Sunday 18 November 2018

'Crisis' in the Defence Forces means our Air Corps are effectively working 9-to-5

Military insiders are warning that cutbacks have left the country ill-equipped to cope with security challenges, writes Paul Williams

JOINING THE SEARCH: Irish Naval vessel LE Eithne sails past Blacksod pier to join the search of the coastline near Belmullet for the crew of Rescue 116. Photo: Frank McGrath
JOINING THE SEARCH: Irish Naval vessel LE Eithne sails past Blacksod pier to join the search of the coastline near Belmullet for the crew of Rescue 116. Photo: Frank McGrath

Paul Williams

Devastating cuts and an "alarming" brain drain of specially trained personnel have dramatically reduced the Defence Forces' ability to provide "even a minimal effective response" to any major security incident, a Sunday Independent investigation can reveal.

And after the loss of Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 questions have been raised about the resources available to the Air Corps.

Senior military insiders have revealed that an "unprecedented crisis" has been unfolding behind the walls of military barracks across the country which both the Department of Defence and the Government have been "desperate to keep under wraps".

According to documents seen by the Sunday Independent, resources for the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps have reduced to such a level that they are ill-equipped to tackle major security challenges - such as those posed by a potential Islamist terror attack or a post-Brexit hard border scenario.

Organisers of major international events as well as major international companies normally review a state's readiness and capability to respond to threats from domestic and international sources. In such an assessment, Ireland would score very low, say senior military personnel.

They claim that a lack of technicians and pilots in the Air Corps means that it could not respond to a major terrorist incident or natural disaster in any "meaningful way" - because most of the helicopter fleet is grounded.

On December 1 last year only eight of the Air Corps' fleet of 26 aircraft were serviceable, owing to a shortage of pilots and technicians.

Currently there are vacancies for 32 pilots - or 30pc of the required established strength. The Air Corps should have 317 technicians for the safe operation of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft - but there are just 215, representing a shortfall of 32pc

The same shortages have resulted in only two of the Air Corps' six AW139 medium helicopters being in service at any one time.

One of the aircraft is permanently deployed as an air ambulance in Athlone, with a second on standby as back-up. The sources say that there are not enough helicopters - the AW139 can carry a maximum of five fully equipped soldiers - to respond to a major incident in "any meaningful way" because they are grounded after dark.

Since the beginning of the year, Air Traffic Control (ATC) services at Baldonnel Aerodrome have been cut to office hours only.

Consequently the Air Corps was placed in the embarrassing position that the plane carrying British prime minister Theresa May could not land there when she visited Ireland in February.

It is normal security protocol that such flights are routed through the military air base.

"The reason that the British PM's aircraft could not land in Baldonnel was out of fear that her meetings would run over normal business hours - and there would be no ATC cover to allow the aircraft to take off," we were told.

A 24/7 fixed-wing service for Air Ambulance and Search and Rescue missions using the two Casa CN235 maritime patrol fixed-wing aircraft was also discontinued last summer owing to shortages of pilots and crew. The service also transported organ transplant patients between Ireland and the UK. The similar 24/7 helicopter standby service for after-dark, short-notice, inter- hospital transfers was also discontinued in the autumn for the same reasons.

The service also provided an air mobility capability for the Army Rangers, the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams in the event of an emergency.

Air Corps pilots are the only pilots in the country who are trained to fly with night- vision goggles. The Sunday Independent has also learnt that, owing to the shortage of technicians, a six-week maintenance job on a fixed-wing aircraft actually took over four months to complete - while a maintenance job that normally takes two weeks wasn't completed for three months.

The State's limited air armed interception capability, undertaken by PC9 trainers, was discontinued because there are no radar guided intercept controllers - owing to a lack of ATC staff in Baldonnel. (These aircraft only operate in daylight and patrolled the skies during the visit of the Queen and the US president.)

This means that the State's elementary daytime aerial interdiction capability against slow-to-moderate-speed targets no longer exists.

More broadly, the problem of resources is evident across the Defence Forces. An average of between 50 and 60 personnel of all ranks are leaving the three branches of the Defence Forces every month.

Despite accelerated recruitment the combined strength of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps is just over 9,100 instead of the desired establishment strength of 9,500.

In the past three years over 12pc of officers - lieutenant, captain and commandant ranks - have left the organisation, taking with them essential skill sets which, on average, require between two and five years to develop.

Operational Army units are struggling with just 50pc of the officer numbers required and sources say the personnel crisis is so acute that troops are being sent from as far away as Donegal to perform routine barrack security duties in Dublin.

In a 'well-being' climate survey of military personnel published in 2016, more than a quarter of soldiers - 27pc - signalled their intention to leave as a result of the commuting distances created when several regional barracks were closed as part of the reorganisation of the Army in 2012/2013.

In the past few weeks Defence Minister Paul Kehoe has announced a major recruitment drive to induct 860 personnel during 2017 while last year saw 690 recruits join the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps.

