Ireland’s Defence Deficit

One of the few: an Irish Defence Forces soldier takes part in Exercise Long Journey in 2017. Image: Óglaigh na hÉireann / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Despite the threats to critical infrastructure such as undersea cables highlighted by the wider Ukraine conflict, Ireland’s military continues to struggle to retain staff, let alone expand its operations.

Described as ‘an island at the centre of the world’ by Time magazine in 2017, Ireland has long struggled to reconcile its increased global prominence from successful adaptation to economic globalisation with the national security problématique that accompanies this. Ireland is a global data hub and a base for many multinational technology giants. 75% of the Northern Hemisphere’s telecommunications cables pass through or near its maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Hybrid threats to global connectivity mean that Ireland is no longer an island ‘safely tucked away behind Britain’. The country’s military decline is thus a curious development, as its neutral stance imposes a problematic paradox for defence policy. Continuing public reluctance obstructs stronger EU and NATO cooperation, even if Ireland’s independent military capacity remains modest compared to other European states of similar size and wealth.

Political Neglect

Ireland has long been among the EU’s lowest spenders on defence, recently averaging just 0.2–0.3% of GDP. The Irish Defence Forces (DF) have been without adequate capabilities for tangible national defence for decades, but current regression in DF originates from a post-2012 restructuring programme driven by cost-cutting during Ireland’s financial crisis. Political acceptance of military underfunding is a symptom of a wide civil-military ‘gap’ in Irish society. Ireland is currently commemorating the centenary of its Civil War between 1922 and 1923. Post-conflict state consolidation involved reducing the military’s size and placing it under stringent obedience to civilian authority. Ireland did not introduce conscription after independence in 1922; professional forces (Permanent DF) have been its main focus since 1945. While necessary, these reforms also ensured that the military became a very distant institution in Irish society.

Awareness and understanding of military-strategic issues among wider society and within the political system is often negligible. For most Irish politicians, supporting national defence is unlikely to create much electoral reward. Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett, DF Chief of Staff between 2015 and 2021, describes it as ‘frustrating’ that there is ‘a simple reality whereby the Defence Forces is seen as a cost centre, that it consumes resources, that may well be allocated better elsewhere’. Compounding post-2012 military austerity, Ireland has not had a standalone defence minister since Fine Gael entered government in March 2011. The defence portfolio has been continually under-prioritised in cabinet – sometimes appended to the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister); or delegated to a Minister of State without a vote at cabinet; or held concurrently with other portfolios. This complicates the political guidance that is vital to promote effective defence reform.

A Retention Crisis

As foreign minister, Simon Coveney (Fine Gael) also had responsibility for defence between June 2020 and December 2022. Coveney had previously held the defence brief concurrently with the agriculture ministry between 2014 and 2016, and said that he wished to oversee defence again to ‘fix what’s broken’. He has admitted that DF has been ‘under-resourced for a long time’. Established to review Ireland’s defence organisation in 2020, the Commission on the Defence Forces (CoDF) published a report in February 2022 that identified many weaknesses in DF’s force structure, its recruitment and retention system, and its capabilities. Coveney accepted ‘virtually everything’ in the report, conceding that DF ‘cannot protect Ireland from potential attack’. The initial government response came in July 2022, when it was announced that defence spending would increase ‘from €1.1 billion to €1.5 billion, in 2022 prices, by 2028’. While heralded as ‘the largest increase in defence spending in the history of the Irish state’, this increase builds from only a very modest starting point. Opting for Level of Ambition 2 (LOA2) outlined in the CoDF report, the government plans to increase the Permanent DF from its current nominal strength of 9,500 to 11,500, and to procure surveillance equipment for airspace and maritime zones.

Ireland’s leaders have failed to respond to the reality that modern volunteer-based professional militaries comprised of trained specialists face fierce competition for labour from the civilian economy

These plans have not eased one of DF’s most serious problems: the chronic retention crisis that undermines its organisation. DF was 1,000 personnel below its then 9,500 target in 2021. Latest reports indicate little improvement, with DF’s capacity reported at ‘just over 8,000’ personnel in 2022. Unlike other Western states, Ireland’s political leaders have failed to respond to the reality that modern volunteer-based professional militaries comprised of trained specialists face fierce competition for labour from the civilian economy. Offering improved pay and conditions, some private companies poaching DF specialists such as ‘engineers, medics and bomb disposal experts’ sometimes even reimburse the military’s buyout fee. Other public sector agencies have made similar overtures. For example, an officer qualified as a medical doctor can earn €75,000 per annum in DF, but if transferring to a similar role in the Irish Prison Service, this income can increase to €147,000.

