Midway through the Iraq war in 2012, the then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond declared, ‘I’d rather fire soldiers than send them to war with poor equipment.’
This statement followed years of complaints from senior members of the UK army; complaints that began in 2003 during the original Gulf War when they had to send troops into combat operations with body armour that simply did not work.
Of course, our own troops do not specifically engage in combat operations. But this does not mean that there have not been similar levels of complaints around shoddy and dangerous equipment, or simply the sheer absence of equipment, like patrol boats, to monitor and defend the coastline against drug trafficking.
In fact, The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (RACO) and the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association have both made it clear for many years now that there is a major and ongoing deficit in the quality and quantity of material that is needed to maintain a modern defence force.
But we know the Defence Forces in Ireland have other responsibilities assigned to them. These include being tasked, under the Framework for Major Emergency Management, with aiding the Civil Powers to provide “operational support in a response to a national chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incident in order to mark, cordon, monitor, measure, decontaminate, retrieve and dispose of any CBRN devices and matter so found.”
While the chances of a nuclear incident on these shores are virtually non-existent, the same cannot be said for a chemical or biological ‘incident’. Especially in light of the continuing terrorist threat being posed at the wider European level.
How scandalous and reprehensible would it be then if members of the Irish Defence Forces, in responding to such an incident, had to rely on protective jackets or suits that almost certainly had no or extremely little protective value?
To see if this is the case, we would need to establish the standard shelf life a CBRN suit. The vast majority of them, when unused and stored in ideal conditions only begin to degrade after 5 years. This includes the Shelf life for one of the most popularly used, the Dupont™ Tychem® Garments. In fact, Dupont™ advises “that garments that are not contaminated and are of more than five years old” are to only be used as part of training exercises.
Other manufactures of the Chemical Suits push the shelf life out to ten years:
“The shelf life of a chemical suit should be quoted within the product’s packaging or instructional material. Most manufacturers will suggest a shelf life of 10 years for chemical suits that are unopened and stored properly. After this time, the protective performance of the fabric and seams may have degraded, and the effectiveness of the entire ensemble may be reduced.”
What then should we make of the recent confirmation from Simon Coveney that Ireland’s existing stock of CBRN suits “was last acquired in 2006 and is now falling due for replacement.”?
He also informed the Dáil on the same occasion that there was no expenditure on CBRN suits by the Department of Defence in 2019 or 2020.
Indeed, he also explicitly accepted that the necessity to replace the stock of protective suits has been identified as “a priority acquisition under the Equipment Development Plan (EDP)process.”
Priority? That might have been a reasonable point if he did not go on to say this:
“A Prior Information Notice (PIN), which is the precursor to the competitive process, is scheduled to be published on the e-Tenders platform in Q1 2021, with a view to a competition being rolled out in Q4 2021 to facilitate a phased purchase program commencing in 2022.”
2022? That is a full sixteen years from the date when the original batch of suits for the Defence Forces was purchased.
Again, let us remind ourselves, that even on the optimistic side, the shelf life for a chemical suit in ideal storage conditions is estimated to be in the region of 10 years.
This means that the suits purchased by the Department of Defence may, right now, be already 5 years into a ‘degraded state’ with reduced levels of effectiveness.
Simon Coveney ended his statement by saying:
“I am satisfied that with this new planned acquisition the Defence Forces will continue to have the necessary modern and effective range of CBRN suits available to them in order to fulfil all roles assigned to them by Government.”
A lot of good Simon’s ‘satisfaction’ will be to the families of those Defence Force members who, God forbid, may have to respond to a chemical or biological incident before 2022 when the new suits are destined to arrive.