The Interview: Chief of Staff Mark Mellett on the future of the Irish Defence Forces (video)

2 Dec 2015

Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces

Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, believes the future of the military includes technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, but fundamentally it requires creating the post-modern soldier: a skilled professional who is not only a warrior but also a diplomat and a scholar.

On a brisk but bright winter afternoon with twilight just around the corner, I meet Vice Admiral Mark Mellett at the Officers’ Mess at McKee Barracks, a sprawling Victorian-era barracks adjacent to Phoenix Park that harks back to a time when Ireland was a colony of the British Empire.

Near the gates, the Irish flag flutters gently in the breeze and my conversation with Mellett makes me consider where else it is flying that day, as 500 men and women of the Irish Defence Forces overseas with the UN across 16 missions in 15 countries go about their duties as many of their colleagues have over the last 60 years.

He is surprised to hear that just a week before our meeting the CEO of Apple Tim Cook stood up before an audience of students at Trinity College in Dublin and praised the work of the Irish military in helping bring peace and stability to a troubled world. “The Irish Defence Forces has engaged in peacekeeping since joining the United Nations a half century ago, a record no other nation can match,” Cook told the students.

Interviewing Mellett, the first naval officer to hold the title of Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, is an interesting experience. His passion, knowledge and conviction make it clear this isn’t just a military professional you are talking to, it could be the CEO of a large company or an academic at a university. Ultimately, he is a leader with a keen grasp of the direction the world is heading.

Soldier, scholar, diplomat

Mellett actually holds a PhD in Political Science in Governance, was the top graduate of 32 countries attending the US Naval War College at Rhode Island in 1999, has served in multiple overseas missions with UNIFL in Lebanon and ISAF in Afghanistan and was credited with being a major player in the 2004 Afghan presidential election for using his diplomacy skills to ensure democracy happened. He became the second Naval Service officer to be a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 1994 as Captain of the LE Orla for its role in capturing drug smuggling craft.

Mellett is overseeing a change in how the Irish Defence Forces interacts with the world, not just from a security perspective but from the point of view of innovation and entrepreneurship and ultimately contributing back to the economy.

An example of this new way of thinking that could be emulated by other military forces is the Defence Forces’ collaboration with the Irish Maritime and Energy Cluster (IMERC) in Cork, which is located at the Naval base at Ringaskiddy, and where entrepreneurs, academics and naval personnel investigate new ideas and technologies coming from areas such as robotics, big data, biotechnology, power generation, cybersecurity, unmanned systems and power storage.

‘Civil society is a human right of every man, woman and child. It is an institution of state function and where the vulnerable are protected’

“I think few people appreciate the amount of data that exists in the world today, which is in excess of four zetabytes and is expanding every two years,” Mellett points out. “If you look to the future we could have 10 times more data – 40 zetabytes of data – and if we don’t prepare for this we are going to be blind. Data underpins information, which underpins intelligence and knowledge, which adds to understanding and wisdom.

“In order to gain power you need to cede power. We need to accept that in organisations we won’t have all the answers to the wicked problems we face, so the hedge to that is to start looking at innovation.”

The innovative future of the Irish Defence Forces

Principles like collaboration, reciprocity, communication and trustworthiness are key to his vision of innovation networks that will yield greater outcomes and solve problems.

“For us in the Defence Forces, we are dealing with complex problems every day. We are dealing with wicked problems every day and for us to feel that we will have the answers within the boundaries of our own organisation is less likely.

“The answer may well be in our network,” he says, pointing to a three-legged structure where Defence Forces personnel can work with the research community and the private sector (entrepreneurs and multinationals) to find solutions to problems.

The result could be a win-win for everyone. “The research community gets this wicked problem to solve, the benefit for the Defence Forces is that it is leading the actual solution and the enterprise side can leverage off that and create a new capability or market the solution that they can sell and that could lead to job creation.”

There is a logic to this. Mellett says state security is inextricably linked to economic security.

To get with the new thinking it means shifting the perception of the Defence Forces from being a cost centre to instead one day being an economic stimulus.

“There are many programmes going on across the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service looking at these wicked problems that we deal with, coming up with cunning solutions to them and I think adding value to the Irish State overall.”

These wicked problems that Mellett refers to can be contained in the headlines and TV about global crises resulting in refugees fleeing for their lives and acts of terrorism around the world.

“If you look at it in the context of the vectors we see, some of them are quite challenging in terms of climate change, population increases and resource constraints.”

The Middle East, he points out, could see its population grow from 265m today to 700m by 2050. “The issue of migration, I think, is here to stay and the reality of what we see in the Defence Forces is we need to contribute to enhancing security at source and that’s why we have 500 personnel – men and women – in 16 missions in 15 countries endeavouring to facilitate a safe and secure environment.

“Civil society is a human right of every man, woman and child. It is an institution of state function and where the vulnerable are protected.”

He said Ireland will be expanding its presence in Lebanon, increasing the 180 troops deployed this year to 330 next year. “This is not only to provide security and stability for Lebanon but also the million-plus Syrian refugees that have come across.”

‘We don’t know how many of these people would have died but there is certainly a percentage that wouldn’t be alive today if not for the intervention of the Defence Forces’

Mellett spoke with pride of the work of the Irish naval ships LE Samuel Beckett, LE Niamh and LE Eithne in dealing with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.

“We are dealing with the symptom of the problem and so far the Defence Forces and three ships, in particular, have rescued almost 8,500 people. We don’t know how many of these people would have died but there is certainly a percentage that wouldn’t be alive today if not for the intervention of the Defence Forces.

“These three missions actually define us in Ireland as a civilised society in that we are able to actually make decisions and contribute to peace and security in areas that are often not on our doorstep but further away.”

The post-modern soldier

As we head into an uncertain global landscape defined by war, climate change and the resulting migration of people, the mass military formations of the past may prove unwieldy. Instead, the diminutive size of the Irish Defence Forces – 8,500 men and women – could actually serve the world better in situations where brains rather than bullets are more effective.

“We’ve been developing this concept around the post-modern soldier, a soldier that has to be prepared for this complex environment in which we operate.”

Mellett said this could be involving creating everything from fostering innovation networks to nation-building, with the ultimate objective of building a civil society.

This requires not only the kinetic action of professional warriors but the wisdom of diplomats and leaders.

‘We are not just dealing with warriors, we are dealing with diplomats and scholars and that’s the vision we are developing within Óglaigh na hÉireann’

“That warrior now has to be a diplomat but the third piece in the jigsaw is the intellectual capacity of our soldiers. I see our brains as force multipliers and if we can develop our soldiers and sailor and air crew to use their intellectual capacity in a force-multiplying manner, I think we can be a lot more effective.”

Across the Irish Defence Forces, a sea change has been taking place. Programmes are underway to ensure that non-commissioned officers (NCOs) like corporals and sergeants, as well as junior officers, are educated to degree level, as well as offering master’s programmes and professional PhD programmes to senior officers.

This, Mellett explains, will result in an all-arms Irish Defence Forces that is fully educated and accredited.

“Its about codifying knowledge in the workplace so individuals become extremely competent in their area and the corpus of knowledge they develop not only gives them an accredited award but gives robustness and resilience to the organisation.

“Even if they don’t stay with the organisation, I want as many of our talented people to stay in the organisation, but we have to expect that people will move on and we have a duty to invest them back into society at a higher level than they came in,” Vice Admiral Mellett concludes.

“We are not just dealing with warriors, we are dealing with diplomats and scholars and that’s the vision we are developing within Óglaigh na hÉireann.”


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years