As the Commission on the Defence Forces unveils its comprehensive report, Cllr Frankie Keena, Cathaoirleach, Westmeath County Council, spoke with the Athlone Advertiser, noting his submission thoughts prior to the publication on Wednesday morning.
Welcomed by PDFORRA, the association which represents 6500 enlisted members of the Army, Navy and Air Corps, acknowledgement by the Commission in the Executive summary that the Defence Forces will need to put its people at the centre of the organisation is a central aspect of the report.
The submission thoughts of Westmeath County Council Cathaoirleach, Cllr Frankie Keena.
Disestablishment of 4th Brigade
In 2012 the announcement of the disestablishment of the 4th Brigade was made in Dail Eireann by the then Junior Minister of Defence.
Post disestablishment, the Minister ordered the Department of Defence and the Chief of Staff, that the remaining positions in Custume Barracks would be almost 1,000 personnel. This was the central message from the Minister and the Department which became their mantra. This imposed figure for Custume Barracks by Ministerial Order was in effect an interference on the issue of Defence Forces deployments, and by extension interference in its operational capacity and output, all for political expediency. Prior to this Ministerial Directive regarding the post Reorganisation strength remaining in Custume Barracks, military planners had recommended significantly fewer numbers that the ‘almost 1,000’ would remain in Custume Barracks as they had a national operational remit to satisfy.
Decision to Close - Clarity
For clarity, NO military commander, or appointment holder, of any rank, was involved or consulted prior to the Ministerial Order of December 2011. The decision on this issue was made by Ministerial Order. In the years since the decision was made, the Oireachtas and the public have been continuously misled in stating that it was the military alone who decided on what formation or units should be disbanded.
Consequences of Brigade Closure
It is a cornerstone doctrine in all militaries throughout the world that the Command and Control (C2 ), decision making centre of gravity is located closest to the frontline operational troops. Military decision making and oversight of military units by commanders in formation headquarters distant from the location of operational units are destined to be flawed and negatively affect operational output. In removing the 4th Brigade Headquarters in Athlone in 2012 this cornerstone military doctrine was rendered null and void. For instance, having the 28th Infantry Battalion in Donegal overseen from Dublin rather than Athlone, or the 1st Battalion in Galway overseen from Cork rather than Athlone, flies in the face of military C2 doctrine.
Prior to the 2012 Reorganisation there were five operational units based permanently in Dublin. Now there are only two operational units there. There has been no decrease in operational taskings in Dublin. This has resulted in daily transporting in rotation of personnel from Dundalk, Athlone and, alarmingly, Donegal, to carry out required security duties in Dublin. It is unsustainable, wasteful of budgets and resources, and most certainly not in compliance with any serious carbon footprint saving policy of this government.
Added to the Dublin taskings which has the Brigade fully stretched, the full security of the Border by just two Battalions stationed in Dundalk and at Finner Camp in South Donegal, which must also assist in Dublin, you can see if a heightened operational situation developed along or adjacent to the border with NI, a credible response could not be sustained.
The total strength of a Brigade headquarters unit is seventy personnel. This number would not and did not impede operational outputs in the former 4th Brigade. In fact, it was an accelerator of operational output through its required training safety, operational audit, mentoring and oversight role of its constituent units. What did impede operational outputs was the disbandment by the 2012 Reorganisation of twelve military units, nine being in Athlone.
Recruitment, but more importantly Retention challenges, have plagued the Defence Forces in recent years. This has resulted in parts of the three Services being unable to comply with government mandated operational requirements. Army units, in particular, would not pass the international test of ‘operational viability’ as in most units its leadership positions are less than 50% trained ‘strength in station’ occupied. The General Secretary of RACO, Commandant Conor King, stated on the record of the Oireachtas that a disproportionate number of the thousands of personnel who have retired early from army units in recent years have come from units of the 4th Brigade disbanded in the 2012 Reorganisation.
Retention is a major issue for the Defence Forces. Retention in the recent years is proving a strategic threat to the operational viability of the Defence Forces. Many highly skilled and capable soldiers of all ranks are departing the Defence Forces for many reasons. One reason put forward is work-life balance. Soldiers and Officers who live in a geographical area of the country and who wish to serve find that they cannot get appointments in towns like Athlone due to lack of vacancies in the senior NCO and Officer ranks due to not having a Brigade Headquarters or brigade units as prior to 2012.
Soldiers and Officers are spending enormous times commuting and on military salaries unable to procure housing inside the commuter belt of Dublin. Exit becomes the option.
The extremely poor pay and conditions for members of the Defence Forces needs an urgent review.
The 4th Brigade also commanded a dispersed Reserve in its area of operations. A proven conveyor belt of recruitment of personnel to General Service Recruitment and Cadetships over the decades was from those who had previously served in the Reserve Defence Forces throughout all geographical locations of the state, urban and rural alike. The disbandment of so many Reserve units, most especially in rural Ireland, has been an accelerator of the recruitment problems.
In effect, the loss of this critical conveyor belt was a ‘self-inflicted’ injury. This, coupled with the reduced footprint of the Permanent Defence Force in certain geographical regions of the countries of the former 4th Brigade, with the attendant loss of army positions and promotion opportunity where personnel and long-standing family linkages and supports, has compounded the problem.
Both the Air Corps and Naval Service are each one entity in dealing with Defence Forces Headquarters on all issues, including integrated capability developments, planning and delivery requirements to support a joint force approach in new equipment procurement, military education and training, infrastructure, doctrine development, and future Defence Forces operations.
However, and crucially, that single ‘one stop shop’ for the Air Corps and Naval Service does not exist for the Army element of the Defence Forces. This is no single headquarters element with separate leadership functions and support staff to oversee strategically the army’s operational brigades in doctrine development, equipment procurement, Tactics Techniques and Procedures (TPPs ) identification, army specific issues in the Defence Forces schools and colleges, and all other issues across the full spectrum of army specific requirements.
The standing up of a Defence Forces Land Component Headquarters with the required leadership and staff functions is urgently required if the Defence Forces ambition to have a force that is fully integrated across land, sea and air is to be achieved. As Athlone is the geographical centre of the island it would be logical for this Land Component Headquarters of the Defence Forces to be located in Custume Barracks, Athlone.
With the loss of the 4th Brigade fewer military families are basing themselves in Athlone. There are no long-term career prospects and the vista of commuting is not preferable for families.
The families of serving personnel based in Athlone and its hinterland have long established roots in the local communities. Without the re-establishment of the 4th Western Brigade the town and its hinterland will continue to see the loss of this military input to the social, economical and culture fabric of the town and surrounding rural areas.
The Commission on the Defence Forces must strongly recommend the re-establishment of the 4th Western Brigade and its constituent units with immediate effect. Coupled with this, a Land Component Headquarters for the Defence Forces needs to be located in Custume Barracks.