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How Ireland’s military would look under proposed overhaul

Commission calls for much stronger navy, governance changes and removal of barriers to women’s progression

After a year's work and over a thousand interviews with soldiers, sailors, air crew and military experts, the Commission on the Defence Forces is to finally publish its report on Wednesday.

Even if only half of its recommendations are accepted by Government, the document is likely to form the basis of the most drastic overhaul of the Defence Forces since the foundation of the State.

The report notes there is a severe lack of public debate on defence and security matters in Ireland. One of its aims is to change this, by putting forward a range of recommendations of varying ambition which can be considered by the public and the Government. Those recommendations are detailed here.


Despite making up the bulk of the Defence Forces, surprisingly little of the commission’s report is devoted to the Army. It said its establishment strength should be increased by 700 to just over 8,000 troops.


The Government also needs to ask itself tough questions about the ability to deploy the Army as peacekeepers in increasingly hostile environments, without significant improvements, the commission said.

Some on-island roles should be abolished as they could be carried out more efficiently by other agencies. These include prisoner escorts and the guarding of Portlaoise Prison, security duty at brigade HQs and escorting commercial explosive products.

This would allow the Army to focus on other roles such as bomb disposal, assisting in searches and responding to potential chemical attacks.

In terms of equipment, it should receive additional and modernised Armoured Personnel Carriers, anti-drone capabilities and upgraded air and coastal defence systems.

Naval Service

The report notes “striking” gaps in the State’s maritime security. It recommends the Naval Service should be renamed the Navy as part of awarding it the same status as the Army and its establishment strength should be almost doubled to 2,044.

Under the most ambitious recommendations (Level of Ambition 3) this would be a 12-ship navy with each ship having two separate crews to allow them more days at sea. Each ship should spend an absolute minimum of 220 days at sea.

At a minimum, the current fleet of nine ships should be able to go to sea. Currently, only five ships are operational.

Consideration should also be giving to using the Naval Service in more overseas operations, with the commission noting the success of the 2015 operation to save refugees in the Mediterranean.

There should also be more integration with the Irish Coast Guard and the Air Corps.

Air Corps

The Air Corps should be renamed the Air Force and be recognised as the primary aviation arm of the State. It should have a significant focus on research and development, including in the area of anti-drone technology. Its establishment strength should be increased by at least 350 to 1,200.

Under Level of Ambition 2 it should have at least two additional medium-lift helicopters. It should also have a primary radar system which would be capable of detecting aircraft flying with their transponders turned off, a practice Russia sometimes engages in off the west coast. It would also have a strategic lift capability– at least one long range aircraft – which would be capable of reaching areas in Africa and the Middle East where Irish peacekeepers are deployed.

Consideration should also be given to entering into an arrangement with other friendly countries to share long-range aircraft on an as-needed basis. Such arrangements already exist in Europe.

Under the most ambitious recommendations, the Defence Forces would acquire a squadron (between 12 and 24) of armed interceptor jets combined with trained pilots and support staff.

These aircraft should be capably of deploying overseas and of providing armed support to troops.


A “joint cyberdefence command” should be established. It would be made up of a significantly enlarged signals Corps and complemented with civilian experts.

This agency would form its own command, with its own general, and would play a frontline role in both detecting and deterring cyberattacks, countering misinformation and protecting the integrity of Irish elections from online interference. It would also rely heavily on reservists with the requisite expertise.


The commission’s assessment of current state of the Reserve Defence Forces is grim. It says it has been neglected to such an extent that it should either be regenerated or scrapped entirely.

The Army Reserve currently operates at about one third of its notional strength of 3,869 while the Naval Reserve has just over 100 sailors out of its establishment of 200.

The Reserve can be revitalised to support the permanent Defence Forces, the commission said, if a detailed regeneration plan is set out.

The Naval Reserve should increase to 500 and a new Air Force Reserve should be set up with an establishment force of 200.

Reserve officers should also be much more integrated in overall command structures with the Chief of Defence being supported by a senior reservist. A joint office of reserve affairs should also be established.

