Return of the Irish Guerrilla, Part 3 — Irregular Reserve

by Robert Gilbey

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Resistance is defined as “a nation’s organized, whole-of-society effort, encompassing the full range of activities from nonviolent to violent, led by a legally established government (potentially exiled/ displaced or shadow) to re-establish independence and autonomy within its sovereign territory that has been wholly or partially occupied by a foreign power.” [1]

The Reserve Defence Force (RDF) has always been regarded by defence planners as the reserve of last resort. However, the organisation whose establishment makes up ~30% of the “Single Force”[2], who are assessed against parallel military standards, who train regularly, often with unmatched enthusiasm, are not even regarded as a first line of reserve. Instead they are second to the established First Line Reserve (former Permanent Defence Force personnel) that has no establishment and does not parade or train. Rather than leveraging the Reserves to augment Defence Force operations on a sustainable cyclical basis, the Reserves are currently only ever likely to be called upon if Permanent Defence Force (PDF) resources have been exhausted. At which point, the Reserve as a standalone force would struggle to plug the gaps, especially now considering its consistent state of decline, where many units can barely field a third of their strength.

Rather than address the issues that negatively impact retention and utility, in 2012 the Department of Defence opted to downsize the establishment of the Reserve by 58% to meet its declined strength[3]. Now that the Reserve has again been reported to be at <43% strength of this revised 2012 establishment, it is not unfair to argue that the current model of Reserve has failed by design. Nonetheless, the Defence Forces must have a Reserve Force available to it, that is operationally viable. So, what are the alternatives?

1. Professionalise the RDF — resource and equip the Reserve with everything it needs to be a part-time professional Reserve component of the Defence Forces — from legislation, to renumeration, to employer relations. This was pitched to White Paper Working Group in 2014[4] with an estimated cost of ~€30 million per annum. This will unlikely be palatable to the Government who will want to prioritise resources for PDF retention initiatives and capital projects.

2. Conscription or National Service — every other European neutral country has a scheme of compulsory military service. This solution would be ideal for building the necessary mass of combat units to conduct conventional defence on-island. Unfortunately, the mere proposal of conscription will likely receive a fierce political backlash.

3. Specialist Reserve — as per the White Paper on Defence policy[5], keep the current RDF as it is, and introduce a new class of Reserve that allows defence resources to be concentrated on key specialists such as civilian doctors, engineers, cyber experts, as well as former ARW operators, EOD technicians, Air Corps pilots. This will enhance some niche capabilities, but without addressing the issues in the RDF, it will continue to spiral downwards as a second-class entity within the Defence organisation. It certainly will not be operationally viable if mass is required to augment the Defence Forces at short notice.

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The previous article expressed an opinion to reform the Reserve Defence Force away from being established with combat units and focus more on the development of a part-time professional combat support and combat service support roles. For some Reserve combat units, there are solid arguments to retain some combat arm reserve components. For example, artillery is a skill set that lends itself well to Reservists who can regularly rehearse theories and principles, practice through simulation and occasional live firing. Reserve Cavalry units also retain and develop niche capabilities such as deploying sensors and drones. However, an infantry heavy Reserve simply is not sustainable, especially when defence planners do not recognise an equivalence between Permanent and Reserve personnel, let alone validate Reserve training through operational utility.

In lieu of combat units that cannot achieve parity with their permanent counterparts, this article proposes the establishment of a class of Reserve Forces that specialises exclusively in irregular warfare as a part of an Irish resistance operating concept. The Irregular Reserve’s role will focus exclusively on ‘defence against armed aggression’[6]. The Irregular Reserve would not be expected to be eligible to support Aid to Civil Power or Aid to Civil Authority given the limits on their training.

This is not a new concept. The Estonian Defence League[7] is a national defence organisation that trains citizens to become local volunteer guerrilla warfare operatives trained to resist Russian hostilities. In Sweden, Reservists have participated in strategic exercises with US Forces as part of Sweden’s Resistance Operating Concept[8].

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Ireland would benefit from having an Irregular component to the Defence Forces that is not bound by its conventional structures, norms, and bureaucracy. There are numerous advantages to having a disaggregated Reserve Force without a fixed establishment that lends itself to strength-based talent-orientated innovation and capability building.

