Thursday, 6 October 2022
Ceisteanna Eile (Atógáil) - Other Questions (Resumed)
75. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the anticipated future role of the Defence Forces, Army, Naval Service and Air Corps in future national and-or European defence measures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48882/22]
I am supportive of the various announcements to which the Minister has referred. I have raised these issues at every Question Time for the past 25 years or more. I am seeking to ascertain the changing role for the Defence Forces in this country, in either the European or national context.
The White Paper on Defence, which was approved by the Government in July 2015, resulted from a comprehensive examination of defence requirements. It provides the defence policy framework for the period up to 2025. This policy framework is designed to be flexible and responsive given the dynamic nature of the security environment and enables the defence organisation to be adaptive to changing circumstances and to use resources as efficiently as possible.
Within this context, the White Paper contains the Government's decision to put in place a fixed cycle of defence reviews. The first such review, the White Paper update, was completed in 2019. While the update acknowledged challenges in certain areas, it affirmed the fundamentals of our approach to defence policy that were set out when the White Paper was approved in 2015. The next step in the fixed cycle review process is a strategic defence review.
The establishment of a Commission on the Defence Forces was set out in the programme for Government and was a key priority for me. In July, the Government approved funding increases to reach a defence budget of €1.5 billion by 2028 at January 2022 prices, and a high-level action plan for the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. One of the early actions identified in the high-level action plan is the commencement of a strategic defence review. Officials in my Department are working with the military authorities with a view to progressing this action.
The Deputy is asking about the international environment for defence and security, which has changed fundamentally in the past eight or nine months. We need to be responding to that, as every country needs to be, and we are. We are fortunate to have had a commission which had done an awful lot of the ground work for us and made independent recommendations to the Government about the level of funding we need and the level of capacity investment that will be needed in the coming six years. I am determined that we will not only meet those targets but surpass them. By 2028, the debate on defence in Ireland needs to have moved on. We need to see future governments confident in making a decision to move well beyond level of ambition 2 in terms of our capacity in order for us to be a credible international actor as a non-militarily aligned country that has the capacity to deal with its own sovereignty protection issues and can also be a proactive peacekeeper in parts of the world that are experiencing challenging environments, particularly through Chapter VII missions. That will require a significant increase in capacity, investment and equipment in the coming five or six years.
The Minister exactly anticipated my supplementary question. There is not very much time left and the time between now and 2026, 2027 or later must be used carefully. It must be used to prioritise all of the issues within the Defence Forces that need to be upgraded and updated in order to meet any challenges in the future. I welcome the commitment the Minister has already made. Will it be sufficient on the basis of that commitment to realise the targets within a shorter timeframe than the one mentioned by the Minister? Would it be possible to allay any fears we might have in respect of any insufficiencies that might have existed previously?
The biggest challenge we have is in personnel. At the moment, the numbers in our Defence Forces are a long way short of where we need to be. That is the case not only in the Naval Service but also in the Army and the Air Corps. We must turn the tide to start gaining momentum and achieving a sense that we are adding people each year, as a net figure. As I said earlier, if we are to achieve the targets that have been set for us by the commission, we need to add at least 3,000 people to the Permanent Defence Force in the next six years. We also need to add approximately 3,000 people to the Reserve Defence Force in that period. That is an extra 6,000 people in the defence family, between Permanent and Reserve Defence Force personnel, in six years. That will not be easy to achieve, given the fact that we have been losing numbers in both forces for quite a long time.
What I can say in responding to that challenge is that there is an extraordinary level of partnership between the Defence Forces and the Department at a very senior level, the likes of which I have not seen before. The relationship between the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General is very strong. They are both absolutely determined to make, in some cases, radical changes, if necessary, to be able to move our numbers in the right direction. We made some decisions yesterday, having got approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, that can help in that regard. People who join the Defence Forces now, once they are beyond their first six months' training, will be on a salary of just under €35,000 per year, as opposed to the €30,000 salary they would have been on until now. That is a result of the changes we have made to access to a military service allowance. Recruits no longer have to do other things, such as mark time, as it is called in military speak, for their first three years. We are doing things immediately to try to turn the tide. The biggest challenge we have is not me getting more money at budget time, which is important and needs to happen, or going through the tendering system to get big, modern and necessary equipment into our Defence Forces; the biggest challenge we have is the human challenge to persuade the right kinds of people in sufficient numbers to join the Defence Forces and stay in their roles thereafter.
Is the Minister satisfied of the Government's ability to address the retention and enlargement issues in the Defence Forces? That enlargement of the Defence Forces needs to take place to achieve many of the targets for the future that have been laid out.
Have the particular and specific issues that have been retarding the retention of people, or the attraction of new people, been identified within the Defence Forces? Is it possible, within the time and targets available, to address that in full and maybe exceed the targets?
We are not yet where we need to be as regards planning, but we are working on that. The Chief of Staff, the Secretary General and I had a long trilateral meeting at the PDFORRA conference yesterday during which we talked predominantly about recruitment and retention, and what needs to be done in the short and medium term to turn around numbers that have been moving in the wrong direction for far too long. It is not easy to do that. For what is worth, I will put on the record that trying to attract people into the Defence Forces is a challenge that virtually every country in the developed world has. That is especially the case for countries that have full employment, as we have, where there are private sector incentives to try to encourage skilled people and specialists, in particular, out of the Defence Forces into different jobs and so on.
This is not an easy challenge but we will put in a lot of financial resources and bring in outside expertise. By the end of this year, we will have a new head of transformation and a new head of HR in the Defence Forces, both civilians, in addition to a new head of gender. They will be senior people reporting directly to the Chief of Staff, bringing outside expertise and knowledge, and working with the Chief of Staff and his team on the general staff, to try to bring about the kind of radical change that is needed to turn these figures around. Of course, the Department is very much part of that conversation, as I hope are the representative bodies, which recognise that we all need to pull in the same direction to make this happen. I am satisfied that we can achieve this but it will take a significant effort and will cost us a lot of money, which the Government has committed to.