CoDF focused on improved conditions for lower enlisted ranks, perhaps overlooking the organisational damage caused by high officer turnover. Reports this year highlight that ‘37 per cent of officers [in DF] have less than five years’ experience’. Leadership quality is undermined when officer promotions are fast-tracked by simple necessity to fill organisational deficits. DF might still be able to recruit enough suitable personnel and train them effectively, but too many soldiers leave prematurely, either buying out their contracts or declining renewal when contracts conclude. Officer ‘brain drain’ damages DF to a stage where financial investment alone cannot fully reverse its organisational problems; a quick recovery is difficult to foresee.

Maritime Shocks

Ireland’s military weaknesses came into broader focus in September 2022 when the Nord Stream pipelines underneath the Baltic Sea were sabotaged. Wider European attention was drawn to undersea infrastructure elsewhere, mainly the vulnerable transatlantic telecommunications cables in and around Ireland’s EEZ in the North Atlantic. Undersea cables carry $10 trillion per day in global financial transactions, and transatlantic interconnection is crucial for this network. The Nord Stream sabotage caused serious concern that Russian aggression in Ukraine could ‘spread to Irish waters’. European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager explained that Ireland, alongside all EU member states, must not be a ‘weak link’ in the wider transnational chain. Dublin must contribute effectively to shared EU responsibility to protect all critical infrastructure. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a process to audit security for this infrastructure. Despite reports of a ‘major operation’ from Ireland to step up surveillance, it is doubtful that its Naval Service has the capabilities to comprehensively monitor Ireland’s EEZ, which accounts for 16% of EU territorial waters. With a current fleet of only six offshore patrol vessels supported by two Irish Air Corps CASA CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft, the Naval Service is arguably the branch hardest hit by DF’s wider retention crisis. Strength has fallen below 800 personnel, well adrift of its ‘minimum staffing’ requirement of 1,094. With claims that this ‘haemorrhaging of critical staff’ is currently accelerating, this further shrinks the number of vessels that Ireland can put to sea.

Ireland's domestic political deadlock over neutrality stands to obstruct any upgraded NATO cooperation, even if this offers a vital lifeline given the island’s strategic vulnerability

These staffing deficits have caused serious difficulties in recent years. Ireland ‘requested and received’ support from the EU’s European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) ‘on four occasions between January and March in 2021’ for routine patrols that its understaffed Naval Service could not undertake. As EFCA assistance is an option of last resort available to EU member states, this hints at severe Irish weaknesses when it comes to more serious naval operations, with claims that ‘The Irish Naval Service has no anti-submarine capability and its ability to deter or even detect such maritime intelligence gathering is exceptionally limited’. Three vessels from Ireland’s previous nine-vessel fleet were decommissioned in July 2022. A deteriorating security environment has not prompted too much extra impetus for urgency. Two inland patrol vessels purchased from New Zealand will be delivered in 2023, with UK and European shipyards vying for the €200 million Irish procurement contract for a new multi-role vessel.

Even with this additional hardware, Ireland will still be short of many capabilities needed to comprehensively police its EEZ. The UK is upgrading its naval surveillance capabilities and intends to undertake more patrols in the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic. There has been some discussion about a collective EU mission to safeguard undersea infrastructure, while Germany and Norway have started a wider conversation on NATO strengthening its role here. NATO can optimally reinforce maritime security in the North Atlantic because its tried and tested institutions connect Canada, Iceland, Norway, the UK and the US with most EU member states. From NATO’s side, Ireland is welcome as an important partner, but its domestic political deadlock over neutrality stands to obstruct any upgraded cooperation, even if this offers a vital lifeline given the island’s strategic vulnerability.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Eoin Micheál McNamara

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