Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Irish military going forward

At Sicilian Notes, Richard Waghorne has written a long piece on what he sees as the downgrading of Irish military capability, favouring significant increases in funding to enable participation in Petersberg tasks. While this debate is worth having it needs to be broken down a bit to fit in blog posts and maybe that will evolve as it unfolds. I should point out at the start that I have never served in the Defence Forces.

The first principle which I feel Irish people cherish about the role of our military abroad is that we choose to keep our heads down to avoid the need for mutual defence pacts and automatic participation in conflicts. We get to decide where our boots go on the ground, when and why. This is linked is our attachment to primarily UN missions - the multilateral option which has less (but non-zero) chance of being driven by economic dictats than the need for oil. We spent 30 years in Lebanon and there's not much oil there. Richard does rightly point out that debate on this stuff is rarely rational, and the facilitation of US troop movements at Shannon is going to keep it that way.

The second one is that Irish people are not really all that bothered that we don't have a "full scale" military. There isn't the same level of outrage as in countries like the US and UK when we lose capabilities or privatise them (Search and Rescue). Our only jet aircraft are ministerial transports (Gulfstream IV and Learjet 45) - we have no capability for Quick Reaction Alert or Combat Air Patrol or Close Air Support. It used to be said that in 1979 when Pope John Paul II was arriving on an Aer Lingus 747 the "escorting" 1950s vintage Fouga Magister jet trainers asked the 747 to slow down so they could keep up! We have no strategic transport aircraft or sealift to get our troops overseas - we depend on others to get us there (although given the missions are multilateral that's not a showstopper). We have Armoured Personnel Carriers but not main battle tanks. We have patrol vessels, not frigates or destroyers.

Our principal offering remains infantry/light cavalry and the knowledge acquired from previous missions which we share through the UN Training School in Ireland (UNTSI). The Defence Forces website (not Firefox compatible, use IE) shows the current mission commitments.

To get the military to a point where Richard Waghorne wishes it to be would require capital expenditure on a massive scale and a significant increase in the current non-pay military budget. When the PC-9s and Mowag APCs were acquired recently, this was funded by selling military barracks to developers. That source of funds is almost gone - although there is always Baldonnel, which I have felt for years should be disposed of. Air bases and military facilities are frequently used in Canada as de facto regional aid, and the Air Corps should be operating from their own compound in one or more of our regional airports, an arrangement you will see in places like Italy.

Between 1997-2004, the proportion of the Defence Budget devoted to pay and allowances has never been less than 66 percent and has been as high as 78 percent - the capital spending arising from the barracks selloffs and the army deafness has pulled the figure into the low 70s in the last few years. (Defence Forces Annual Report 2004, p.50).

Richard makes mention of the percentage of GDP spent on the military. The first thing to remember is that in many European countries you can compare Ireland to, the military is not fully professional - military service is a requirement in most eastern European countries. This tends to bloat out financial and personnel numbers but isn't a great guide to what can be deployed. Even those countries who do spend more do not have a happy history - the Netherlands (who spend 3x the Irish defence/GDP) received a shaming from their troops performance at Srebrenica and their parliament came close to reneging on a promised deployment to Afghanistan recently.

It is not surprising that military/GDP ratio is low since the rate of GDP expansion has been high and the fiscally conservative nature of recent Irish governments has dictated holding down government expenditure as a whole as a percentage of GDP. I'm not sure if anyone's done polling on this, but I think most Irish people don't think it costs much to run the Defence Forces and they don't want it to cost much either. If money was available would probably think meeting the 0.7 percent for overseas aid target would be a higher priority (or more likely even lower taxes). Additionally, the growth of the left-wing media whores like Indymedia will put attempts to put the Irish defence forces on a par with NATO countries will come under severe fire politically.

Some opportunities were lost - Airbus offered A319CJ when the government bought the Learjet. The CJ (too reminiscent of Haughey?) can be easily changed to a cargo transport which could have supplied UN missions abroad. It would have been popular in the Air Corps too since qualified pilots would have an easy route into the airlines! Instead they chose the Lear which has no great advantage to the Defence Forces being purely a corporate transport.

The retention of three Army Brigades for a standing force of about 8,500 is an ongoing mistake rooted in regional politics (and of course more higher officer posts). Reduction to two properly manned Brigades/Commands should become an imperative, one geared to home duties/Aid To Civil Power and one to overseas duties and the geographic commands should be merged. The Canadian Forces are undertaking just such structural change (Canada Command/Canada Expeditionary Force Command). The Reserve Defence Forces must be given statutory protection from dismissal by employers to ensure their availability on a par with the US National Guard and UK Territorials, but should be primarily an "Ireland Command" duty posting.

Worthy of a separate debate (this one's more about overseas) is the nibbling away at the Defence Forces quasi-civil roles by Garda Air/Water, Revenue/Customs, National Drugs team, privatised Search and Rescue etc. The Irish Coast Guard should be separated from Dept of Marine and fold these functions into a single institution (like the United States CG which had similar origins) rather than more and more little fiefs as at present and should share facilities with the Defence Forces (as the Gardai do at Baldonnel) to improve cross-service co-operation.

In summary -
* Irish overseas commitments will continue to be performed solely by the Army for the foreseeable future - Navy supply missions don't count and the Air Corps will never be able to commit enough equipment from other duties to make them count.
* The Defence Forces must continue to evolve out of garrisoning, border duties and politically motivated structures and overseas duties must have its own command. The Reserves must be protected to ensure the capability is there when needed. Duplication between military and civil enforcement should be rooted out.
* There's enough UN needs out there that we don't have to go looking for NATO/WEU ones. Ties with countries supportive of UN missions and undergoing similar evolutions (e.g. Canada) should be encouraged especially where they can provide complementary capabilities in airlift, sealift, air support and heavy armour.
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