As the Defense Force Commission unveils its full report, Cllr Frankie Keena, Cathaoirleach, Westmeath County Council, spoke to the Athlone Advertiser, noting his thoughts ahead of publication on Wednesday morning.
Welcomed by PDFORRA, the association representing 6,500 army, navy and air force personnel, the Commission’s acknowledgment in the executive summary that defense forces will need to put their men at the center of the organization is a central aspect of the report.
Submission thoughts from Westmeath Cathaoirleach County Council, Cllr Frankie Keena.
Suppression of the 4th Brigade
In 2012, the announcement of the disbanding of the 4th Brigade was made in Dail Eireann by the then Deputy Minister of Defence.
After the dissolution, the Minister directed the Ministry of Defense and the Chief of Staff that the remaining positions in the Custume Barracks would be nearly 1,000. It was the central message of the minister and the ministry that became their mantra. This figure imposed for Custom Barracks by ministerial decree was in fact an interference in the question of the deployments of the Defense Forces, and by extension an interference in its operational capacity and its production, all by political expediency. Prior to this ministerial directive regarding the post-reorganization strength remaining in Custom Barracks, military planners had recommended far fewer numbers than “nearly 1000” would remain in Custom Barracks as they had a national operational mission to satisfy.
Decision to close – Clarity
For clarity, NO military commander, or position holder, of any rank, was involved or consulted prior to the December 2011 Ministerial Order. The decision on this matter was taken by Ministerial Order. In the years following the decision, the Oireachtas and the public were continually misled into stating that it was the army alone that decided on the formation or units to be disbanded.
Consequences of closing the brigade
It is a fundamental doctrine in all the armies of the world that the center of gravity of the command and control (C2), the decision-making, is located closest to the front line operational troops. Military decision-making and oversight of military units by commanders of formation headquarters remote from the location of operational units is bound to be flawed and negatively affect operational outcome. By removing the 4th Brigade Headquarters at Athlone in 2012, this core military doctrine was rendered null and void. For example, having the 28th Infantry Battalion in Donegal supervised from Dublin rather than Athlone, or the 1st Battalion in Galway supervised from Cork rather than Athlone, is against C2 military doctrine.
Prior to the 2012 reorganisation, five operating units were permanently based in Dublin. Now there are only two operational units there. There has been no reduction in operational tasks in Dublin. This has resulted in the daily rotation of personnel from Dundalk, Athlone and, alarmingly, Donegal, to carry out the required security duties in Dublin. This is unsustainable, a waste of budgets and resources, and certainly not in line with a serious policy of saving the carbon footprint of this government.
In addition to the Dublin tasks which have the Brigade fully stretched, full border security by just two battalions stationed at Dundalk and at Finner Camp in South Donegal, which is also to assist in Dublin, you can see if an operational situation increased along or near the border with NI, a credible response could not be sustained.
The total strength of a brigade headquarters unit is seventy. This number would not hinder and did not impede the operational results of the former 4th Brigade. In fact, it was an accelerator of business results through its role of securing required training, operational auditing, mentoring and overseeing its constituent units. What hampered operational results was the disbandment by the 2012 reorganization of twelve military units, nine of which were in Athlone.
Recruitment, but especially retention issues, have plagued the Defense Force in recent years. As a result, parts of the three services were unable to comply with government-mandated operational requirements. Army units, in particular, would not pass the international test of “operational viability”, since in most units their leadership positions are staffed at less than 50% of their “on-station strength”. RACO Secretary General Commander Conor King said in the Oireachtas filing that a disproportionate number of the thousands of personnel who have taken early retirement from Army units in recent years have come from units of the 4th brigade disbanded during the 2012 reorganization.
Retention is a major issue for the Defense Forces. Retention in recent years has proven to be a strategic threat to the operational viability of the Defense Forces. Many highly skilled and capable soldiers of all ranks leave the Defense Forces for many reasons. One reason given is work-life balance. Soldiers and officers who live in one geographic area of the country and wish to serve find that they cannot get appointments in towns like Athlone due to the lack of vacancies in the senior ranks of NCOs and of officers due to the absence of brigade headquarters or brigade units as before 2012.
Soldiers and officers spend a huge amount of time commuting and receiving military salaries unable to secure accommodation in the Dublin suburban belt. The exit becomes the option.
The extremely poor pay and conditions of members of the Defense Forces must be urgently reviewed.
The 4th Brigade also commanded a scattered reserve in its area of operations. A proven personnel recruiting treadmill for recruiting and general duty cadets over the decades came from those who had previously served in the Reserve Defense Forces in all geographic areas of the state, urban and rural. The dismantling of so many reserve units, especially in rural Ireland, has been an accelerator of recruitment problems.
Indeed, the loss of this critical treadmill was a “self-inflicted” injury. This, coupled with the reduced presence of the Permanent Defense Force in certain geographic regions of the countries of the former 4th Brigade, with the concomitant loss of positions in the army and opportunities for promotion where personnel and links and supports long-standing families, has compounded the problem. .
The Air Corps and Naval Service are each an entity that deals with Defense Force Headquarters on all matters including integrated capability developments, planning and delivery requirements to support a joint force approach in the purchase of new equipment, military education and training, infrastructure, doctrine development, and future Defense Force operations.
Importantly, however, this “one stop shop” for the Air Corps and Naval Service does not exist for the armed element of the Defense Forces. It is not a single headquarters element with separate leadership functions and support staff to strategically oversee the Army’s operational brigades in doctrine development, equipment procurement, identification of Tactical Techniques and Procedures (TPP), Army specific issues in Defense Force schools and colleges, and all other issues across the full spectrum of Army specific requirements.
The establishment of a Defense Forces Land Component Headquarters with the required leadership and staff functions is urgently required if the Defense Forces ambition to have a fully integrated force on land, sea and air must be achieved. With Athlone being the geographic center of the island, it would make sense for this Defense Force Land Component Headquarters to be located at Custom Barracks, Athlone.
With the loss of the 4th Brigade, fewer military families are moving to Athlone. There are no long-term career prospects and the prospect of commuting is not best for families.
The families of serving personnel based in Athlone and its hinterland have long been rooted in local communities. Without the re-establishment of the 4th Western Brigade, the city and its hinterland will continue to see the loss of this military contribution to the social, economic and cultural fabric of the city and the surrounding rural areas.
The Defense Force Commission is to strongly recommend the reinstatement of the 4th Western Brigade and its constituent units with immediate effect. Along with this, a Defense Force Land Component Headquarters is to be located in the Custom Barracks.