While technically a combat arm in most aspects, members of the Irregular Reserve will not be trained in the full array of skills as would be expected of light infantry. For example, Irregular Reservists will not be trained to conduct large unit manoeuvres or operate crew mounted weapon systems. Essentially, the Irregular Reservist need only focus on how to assemble with their respective cell in an occupied on-island environment, gain access to arms and operate as part of a small cell working in isolation, or as part of coordinated efforts under guidance with friendly full-time professional irregular warfare practitioners, in a kinetic or non-violent capacity.

The formation of the Irregular Reserve will be organised by county. Each county unit will have a core team that manages multiple cells which number around a dozen people each (limited during peacetime, scalable in wartime, and subject to ongoing review). Training will be centred around regional and national patrol competitions that will test participants on core military skills such as weapons handling, marksmanship, first aid, land navigation, command tasks, mission planning and execution. Training and oversight will be provided under the Director of Reserves through teams of mobile cadre staff. As a means of motivation, winning teams of national competitions will be eligible to apply to represent Ireland at similar international events such as Estonian Defence League’s Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge or other military events such as the Nijmegen Marches.

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“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

The rationale behind county units is that it naturally lends itself to existing county loyalty, and a sporting sense of county rivalry. Irregular Reservists should be issued tactical recognition flashes for their uniforms that illustrate the County they belong to, which will instil pride and esprit de corps. The proposed patrol competitions therefore serve various purposes, including but not limited to:

1. Focus development on areas of training.

2. Assessments of military skills and capability.

3. Engaging participating teams in healthy competitive rivalry that will invariably lift organisational standards.

4. Promote public support of local units, which should lend itself to enhanced public support for the Defence Forces

5. Maintain service interest during peacetime leading to prolonged retention of Irregular Reservists

PDF Cadre Staff

A dedicated cohort of PDF Cadre will be assigned to the training of Irregular Reservists. Their work will be predominantly weekends and occasional evenings based. Training in any given county need not be limited to the host county’s unit either, neighbouring county units should avail of access to the training too, offering opportunities for interoperability and red teaming.

As county units will not have fixed properties where they can congregate, it will be necessary for the cadre to be permanently mobile, having dedicated vehicles that can transport the required weapons, ordnance and stores as well as personnel. This requirement to work unsociable hours should qualify them for additional allowances. Armed training of the Irregular Reserve will only occur under PDF cadre supervision, with an expectation for Irregular Reserve units to perform armed training up to 5–6 times per year.

PDF Cadre will use this appointment as an opportunity to develop training mission skills for operational mentoring and liaison type roles. The opportunity to experiment with irregular warfare tactics and techniques and procedures on an organic Irregular Reserve should be beneficial to shaping approaches to operations elsewhere.

Department of Defence attachés should be embedded into the PDF Cadre too. It would be expected that the initial PDF cadre be responsible for producing the resistance operating doctrine from a military perspective, but as a resistance operating concept cannot live in isolation within the military, its formulation must have civilian insight and input. This ground level partnership will also help inform any civilian review of the Irregular Reserve.

The 2012 value for money review of the Reserve Defence Forces considered that the pay of PDF Cadre belonged within the Reserve cost centre, which inflated it greatly. Therefore, it may be viewed that having a PDF Cadre accounts for an excessive increase in cost for Reserve Forces. However, it can be counter-argued that the ongoing training, mentoring, and development has an individual and organisational benefit for the PDF in terms of experience and developmental opportunities in the doctrine and practice of sponsoring irregular warfare activities overseas. All of which is going to continue to remain a feature of human conflict and great power competition for the foreseeable future. So, the costs could reside within a PDF cost centre so as not to misrepresent the costs associated to the Reserve.

Irregular Reservists

Irregular Reservists will essentially be volunteers. Owing to the nature of their service, it would be irresponsible to pay them through a centralised payroll or include them in the distribution of special tax credits. For the sake of operational security, there should not be a centralised national record of Irregular Reservist personal data. Personal data should be managed no higher than county level. The logic here is to prohibit an occupying force from accessing the personal data and exposing national underground / guerrilla networks. Instead, the County Core Teams should have access to funds that allow for certain expenses to be repaid to cells in cash. Appropriate checks and balances will need to be imposed at county level, supported, and audited by cadre teams, to mitigate against impropriety.

The rank structure and associated rank insignia of the Irregular Reserve will need to be reimagined, as it would be inappropriate to equate a Cell Leader to a Sergeant, or a County Leader to a Commandant. Nonetheless, the Irregular Reserve will require a hierarchical structure that has loose parallels with that of the Defence Forces for the sake of interoperability. The primary role of Irregular Reservists will be to concentrate on their ability to resist armed aggression against the State. Beyond that, Irregular Reservists will be encouraged to contribute specialist skills and capabilities for the benefit of homeland defence, even if only in an auxiliary capacity.

