Even getting to the minimum level of defence spending recommended by the Commission on the Defence Forces will be a "huge ask", Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said.
Speaking at the launch of the commission’s report on the future of the military, Mr Coveney said its recommendations were “blunt”, “hard-hitting” and very demanding of Government.
The 220-page report details a proposed overhaul of almost every aspect of the military with a view to increasing its capabilities both on the island and overseas.
It presents three "levels of ambition" (LOA) as a platform for further debate. LOA 1 would involve maintaining the status quo. This would leave Ireland unable to properly defend itself against attack and would force the Defence Forces to step back from overseas missions, it said.
LOA 2 would involve plugging gaps in the current security apparatus by acquiring capabilities such a military radar system and modern aircraft. The Naval Service would be equipped to modernise and deploy all nine of its ships to ensure they spend a minimum of 220 days each at sea and there would be an increased focus on special forces, cyber capabilities and the Reserve Defence Forces.
The most ambitious proposals, LOA 3, would involve upgrading the Defence Forces to the level of other countries of similar size. The Air Corps would be equipped with fighter jets and the Naval Service would have 12 vessels.
All LOAs involve drastically restructuring the command and control of the military to bring it under a single “Chief of Defence” and bringing its total establishment strength to more than 13,500.
The commission recommended that the Government work towards LOA 2, which would cost an extra €500 million a year, while a debate takes place on the merits of LOA 3, which would bring the defence budget to about €3 billion a year.
Moving to LOA 2 would be a “huge ask”, Mr Coveney said. He said a detailed consideration of the report would now begin and that he would return to Government in four to five months with a “high level action plan” for implementation.
He called the report the most significant defence document in 50 years. “My job is now to respond to a hugely challenging but necessary report in terms of bringing about the kind of change that we are challenged to facilitate,” Mr Coveney said. “And I believe we are up for that.”
The Minister would not be drawn on what recommendations are likely to be adopted but made it clear significant improvements must be made. He said he agreed with the Army’s assessment that Ireland cannot currently defend itself against a sustained attack by “a full-spectrum force for any sustained period of time.”
He said LOA 1 detailed in the report was “not consistent with what we are asking of the Defence Forces” and called for a “real debate” on defence and security.
Commission chair Aidan O’Driscoll said tripling the defence budget might seem outlandish but that it would only bring Ireland in line with other small countries.
He said it showed just how much of an “outlier” Ireland currently is in terms of defence spending.
Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lieut Gen Seán Clancy said the report’s recommendations could “transform” the Defence Forces but that it was “vital” they were properly resourced.
The report contains a number of recommendations on improving working conditions and allowances within the Defence Forces to attract more recruits and improve retention. These include allowing representative bodies to affiliate with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and removing the blanket exclusion of the Defence Forces from the Working Time Directive.
The report received a cautious welcome from Defence Forces representative bodies on Wednesday.
PdForra, which represents enlisted ranks, said it “has actively engaged and has expressed our scepticism about the implementation of reforms in the past, it is now up to the Government to prove us wrong, and we will be happy if they do.”
President Mark Keane said the association "will not be found wanting, and will proactively engage for the betterment of the Defence Forces generally and our members specifically".
The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) called the report “a turning point for overdue radical reform”.
"We agree with the commission's assertion that the continuation of 'business as usual' in terms of capability provision will leave this country without a credible military capability to protect Ireland, its people and its resources for any sustained period," general secretary Comdt Conor King said.
“This sobering analysis should be the springboard for the provision of adequate funding and resourcing for Óglaigh na hÉireann by government.”
Raco said it was very difficult to see how more than 3,000 extra personnel could be added to the military “without tangible retention measures”.
The Irish Defence and Security Association, which represents Irish businesses and research agencies working in the defence sector, also welcomed the report “in particular the raised levels of ambition for defence in Ireland, the clear requirement for significant and realistic increased funding for the Defence Forces, and the increased public discourse on this critical national issue that it has ignited.”