Published on February 28th, 2014 | by admin


The Challenge of Change

Interview with Defence Forces’ Chief Of Staff, Lieutenant General Conor O’ Boyle

Could you provide a brief summary of your career and the key appointments you have held?

I was born in 1952 and joined the Defence Forces as a cadet in 1970. On commissioning in 1972, I was assigned to the Artillery Corps and began my career in the 2 Field Artillery Regiment in Dublin. Having completed specialised training in the Artillery School, I was transferred to the Air Defence Regiment where I served in a number of appointments before being transferred to the School of Artillery as an instructor. I have served in key command and staff appointments at Regimental, Brigade and Defence Force Headquarters level. Among these key appointments have been: Instructor, Command and Staff School, The Military College, DFTC; OIC ‘A’ Administration DFHQ; and Officer Commanding 2 Field Artillery Regiment. On promotion to the rank of Colonel, I was appointed Commandant, United Nations Training School Ireland (UNTSI), establishing UNTSI as a Centre of Excellence for Leadership and Human Rights.

More recently I was appointed as Director of the Defence Forces Strategic Planning Office in the Chief of Staff’s Branch in DFHQ before being appointed Officer Commanding, 1 Southern Brigade in July 2009. In October 2009 I was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and appointed General Officer Commanding the Defence Forces Training Centre. In March 2012 I was promoted to Major General and appointed Deputy Chief of Staff (Support) of the Defence Forces.

My overseas experience includes having served in the Middle East for two years with UNTSO and three tours of duty to Lebanon. In 2003 I was appointed Deputy Irish Military Representative at the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels for three years. I was appointed Chief of Staff of Óglaigh na hÉireann by the Government on the 12th of August 2013.

How would you rate the current capabilities of the Defence Forces and their suitability for assigned tasks?

Today’s Defence Forces are capable of taking on the most demanding of operations at home and abroad to fulfil the State’s defence, security and foreign policy objectives. In the second decade of the 21st Century, the Defence Forces continues to provide an extraordinarily wide range of defence and security related services on land, sea and air at home and abroad, for and on behalf of the citizens of Ireland. There is no other institution of the State that provides such multi-purpose, multi- disciplined capabilities. Óglaigh na hÉireann is proud of the value for money, and the comprehensive nature of what it does for Ireland and the Irish people.

Its men and women remain ready to counter both internal and external threats to Ireland, to protect Irish sovereignty and resources on land, sea and air, and to provide the broad range of capabilities required by Ireland to protect its wider societal defence and security, all within a financially constrained environment. It is my intention that the Defence Forces will continue to move towards an expeditionary mindset here on-island as well as overseas and move further away from a garrison mentality, in order to deliver the responsive, adaptable and flexible capabilities demanded of us. In the international sphere, the Defence Forces continues to provide an effective instrument of Irish foreign policy, coherent with Ireland’s approach to international relations (as outlined in the Irish White Paper on Foreign Policy).

Operational deployments overseas affirm Ireland’s international image, contribute to global security, and therefore Irish defence and security, and reinforce the relevance of the Defence Forces to the Government and the people of Ireland. In addition, they provide valuable operational experience to individual members and units, and benchmark Defence Forces capabilities against partner nations. This helps in developing and refining doctrine and training, thereby enhancing Defence Force capabilities at home.

What is your assessment of the current level of morale amongst the officer ranks within the Defence Forces and what do you see as the key challenges facing officers today?

Morale and esprit de corps, the belief in the organisation in which we serve, are inextricably linked. It is with some confidence that I can state that the morale among the officer ranks within the Defence Forces is high. While I am very cognisant of the demands and challenges that have been placed upon individual officers over the past number of years the Defence Forces has come through significant change and reorganisation that could only have been achieved with the co-operation and leadership of the officer corps. The economic downturn has significantly impacted on the officers of the Defence Forces in many ways. Their salaries have been reduced. Many now work great distances from their home and all have been asked to do significantly more. They are also been asked to lead soldiers, sailors and aircrew who are being challenged in much the same way. at every level of the Defence Forces.

This degree of change is a challenge and its implementation has required considerable sacrifice and dedication on the part of many personnel. In the case of officers, their dedication is exemplified by the manner in which they implemented a programme of reform that immediately led to significantly reduced career opportunities. While it is easy to list the negative impacts of the economic downturn it is important that we focus on what has been achieved at the individual and organisational level over the past few years. The Defence Forces has come through significant change and re-organisation and this could only have been achieved with the leadership, selflessness, loyalty, commitment and devotion to duty of the officer corps.