Each county unit will be led by a Core Team. As well as designated leadership positions, it should have management roles in select pillars such as communications, logistics, training, and information management. The expectation would be that as well as their direct reporting structures within the county, each management pillar would form their own national working group, via secure means, so that lessons learned, and best practice can be shared laterally across the organisation and fed back into the local county units.

The frequency of training is at the discretion of each county. Most military applicable training that cells will engage in does not need to be armed. Land navigation, physical training, communications, first aid, fieldcraft can all be taught with open source or unrestricted material.

County Cells will also have designated leadership appointments, but the composition of each cell will be dependent on its purpose which will likely be informed by the talent available. While not exclusively limited to these two variables, cells can be either:

1. Patrolling Cells — Populated with general operatives who train exclusively on paramilitary skills and focus on patrol competition training.

2. Auxiliary Cells — Populated with specialists that wish to contribute their collective skills and expertise to enhance county/regional/national defence in a non-violent capacity.

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The “Party Piece”

As a method of driving defence innovation, when assessing the capability of a County Cell, Cadre teams should be determining not only the effectiveness of the Cell’s paramilitary capabilities, but also what else the Cell ‘brings to the party’. This could be anything from cyber skills, construction / engineering skills, drone operations, medical skills, mountaineering, operating with motorcycles or boats, bush craft, media operations, logistics, language skills, and so on.

The objective of the “party piece” is to build the capability where the talent already exists. For specialist cell capability initiatives to be considered for development and assessment, it should be approved by the county leadership in conjunction with the PDF Cadre. If that capability initiative requires investment, it should be approved and issued by the Director of Reserves from a modest ringfenced Irregular Reserve innovation fund, assigned by the Chief of Staff [as newly appointed accounting officer for the Defence Forces operational budget]. This fund could also be supplemented by public donations, which in of itself would be a capability; having an established mechanism to publicly appeal for, receive and distribute funds that could bolster a crisis response. There is a precedent with the Estonian Defence League having an online donation support page[9].

Additional benefits to this talent led capability approach include it not only appealing to individuals to join the Irregular Reserve, but also existing groups and clubs that are looking to expand their experience and utility. Having cells that have expertise in their specialisation will also have possible training and upskilling opportunities for the Defence Forces.

Peacetime utility of the Irregular Reserve

For Defence Forces military exercises, the Irregular Reserve are an ideal choice for enemy parties. Any such exercise that includes the Irregular Reserve as enemy has bi-directional benefit, especially where both parties have autonomy of action.

Preferably, all Irregular Reservists will maintain a base level of weapons and first aid training. Auxiliary Cells however can train to primarily perform non-violent functions during peacetime such as open source intelligence analysis, medicine, logistics / sustainment planning, offensive cyber, or strategic communications.

ARW teams may wish to rehearse irregular / unconventional proxy warfare methods, likewise, training teams for EUTM type missions on pre-deployment ramp up may wish to rehearse training proxy force methods. So, having the feedback of Irregular Reserve units with varying levels of experience may prove beneficial to their learning objectives as well as strengthening a national capability in the process.

In the interests of resilience, County Core Teams should consistently be in a state of planning and preparedness. Building and maintaining an intelligence picture of their county, perhaps taking briefings from local An Garda Siochana intelligence liaisons, working with J2 (Military Intelligence) to templatise data collection and build a broader understanding of the local urban / rural / maritime / human / cyber terrain. They should establish locations of cache sites and develop sustainment plans. They could also consult with security teams at critical national infrastructure sites to understand their challenges and concerns.

Irregular Reservists could also cross train with the Civil Defence where training synergies occur, such as first aid or search and rescue training.

Armed Aggression against the State

In the highly unlikely event of enemy incursion or occupation on the island of Ireland, the Irregular Reserve is to assume a blend of Underground, Guerrilla and Auxiliary functions in line with an Irish Resistance Operating Concept.

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The doctrine, means, and methods of an Irish Resistance Operating Concept would need to be its own body of work. However, the Irregular Reserve that this article proposes does offer an initial cost-effective framework from which to develop that concept further. The table below taken from a US Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) presentation offers an example of the planning and responsibilities of relevant government departments in line with a resistance operating concept.

