Dorcha Lee: Plan for future of Defence Forces needs wider scope

The new commission on the future of the Defence Forces must not narrow its focus to experiences of the military in countries of Ireland’s size
Dorcha Lee: Plan for future of Defence Forces needs wider scope
Stock image: Ireland must look to larger nations when planning the future of Defence Forces

The Programme for Government states that the proposed Defence Forces Commission will contain, inter alia, external military expertise from countries similar in size to Ireland and from states that, like ourselves, are non-aligned militarily.

This statement needs to be analysed on a number of points. First, it is a clear recognition that some of the answers the commission may require will be external to the narrow Irish experience.

Tapping into both home and external sources will, therefore, require a dedicated team of Defence Forces technical experts, to cover military areas that are relevant to the commission’s work.

There will be no need for the commission to start with an entirely blank sheet if the solutions to our problems are already out there.

However, confining military expertise to countries similar in size to Ireland is an unnecessary limitation. In most cases, it is the larger nations, with better-funded research programmes and more personnel on operational duties, that may have already found the answers required by the commission.

If this commission was a commission on public health, it would not confine itself to the experiences of countries similar in size to Ireland, but would also be following up on what is happening in China, the US, Brazil, or, for that matter, the UK and Italy.

Comparison between the size of the Irish health service and those of larger countries is not the issue. Similarly, the size of the Irish Defence Forces should not be touted as a reason not to learn from other countries’ experiences and research.

There is also much to be learned by studying the defence commissions and reviews conducted by other nations, large and small. It's all there, on the web, unclassified and in English, with the exception of a few documents in French.

The Defence Forces has now got a fair-sized pool of officers who have worked or studied in several of these countries. Moreover, the Directorate of Intelligence has a sub-section that continually updates its database on foreign armed forces and defence agencies.

Describing Ireland repeatedly as a "small country" has long been used to condition public opinion to accept low expectations. First, what do we mean by size? Do we mean the size of our population, the size of our landmass and territorial waters? The size of our economy?

Both the World Bank and the (former British) Commonwealth use the figure of 1.5m as the population cut-off point for small nations. As far as population is concerned, Ireland is, in fact, a medium-sized country.

Stock image: Ireland must look to larger nations when planning the future of Defence Forces
Stock image: Ireland must look to larger nations when planning the future of Defence Forces

We rate medium-sized on a list of UN and EU small, medium, and large member states. Small implies poor and insignificant. The constant repetition of our ‘smallness’ is often an excuse for inaction.

However, the direct comparisons that are valid are the comparisons in the areas of strategic threat and military capabilities. In the area of strategic threat, the starting position is location, ie the history and geographical parameters of Western Europe and the North-East Atlantic area.

Defence white papers of large, medium, and small nations in our region actually show a remarkable consensus.

As far as strategic analysis is concerned, the commission need look no further than Europe and the North-East Atlantic. It does need to examine the projected impact of climate change.

The melting of the North Polar icecap, extreme weather events, and rising sea waters have direct defence implications for Ireland and must be considered by the commission.

In the historical context, every country in our region, except Sweden and Switzerland, has, over the past 100 years, experienced war and all its horrors. What has happened in the past 100 years could happen in the next.

[quote]The practical area of comparison between ‘small’ and/or medium states is that of military capabilities. In all cases, the deterrent principle applies, ie that indigenous and/or treaty-committed forces, can make it too costly for an aggressor to invade or attack.[/quote

For larger countries such as the UK and France, the military inventory can include nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, heavy artillery, and main battle tanks.

For medium-sized countries such as Ireland, Denmark, or Finland, the inventory would normally include modern interceptor aircraft, naval ships capable of carrying out more robust naval tasks than our present patrol ships, and army brigades that can function in a modern hostile environment.

A strong indicator of a commitment to the deterrent capability is the percentage of GDP spent on defence.

For example, Sweden declined in recent years to 1.04%, but is on track to recover to 1.5% by 2024. Sweden has also reintroduced limited military service to recover falling strengths.

Austria is down to 0.73%, but we must remember that Austria has no territorial waters and hence no navy. Also, its airforce has no maritime territorial airspace to defend.

Finland is running at 1.27% of GDP. As regards smaller states, Luxembourg spends 0.55% of GDP on defence, and Malta 0.5%. Ireland now spends 0.27% of GDP on defence.

Another table of comparison used internationally is the percentage of the population serving in the permanent and reserve armed forces. In Austria, it is about 11.8%; Finland is 12%; Sweden 1.9%; and Ireland around 0.43%.

In addition to the three usual dimensions of conflict — land, sea, and air — strategic observers now add space and cyber as additional dimensions.

As regards space, Ireland already supports non-military space programmes, which potentially have dual use capabilities. As regards cyber, this will be the subject of a further study.

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