Throughout this change and without falter the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps continued to perform their daily taskings and operational duties at a high tempo both at home and overseas providing significant and tangible contributions to the State. These achievements make me proud to be an officer in the Defence Force and are, I believe, the most accurate indicator of the morale of the Defence Forces and in particular of the morale of the officer corps. In respect of the challenges facing officers today, I foresee little change. All officers will continue to face the challenge of functioning effectively in an environment within which our resource envelope remains constrained. I also expect the implementation of change to feature highly in the role and function of the officer corps into the future.

Will the recent re-organisation of the Defence Forces, including the elimination of a Brigade, contribute to greater efficiencies and effectiveness within the organisation and, if so, how?

The Minister for Defence announced in December 2011 that the (Permanent) Defence Forces would move from a three to a two brigade structure and move to a strength of 9,500 personnel. While this was a significant challenge for the Defence Forces and tough decisions had to be made, it has also resulted in the Government’s commitment to maintain the Defence Forces at 9,500. Ensuring the long-term viability and effectiveness of the Defence Forces is the key to protecting the interests of its members. To achieve this it is necessary to ensure that the Defence Forces optimises its resources, both human and financial, and develop plans to ensure the delivery of military capabilities and operational outputs within the resource allocation.

We in the Defence Forces need to maintain our focus on what is required from us by the State. Frameworks such as the Croke Park and the more recent Haddington Road Agreement, the Comprehensive Review of Expenditure, and the Employment Control Frameworks have an immediate short term impact and shape our organisation. However, looking to the longer term future, the Defence Forces needs to continuously self-analyse and be self critical, which is easier said than done, as frequently the results of this analysis can be challenging and painful to implement. Nevertheless, if the Defence Forces is to remain relevant, usable and adaptable to the Irish State, it needs to remain proactive in this regard and not let the organisation rest on its laurels.

Ultimately the reorganisation of the Defence Forces will provide improved work practices and efficiencies, realistic long term career opportunities and job security for all members of the Defence Forces. The abolition of one Army Brigade obviates the requirement for administrative support for that Headquarters and its subordinate units. This has the effect of releasing more operational troops to improve “front line service delivery” and collective training.

In order to achieve the desired reduction in the Establishment Strength of the Defence Forces it was necessary to make an overall reduction of 500 personnel from our Employment Control Framework strength of 10,000, a reduction equivalent to 6.23% of the Army element of the Defence Forces. This figure represents a reduction of 12% for Officers, 8% for NCOs and 4% for Privates.

The reorganisation also prioritised the maintenance of fully-resourced Operational Units. For example, in the previous 10,000 organisation the total establishment for the nine Infantry Battalions was 2835; the current 2 Brigade structure increased this establishment to 3300, spread over 7 Battalions, an increase of approx 460 While the number of Battalions has reduced from nine to seven, the efficiencies gained in other areas have facilitated an increase in the strength of each of the seven Infantry Battalions from 409 (as proposed under the 10,000, three Brigade structure) to approximately 470, thus aligning the requirement to prioritise “front-line delivery service.”

The move from a three Brigade structure to a two Brigade structure has been the most significant amalgamation under the new plan. The restructuring has also ensured the retention of a conventional all arms capability, in addition to maintaining the organisation’s ability to conduct operations throughout the full spectrum of military operations. This remains an enduring tenet in any reorganisation of the Defence Forces.

Reserve Defence Forces
The new RDF structure is defined, to a large extent, by the recommendations of the Value for Money and Policy Review (VFM & PR) of the RDF which was approved by the Minister. In addition, the decision to restructure the PDF to a two Brigade organisation impacted on the RDF. The recommendations of the VFM & PR are clear and unambiguous, and necessitated immediate structural, numerical and capability review of the RDF.In terms of closing small posts, it is not simply a matter of the utilities costs but the much wider cost of having so many dispersed posts requiring full-time staff to manage and oversee them.

Since the early nineties, the Defence Forces has been a model of organisational transformation and has continued to deliver what has been required of it. Nevertheless, it could be said that the reward for this has been more change and reductions in numbers. What are your views on this?

The reform, reorganisation and restructuring initiated by the White Paper 2000, coupled with significant investment in capability, successfully created a flexible, deployable, sustainable, interoperable and adaptable Defence Forces, capable of deploying and sustaining high quality forces on demanding national and overseas expeditionary operations in support of Government security and foreign policy objectives. The significant progress made in the period since 2000 was outlined in the Review of White Paper Implementation (2007), while both politicians and other commentators regularly cited the Defence Forces as providing a model of public sector reform. The extent of this transformation was specifically recognised by The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in their recently published Draft Progress Report on Public Service Reform Plan 2011.