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The term “paramilitary” in Ireland is accompanied with a negative bias, and rightly so for many reasons. Considering Ireland’s turbulent history with illegal paramilitary forces, an official Irregular Reserve offers a legitimate avenue of recognised service for anyone motivated to participate in paramilitary operations against a foreign occupying power. Should Ireland ever experience a hostile occupation, the Irregular Reserve will offer an established structure that is scalable and representative of Ireland as a state, as opposed to zealous and violent groups motivated by narrow political or ideological views.

From the international perspective, were Ireland to be occupied, the existence of an Irregular Reserve that is a construct of Ireland’s Resistance Operating Concept eliminates ambiguity over who to support. Whether that is the Irish Diaspora looking to offer money, political influence and auxiliary support, or partner nations looking for a faction to support and arm, the Irregular Reserve would be the Irish Government’s sanctioned recipient of such aid.

What is abundantly clear from Ireland’s own history as well as recent events in Syria is that if there is no agreed and/or recognised legitimacy of paramilitary groups in the event of an occupation, they risk fracturing due to inter-faction conflict or being dominated by extremists; foreign powers will be reluctant or hesitant to offer support, and conflicts of interest delay timely action which ultimately prolong hostilities and risks unnecessary collateral damage.


The probability of Ireland being occupied by a foreign hostile power is quite remote. Likewise, the chances of Ireland being able to defend the entire island against an invading foreign power with the lowest Defence Budget in the EU[12] is also remote. The advantage to having an Irregular Reserve is that it is an unknown quantity when calculating the cost of military action against Ireland. The hybridity of modern conflict and the emergence of effective urban guerrillas has proved a considerable challenge for the greatest militaries in the world. An Irregular Reserve caters for those who wish to participate in the Ireland’s Defence narrative, without having to make the full commitment towards maintaining ongoing Defence Forces operations as would be expected of the Active Reserve. Moreover, as the Irregular Reserve is not expected to be engaged in operations, the training towards inter-county competitions should offer a sense of challenge, enjoyment, and engagement that will have positive impacts on training, standards, and retention.

Having access to an Irregular Reserve is an invaluable asset for not only the Defence Forces as they prepare for future asymmetric operations, but visiting friendly nation forces too, looking to develop and demonstrate Irregular Warfare capabilities in partnership with Ireland.

The collection of the Department of Defence, Permanent Defence Force, Active Reserve, Irregular Reserve, Civil Defence, and Inactive Reserve would form a significant single force package that can deliver effectively on Ireland’s foreign and domestic defence policy objectives. In effect, this force composition is an optimal balance of focusing Ireland’s limited professional combat arms on overseas missions, enabled by combat support and combat service support elements that are bolstered by the Active Reserve. It recognises that comprehensive domestic defence at short notice is not achievable without mass, but instead leverages a nationally networked Irregular Reserve to counter mass through underground, guerrilla and auxiliary operations, allowing the Defence Forces (having mobilised the Inactive Reserve) or friendly nation forces to concentrate resources against the adversary for more advantageous effects.

We can argue that such a single force package is too advanced or too radical for Ireland, but while Ireland’s economy and affluence is advancing, Ireland is far behind in terms of defence and security, and the world is not waiting for Ireland to catch up.

For all the fruit that Ireland bears, it is how we manage and invest in our defence and security infrastructure that determines how low it hangs.

[1] Resistance Operating Concept — Swedish Defence University

[2] The Single Force Concept was announced by Minister Alan Shatter in 2012 as a blend of Permanent and Reserve Defence Forces.

[3] The 2012 Value for Money Review of the RDF reduced the RDF establishment from 9,642 to 4,069. The RDF strength at the time was 4,501 (AR 4,318 / NSR 183)

[4] Robert Gilbey produced a submission entitled “The Reserve and the Single Force Concept” in 2013 which was subsequently presented to the White Paper Working Group in 2014. The proposals were not adopted.

[5] Chapter 8.5.3 Specialist Reserve — White Paper on Defence 2015



[8] Resistance Operating Concept — Swedish Defence University


[10] This model was constructed by Otto C. Fiala and Diane Le-Farnham — From the Swedish Resistance Operating Concept

[11] Extract from the SOCEUR Resistance Operating Concept Presentation

[12] World Bank Data

IDFOC enables current and former officers of the Irish Defence Forces to connect in order to pursue opportunities of mutual benefit, support and friendship.

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