Army to take on cyber warfare in radical shake-up of its priorities
A radical overhaul of spending by the Defence Forces will see money pumped into combatting cyber warfare, rather than air and sea protection.
The aim is to prepare the Defence Forces for 21st-century security threats and to maximise military capability for the next decade.
The blueprint, outlined in a white paper being brought to the Cabinet tomorrow by Defence Minister Simon Coveney, aims to ringfence military spending after severe budgetary cuts of almost 24pc since 2007.
However, it also addresses Government fears that attacks over the internet now represent the greatest single threat to Ireland, particularly in terms of economic fall-out.
The cyber threat is compounded by the concern - shared by both US and UK intelligence agencies - that social media and the 'dark web' are now the primary recruiting and organising grounds for Islamic terrorists.
Mr Coveney has pointedly warned that Ireland and Europe must learn lessons from the damage caused to the Baltic States by concerted and organised cyber attacks.
The greatest fear in Ireland is that sensitive State information will be hacked and deliberately leaked or that critical economic assets, such as major US multinationals, could be targeted.
"The reality of the 21st century is that a laptop can prove every bit as dangerous as a rifle or a grenade," one Defence Forces source admitted.
The response to cyber threats will be co-ordinated by the Departments of Defence and Communication through the enhanced Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT).
Military intelligence will also be enhanced to allow greater monitoring of social media and the 'dark web' for potential terrorist threats to Ireland, particularly the recruitment of 'lone wolf' terrorists.
The Government will commit to an overall strength of 9,500, a modern, eight-ship Naval Service and updated equipment for the Air Corps and the Army.
But fixed-wing jet fighter aircraft, a major increase in patrol ship sizes and an expansion of Army armoured units are set to be ruled out.
If necessary, the Irish Independent understands, the disposal of further surplus land banks may be considered by the Government.
After the cutbacks since 2008, Ireland's defence spending has plummeted to 0.5pc of gross domestic product (GDP), on a par with Luxembourg, Andorra and Guatemala.
In line with leading European powers, Ireland will now commit to allocating more money to tackle growing security threats.
The army will play a key role in the multi-departmental approach to confronting the cyber dangers, while it is also expected that military intelligence resources will be boosted to help in the fight against terrorism.
Manpower levels have dropped to 9,100 in recent months.
While declining to discuss details of the reforms he will present to Cabinet, Mr Coveney said that there was a "very ambitious" plan for the Naval Service "in terms of the work they do now, both at home and abroad.
"I think three new ships in three years is a sign that this Government is delivering not just for the marine sector but also for defence," he added.
From 2016, five of the Naval Service's eight-strong fleet will be 17 years old or newer. A commitment will be given to upgrade the older three vessels.
The army is being promised a restoration of personnel levels, investment in new communications, surveillance and defence systems as well as the enhanced roles in anti-cyber warfare and intelligence.
The Air Corps has a commitment to ongoing fleet renewal.
However, the white paper will rule against the re-introduction of jet-fighter aircraft on cost grounds.
The plan does pledge a modern fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing trainer aircraft and also envisages an expanded role for high-tech drone aircraft.
It is only the second defence white paper.
Ireland slashed defence spending by 24pc since 2008 - with the allocation for the Army, Navy and Air Corps falling from €888m to €677m last year.
The overall defence budget of €898m includes an annual provision of €221m for pensions.