In this report The Defence Forces were highlighted “… as a shining example of successful implementation and delivery of reform.” True transformation is not simply about reorganisation. The Defence Forces transformation has resulted in an Army that in recent years could successfully commit to the ongoing deployment of a mechanised infantry battalion to the heart of Africa, while concurrently withdrawing from UNIFIL, deploying troops north of the Arctic Circle with the EU Battlegroup, and also commanding Task Force Centre in Kosovo under NATO control.  This was achieved while also delivering the full range of Aid to the Civil Power and Aid to the Civil Authority commitments at home. From an Air Corps perspective, significant change saw a fleet renewal programme, supported by value for money maintenance packages. This facilitated the establishment of service level agreements with other State Bodies and Agencies and the development of further capabilities.

For its part, the Naval Service also underwent a period of renewal with new vessels acquired and new capabilities developed. Patrol outputs increased significantly and new arrangements were pioneered with other State bodies and Agencies who rely on the Naval Service for the implementation of their mandates, in a significantly expanded maritime domain. It is clear that as a result of White Paper 2000, the Defence Forces has succeeded in transforming itself after resulting in the efficient, effective and highly capable organisation that we know today. This progress was made possible by the loyalty, determination, professionalism and devotion to duty of all who served during this period.

The current Green Paper/White Paper process represents an effort to move on from the last White Paper on Defence and to facilitate the Defence Forces in preparing to meet the challenges of the future. What do you hope to see in the next White Paper?

The drafting of the White Paper 2014 policy document is primarily the responsibility of the Department of Defence, with support and military advice from the Defence Forces. The consultation process is now drawing to a close and the Minister continues to emphasise his commitment to a transparent and wide ranging debate on Defence issues leading to a White Paper that will ensure that this State will have a Defence capability appropriate to the threats faced now and those we can reasonably envisage in the future.

The level of ambition expressed in the White Paper 2014 will define roles that require an adaptive, agile Defence Forces that can cope with the threats and challenges which will arise and a force that will deliver the level of foreign engagement the Government desires in the context of international peace support operations. As Chief of Staff, I must ensure that the military advice that is provided to Government provides a clear understanding of the utility of military capability appropriate to circumstance. We must put people at the centre of our strategy. However, it is also important for me to repeat and state clearly that we will continue to move towards an expeditionary mindset here on-island, as well as overseas, and away from a garrison mentality, in order to deliver the responsive, adaptable and flexible capabilities demanded of us.
At a recent engagement I was asked if in the context of the reorganisation and the Green and White paper process and I quote “were we building to last or building to change?”. I think it is a very good question and if you want my answer to that question it is as follows – if we are building to last we are on the wrong track. We have to build to change because while flexibility and adaptability are not in themselves strategies, nonetheless, they are the basis for defence planning when the time, place, and identity of belligerents are unknown or at least uncertain. The challenge is to cope with uncertainty, not to try and diminish it. Complexity denies us the ability to predict reliably, so we need a strategy to cope with complexity, not try to eliminate it.

The recent UNDOF deployment to Syria was greeted with a certain amount of surprise in some circles outside the Defence Forces, given the nature of the theatre into which Irish troops have deployed. Could you provide a background to the deployment and what you expect from the mission?

In a Note Verbale dated 28 June 2013, the Secretariat of the United Nations requested Ireland toconsider contributing a Mechanised Infantry Company (approximately 100 personnel) to UNDOF for the task of Force Reserve.

Having undertaken a comprehensive threat assessment and associated risk analysis, the Defence Forces believed that the two manoeuvre elements allowed for in the proposed unit were insufficient to meet operational, manoeuvre and force protection requirements. The United Nations subsequently agreed to include a third manoeuvre element, consisting of an armoured reconnaissance section which substantially enhances the manoeuvre, observation and force protection capability of the Force Reserve. While the logistics element of the proposed Force Reserve is smaller than normal, the Indian Logistics Battalion in UNDOF provides the bulk of the unit’s logistics requirements.

The indicative tasks outlined in the UN Statement of Unit Requirements associated with the Force Reserve Company are within the means and capabilities of the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces have previous experience in a similar role in Liberia, albeit on a larger scale, and have also commanded the similarly structured Force Mobile Reserve in UNIFIL for many years.

Indicative Tasks
• Serve as an independent Force Reserve Company (FRC)
• Be ready to deploy at Platoon and Company levels within the UNDOF AOR
• Remain on high readiness standby as Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and react to emerging situations throughout the UNDOF AOR on order.
• Contribute to monitoring and reporting as required.
• Be prepared to conduct mobile patrols.
• Be prepared to reinforce vulnerable positions and UNTSO Observation Posts and be prepared to assist in securing, extraction and evacuation of UN personnel under threat.

The Defence Forces deployment to Mali alongside members of the British Armed Forces earlier this year was a significant development. With the training mission in Mali and Uganda, are the Defence Forces developing an international reputation in this niche area and is this something you would like to see developed further?