However, the accelerated recruitment process has been described as a "desperate attempt" to reach the established strength which cannot be achieved.

"The reorganisation of the Army has been an unmitigated disaster, which has had the effect of an unprecedented number of early retirements and resignations," said a highly placed source. "Even with maximum recruitment efforts the failure to retain properly trained personnel - some of whom take up to three years to train for specialist duties - means that the Defence Forces cannot achieve the established strength of 9,500.

"The fact that the Air Corps could not provide a fixed-wing patrol aircraft to provide top cover during the initial rescue mission off Co Mayo last Monday night because we can only operate during office hours is a clear example of this. The crash of Rescue 116 - two of whose crew are former Air Corps members - has hit everyone in the organisation very hard, and I can see a lot more deciding to pack up and leave because they have had enough.

"We don't even have enough troops now to carry out basic barrack duties in places like Dublin - so how can we be expected to provide even a minimal effective response to major security incidents?"

The brain drain is a consequence of the negative effect on morale which resulted from a "disastrous" re-organisation programme carried out by the Department of Defence in 2013.

"The well-being climate survey published identified how the reorganisation has caused widespread low morale, with low pay, long-term isolation from family and home being identified as the primary drivers of the exodus of personnel," another senior military insider said.

The process saw the overall structure of the Army reduced from three brigades to two, with a corresponding reduction in the establishment strength of the Defence Forces from 10,500 to 9,500 personnel.

When the recession hit, several military barracks were closed including five bases along the Border. Several units were abolished, including three infantry battalions, while other units were amalgamated. It is understood that the main objective of the reorganisation was to prioritise saving money over "any meaningful effort to address the provision of an effective military organisation for the security of the State".

The recent inability of the Air Corps to staff essential 24/7 rotas is "compromising critical state capabilities".

The bomb squad has also been hit. Documents seen by the Sunday Independent show that the number of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) experts in the Army has dropped from 27 in January 2014 to just 16 today. However, the actual number of officers available for bomb disposal operations in the State has fallen to just 11, with the remaining five officers currently unavailable because they are on training courses or serving overseas.

It takes two years of intense and highly-specialised training before an EOD officer can qualify to take part in bomb disposal operations. This does not factor in the essential experience that can come only with service.

The number of specialist officers opting for voluntary retirement is due to poor morale and is "symptomatic of what is going on across the services", sources point out. The Army's bomb disposal officers were once considered to be among the best in the world - and were called in to train US troops in Afghanistan to counter improvised explosive devices.

However, it is understood that the EOD section no longer has the capacity to deliver this world-class benchmark of expertise because the Department of Defence has no retention policy to keep qualified personnel.

One Army source said: "In fact, the Department of Defence denied these officers their promotion in rank - which was contrary to their terms and conditions of service, with the Defence Sector Adjudicator terming the Department's decision 'unconscionable'."

Read More: Coast Guard set to ask for new fixed-wing planes for top Cover

The brain drain has also severely curtailed operations at the Naval Service which, according to the military sources and internal documents, only has the personnel to crew seven of the fleet of eight ships.

It is understood that a patrol was cancelled last November because it did not have an engineering officer available to sail.

Currently the Navy has vacancies for 38 officers - representing 21pc below the established strength of the service - and 106 non-commissioned officers.

It has also been revealed that a war gaming desktop exercise (designed to test and evaluate the personnel and equipment resources required to deal with a particular security scenario) showed up so many shortcomings in the Defence Forces' capabilities that it was quietly shelved - at the behest of the Department of Defence.

The sources say that unlike other countries which "take national security seriously" there are no independent tests carried out to evaluate the Irish State's defence and emergency response capabilities.

"Our operational capabilities have not been tested to measure what operational numbers and essential equipment can be mobilised within a two-hour, six-hour or 12-hour timescale."

The 2016 'well-being' survey revealed a steady decline in morale among Irish servicemen and women. Less than half of respondents - 48pc - expressed satisfaction with military life, which has dropped from an overall satisfaction rating of 64pc in 2008.

The sources who co-operated with the Sunday Independent investigation said they had no faith in the much-hyped National Security Committee (NSC) which is made up of the Garda Commissioner, the Defence Forces Chief of Staff and four secretaries-general from Government departments - including those of the Taoiseach, Justice and Defence.

"There are only two members of the NSC who are actually qualified in the areas of security and defence - the rest are civil servants," one military insider said. "These issues will only become apparent in the event that we have a major incident... and then it will be too late."

On January 28, the Department of Defence press office responded to questions from the Sunday Independent about fears on resources across the Defence Forces - including a question on how many requests to the Air Corps could not be fulfilled in 2016 as a consequence of inadequate aircraft availability or pilot availability.

A spokeswoman replied: "We are not in position to respond to the question until next week."

No further response was received.

Sunday Independent

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