The Irish Times view on the future of the Defence Forces: uncomfortable choices await

It is important to demonstrate the State’s ability to sustain the army’s engagement at the forefront of peacekeeping

Members of the 1st Infantry Battalion during a ceremony in 2018 to celebrate Ireland’s service and commitment to UN peacekeeping participation by the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána and civilian personnel since 1958. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

Members of the 1st Infantry Battalion during a ceremony in 2018 to celebrate Ireland’s service and commitment to UN peacekeeping participation by the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána and civilian personnel since 1958. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

 

The review of the Defence Forces (DF) being undertaken by a commission that will report in the autumn has a limited remit: to look at whether the Army, Navy and Air Corps are fit for purpose and their ability to perform the tasks assigned by policymakers. Its brief is not to question policy. Inevitably, however, resource implications of priorities will feature.

Across all its roles, from territorial defence to support for the civil power, emergency work, and international peacekeeping, the equipping of the DF with the technology and tools of a modern army – autonomous weapons, communications, surveillance and satellites technology, interceptor planes and drones – must play a central part in the commission’s work.

All of which are also crucial to international peacekeeping, the longstanding commitment at the core of the rationale for an Irish military, and to give practical expression to multilateral security on the global stage. At a time when Ireland aspires to global leadership through its place on the UN Security Council, it is particularly important to demonstrate the State’s ability to sustain the army’s engagement at the forefront of peacekeeping. In any one year, about a quarter of troops are either overseas or training to go overseas.

The evolution of challenges facing such missions suggests that the ask of Ireland by the international community – whether the UN, notably in Chad, Mali and the Sahel, or from the EU and Nato – will be for smaller units in more dangerous peace-enforcing operations. Without a peace to keep, increased casualties are inevitable. The DF have lost 87 troops on overseas missions since their first mission to Congo in 1958.

Teams of specialists – engineers, trainers, medical personnel and bomb disposal experts – will be in higher demand with corresponding challenges for training and technology and increased pressure on personnel because of more mandatory postings to traditionally volunteer-manned operations. Enhanced capabilities, the Department of Foreign Affairs told the commission, “should include rapid deployable units, skills in [bomb disposal-related activities], peacekeeping intelligence, emerging technology and continued protection of civilians expertise”.

There are already shortages of specialists and mid-ranking officers in the army’s depleted ranks. That is particularly so in the Naval Service which is currently not capable of staffing enough ships to take on any new international role such as the EU’s operations in drug interdiction.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, currently visiting troops in Lebanon, insists his focus is on restoring the DF to its establishment strength of 9,500 and not cutting overseas commitments. Squaring that with costly modernisation while beginning to address longstanding pay issues will leave politicians with uncomfortable choices.

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