Army Ranger Wing

Ireland’s special forces unit, the Army Ranger Wing, should be renamed IRL-SOF. For its on-island role, more clarity is need on the use of the ARW to respond to domestic threats in circumstances where the Garda’s armed support units have been significantly upgraded in recent years.

However, it should still serve as the “tier one” response to armed threats in support of gardaí and it should continue to provide the Garda with support in its covert and counter-espionage activities.

Currently, the ARW is based solely in the Curragh. The commission recommends detachments be set up in Casement Aerodrome and Haulbowline Naval Base which are specifically trained in air and maritime operations respectively.

The Wing should also have its own dedicated helicopter component. Under Level of Ambition 2, it would also have a reserve element which would provide a surge capacity in the event of emergency and would be able to fill medical and cyber roles.

The Government must also consider if it wants to deploy the Wing on future peacekeeping missions which require specific special forces skills. The Wing's only current overseas deployment is a reconnaissance mission in Mali, which is due to be taken up by conventional troops this year.

Military Intelligence

The commission said it expects the role of Military Intelligence, known as J2, to increase in the near future in response to hybrid espionage threats and an increasingly dangerous environment for peacekeepers.

It said clarification is needed of both the role and capabilities of J2 and required changes to national security legislation should be made as soon as possible to support it.

A Defence Forces Intelligence School should also be established to provide training in land, sea, cyber and air intelligence and as well linguistics. Certain training programmes should also be shared with the Garda.

Command and Control

This is where some of the most fundamental changes are being recommended. The role of Chief of Staff would be replaced by a Chief of Defence (CHOD). Each branch would be considered equal in stature and would have their own chiefs who will report directly to the CHOD.

The CHOD would have more autonomy than the current Chief of Staff role. There would also be more involvement of senior enlisted personnel in top level decision making, a practice which has become common in other militaries.

A more agile force structure should be created that is more regionally balanced, the commission said.

The military police should become its own independent service. It is currently embedded into the command structures of its local formations. It should receive improved analytic and forensic support and an oversight structure should be put in place to monitor investigations and prevent abuse of power.

A national defence academy and an apprentice school should be established to support developments in military training. There is also a need for an Office of Veterans Affairs to support former Defence Forces members and their families.


Even before the Women of Honour allegations of abuse in the Defence Forces surfaced last September, much of the commission’s work was focused on examining the military’s internal culture.

The commission recommends that the Defence Forces sets a target that at least 35 per cent of recruits are women. A full-time gender adviser, with a senior rank, should be appointed and any remaining barriers to career progression for women should be removed immediately.

Gender perspective should be a factor in all decision making, including in human resources and procurement while gender and diversity training should be made mandatory across all ranks.

The Defence Forces should communicate with underrepresented communities to identity barriers to recruitment and it should be made easier for non-national Defence Forces members to achieve Irish citizenship.

It should also be easier for enlisted personnel to become officers. Currently, only about 10 per cent of officers started off as enlisted recruits.

Grooming standards for men and women should be modernised, in line with other militaries. It is understood the commission had identified that a general ban on growing beards may be discouraging young men from joining.

Consideration should also be given to amending military training procedures and fitness regimes to make it easier for people with specialist skills to join.

Finally, enlisted personnel and officers should eat in the same mess. This occurs in most areas of the military, but a division still exists on naval ships.

Pay and conditions

Retention of skilled personnel is considered the most immediate crisis facing the Defence Forces, a matter which is closely tied to the current pay and conditions. There is little point is buying ships and planes if there is no one to man them.

The commission has recommended the immediate removal of the blanket exclusion of the Defence Forces from the working-time directive, subject to certain derogations. The directive sets out limits on the maximum number of hours an employee can work.

The commission also called for urgent reform of existing working arrangements and the introduction of family friendly policies.

Enlisted personnel should also have full access to private healthcare like their officer colleagues and military health services should be subject to Hiqa inspection.

The representative associations, Raco and PdForra, should be allowed affiliate with the Irish Congress on Trade Unions (Ictu) but should not be permitted to become full members.

The commission also made some limited recommendations on allowances, but the core issue of pay was considered outside its remit.