can’t just be a self-licking ice cream approach from the Defence Forces. We have to look at the broader field we are playing: how do we work with [others]?”

He says there has to be a collaborative effort.

“I think the Strategic Threat Analysis Centre (Stac) will be a good institutional arrangement in that regard.”

Defence Forces personnel have participated, as recently as last November, in Nato’s flagship cyberdefence exercise in Tartu, Estonia.

According to the organisers, Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, “the exercise aims to enhance co-ordination and collaboration between Nato and Allies, strengthen the ability to protect alliance cyberspace and conduct military operations in the cyberdomain”.

Mellett says the exercises “are hugely successful, often driven by the competence that comes in with our reservists and I see opportunities to build further on that and that is one of my priorities for this year”.

When set up and reporting to the Taoiseach’s department, Stac will have staff from the Defence Forces, Garda Síochána and National Cyber Security Centre run by the Department of Communications and elsewhere.

Mellett says he has a good relationship with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and that they meet at least once a fortnight. He describes Harris as a humble man without an ego.

So if you cannot facilitate cross-boundary collaboration, you are on a hiding to nothing

Competing mindsets resistant to co-operation poison collaboration and Mellett says one of his “key philosophies [is] to actually break down those walls between institutions that have responsibility for security”.

“Silos are bad. They undermine trust, they undermine efficiency and they undermine effectiveness,” he says. “So if you cannot facilitate cross-boundary collaboration, you are on a hiding to nothing.”

Pesco, the European Union’s Permanent Structured Co-operation for defence research, inter-operability and information sharing, to which Ireland has signed up, is seen by Mellett as another valuable theatre for collaboration.

“The challenges that European states face in the context of cyber, in terms of violent extremism, in terms of espionage, are all common in all states of Europe,” he says. “A sharing of knowledge on how to address those is a very smart and efficient way to face those challenges.”

Mellett is the first non-Army officer to head the Defence Forces. This has led to talk in some quarters (never openly expressed) that investment in equipment too strongly reflects his background career. He rejects this and says newly acquired assets should be seen for how they can be used across the three branches of our Defence Forces.

“Let’s look at what’s being spent,” he says. “The PC12 [a new, high-tech Pilates plane] is a significant asset for the Air Corps [because] of its ability to revolutionise the situational awareness of soldiers on the ground.”

Equally, the new multirole vessel being built for the Naval Service will be capable of assisting patrol of a million square kilometres of the northeast Atlantic as well as having search and rescue and deployment capabilities.

The Army’s 80-strong fleet of Mowag APCs [Armoured Personnel Carrier] is being upgraded, taking many temporarily out of the line, which has meant the contingent serving with Ireland’s United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has been obliged to borrow four Sisu APCs from the UN.

The single most pressing internal issue for Mellett is pay. Defence Forces personnel are the lowest paid in the public sector and discontent has been rumbling among soldiers and their families.

It is an open secret within the Defence Forces that relations between the higher echelons in the military and the department are not good

In recent weeks, Mellett appeared before the Public Service Pay Commission to make the case in person. He was accompanied by secretary general of the Department of Defence Maurice Quinn.

“I set out my stall in strident language,” says Mellett. “Right now, I see it as the number one issue.”

It is an open secret within the Defence Forces that relations between the higher echelons in the military and the department are not good. “They’re too controlling” is a commonly expressed criticism.

Mellett will not be drawn, however.

“Exchanges are often robust but that’s the nature of the business,” he says.