Ireland is likely to increase its annual defence spending by at least €500 million in the coming years, a 50 per cent increase on current levels, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said.
However, this increase would be significantly less than the most ambitious proposals from the recent Commission on the Defence Forces.
Mr Coveney told an audience in Washington on Thursday that Ireland would be making “quite significant financial decisions” in the next few months on raising its level of expenditure on defence as well as on increasing numbers and boosting military infrastructure.
The comments were the first public indication of how much Mr Coveney is expected to seek from Cabinet to upgrade the military, which, according to the commission, is currently unable to credibly defend the country.
Mr Coveney later acknowledged to The Irish Times that increasing defence capacity by 50 per cent would match “level of ambition two” (LOA 2) in the commission’s recent report.
The Minister said he believed this was the minimum amount required. However, he said this level of increased resources could not be achieved in one year or over a short number of years. At present Ireland spends about €1.1 billion on defence annually.
Mr Coveney said he would be bringing significant proposals to the Cabinet in June in relation to defence issues.
"My job is to ensure there is a very clear evidence base for the case we will be making to Government and also that there is a recognition of the context in which we are having this political debate – war in Europe. "
The commission put forward three “levels of ambition” (LOAs) for defence spending. LOA 1 would maintain the current military capabilities and would “leave the Defence Forces unable to conduct a meaningful defence of the State against a sustained act of aggression from a conventional military force”.
LOA 2, which would cost €500 million extra a year, would address “specific priority gaps” within the Defence Forces to improve on-island and overseas capabilities. It would see improved firepower and protection for troops, as well as better coastal and air defences.
LOA 3, the most ambitious proposal offered by the commission, would involve a tripling of the defence budget to roughly €3 billion annually. It would bring Irish defence spending in line with similarly-sized EU countries and would allow for the purchase of fighter jets for the Air Corps and the maintenance of a 12-ship navy.
Speaking at a question and answer session at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, Mr Coveney said increasing spending would be a first step but that political discussions were likely to continue around what common security and defence policy would actually mean for Ireland.
He said Ireland should “perhaps have a more frank and honest conversation around what is needed there” and, he said, he would be leading that debate.
Mr Coveney said he would not comment on the precise nature of the proposals he would be bringing to Cabinet but “at a minimum we need to be looking at level of ambition two”.
“But we have not finalised what else or additional to that will be part of the recommendation to the Government.”
Mr Coveney also said in his presentation to the fund – a policy organisation that looks at issues affecting Europe and America – that he did not believe that the majority of people in Ireland supported "at this stage anyway" Nato membership or any structured military alliance. However, he said there was a recognition of the need to talk more about collective defence with other countries, particularly in the EU.
He said the perception that because Ireland was neutral it had no enemies in the world and was safe in its neutrality, it did not need to spend money on defence, “had been shown that this did not reflect reality any longer”.