The Defence Forces teams, deployed as part of EU training missions, are developing indigenous military capabilities in Mali and Somalia. This indirect approach to peace support operations is a niche area that very effectively utilises the Defence Forces considerable experience in internal security, counter insurgency and multi-national operations.

The retention of the Army’s conventional all arms capability provides the Defence Forces with the ability to conduct operations through the full spectrum of military operations, including effective engagement in the EU’s Comprehensive Approach to conflict resolution.

Our highly adaptable and very experienced personnel provide the Government with a “softer” use of military capability that is operating very effectively in these complex environments. The Mali and Somali deployments have validated our high standards, proven our inter-operability and further enhanced our international reputation as trusted, highly competent, peacekeepers.

Considering the reduction in officer appointments do you think that the Defence Forces can continue to meet the career advancement aspirations of young officers?

The reorganisation of the Defence Forces brought about a reduction of 118 army officer appointments. The greatest impact occurred in the lower ranks with 24 Lieutenant appointments and 42 Captain appointments being removed from the establishment. At this point in time the main issues concern the Lieutenant to Captain promotion. I am particularly aware of the position of the 81st Cadet Class who are still awaiting promotion and would like to assure them that every effort is being made to progress their situation.

While it is impossible to predict the future in terms of promotion owing to the significant number of internal and external factors involved, I am confident that the current delays being experienced in the Lieutenant to Captain promotions will ease.

A significant number of promotions have been made in 2012 and 2013, and I believe that this level of promotion is more than sufficient to meet the realistic career advancement expectations of officers within the Defence Forces. Highly motivated personnel are the key element of military capability.
In this regard, work is ongoing on the development of a comprehensive HR Strategy, to implement best practice Human Resource Strategies across the Force in the areas of recruitment, continuous development, career advancement, retention, and exit strategies.

How would you evaluate the contribution RACO and representation in general has made to the culture and performance of the Defence Forces over the past 23 years?

There can be no doubt that the establishment and introduction of the Representative Associations, and the Conciliation and Arbitration Scheme (C&A) under which they operate, has proved enormously beneficial for both the Defence Forces as an organisation and for the members who serve in it. For those of us whose service pre-dates the introduction of Representation, the tangible effects of those benefits are easier to discern. Since the early 1990s the Defence Forces have undergone a series of reorganisations, reviews and government directed changes, difficult decisions all, sometimes introduced at personal cost, which Defence Forces membership have embraced and made possible.

These organisational changes have brought about greater efficiencies, effectiveness and economies of scale and are best reflected in infrastructural improvements, equipment purchases and general conditions of service.  As Chief of Staff it is with honour that I now preside as head of a Defence Forces that is professional, loyal, well-equipped, deployable, interoperable and as capable as any military force deployed anywhere in the pursuit of peace and security throughout the world.

To attain that level of competence has demanded time, effort, resources and leadership; and that leadership has come from both the Official and Representative sides of the negotiating table. The challenge of change is not an option, it is a necessity and the level of transformation undertaken by the Defence Forces has positively affected the way we work, the way we interact with other agencies and the way we evolve our culture and our ambitions.

This reality is acknowledged by the Representative Associations, and the purpose of the C&A scheme enables the RACO leadership to engage and negotiate with the Official side on matters that come within scope. RACO have always facilitated and assisted change management, which in turn enhances the overall operational capability of the organisation. Consultation with RACO is facilitated, encouraged and implemented from conception to final implementation.

RACO’s skill and contribution to the positive development of the Defence Forces we serve today is well recognised and acknowledged. Its accomplishment has been to successfully negotiate time and again, acceptable positions for the determination of claims and proposals relating to remuneration and conditions of service. A particularly successful medium for such discussions, which has also proven to be a performance enhancing enabler, has been the DFHQ Forum. The Forum is chaired by Assistant Chief of Staff (ACOS) and provides the platform for both military management and RACO leadership to raise issues of mutual concern and to come to agreeable and acceptable solutions.

In summary, the General Staff currently enjoys a very constructive working relationship with RACO leadership; one that has endured to the benefit of all. RACO have consistently submitted cogent and intelligent arguments on behalf of their membership and while compromise may often be the last option considered, it has been my experience that the needs of the organisation and those that serve in it have always taken precedence where it is the best course of action.

Most importantly, RACO provides a voice and a means of communication for all commissioned ranks and can facilitate discussions, agenda items and courses of action for consideration of strategic decision makers. Finally, the fact that Representative Associations are ultimately staffed by military personnel ensures that the Defence Forces’ culture, ambitions, and priorities are retained for future generations of serving members.

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