Defence Forces crisis deepens as strength drops below 8,000 personnel

‘Unthinkable’ fall in numbers comes 24 hours after two more Naval Service ships are mothballed due to lack of crew

The strength of the Defence Forces has fallen below 8,000 for the first time in decades, underlining the continued crisis in recruitment and retention of personnel for the military in the Republic.

It means the Defence Forces is now more than 1,500 members short of its establishment strength of 9,500, a development one military source said “would have been absolutely unthinkable only a few years ago”.

The continuing decline in Defence Forces numbers comes 12 months after the Commission on the Defence Forces published its report setting out where investment was required and how the Republic was vulnerable to security threats due to lack of resources and personnel.

The Department of Defence failed to respond to queries from The Irish Times this week about the current strength of the Defence Forces. And while the Defence Forces replied to queries, it said the only figure it had available was the strength of its organisation at the end of last November, which was 8,048.


However, military sources said the number had fallen below 8,000 since then and in the Dáil on Thursday that was confirmed by Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin. Replying to a question from Brendan Howlin TD (Labour), he said he had been advised by the “military authorities” the combined strength of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps was 7,987.

“We have previously acknowledged, and I do so now, that the current staffing difficulties in the Naval Service are very serious,” Mr Martin said.

On Wednesday the LE Róisín and LE Niamh became the latest two vessels in the Naval Service to be mothballed because the service does not have enough personnel to crew the ships. That development means the Naval Service is left with four ships to carry out patrols, including sea fisheries protection, conducting search and rescue and drugs trafficking surveillance.

However, Mr Martin has insisted the Naval Service had advised him the mothballing of the two ships would “not affect its ability to fulfil its current maritime security and defence commitments”.

He added recruitment into the Defence Forces was “notably lower in 2022 than in previous years” and the briefing he received “outlined how the Defence Forces military management proposes to counter this trend.”

In the White Paper on defence published in 2015, the Government set out its plans for the sector for the following decade. A central commitment was to maintain the Defence Forces at a minimum of 9,500 members, excluding those who had just joined and were undergoing training.

In August 2017, exactly two years after the White Paper was published, it emerged numbers in the Defence Forces had fallen below 9,000 for the first time since the organisation was increased in size four decades ago when the Troubles necessitated more troops. There were at that time 8,990 personnel in the Defence Forces with an additional 385 in training.

In its report last year, the Commission on the Defence Forces warned the activities of Russia and China, along with Islamic and far-right extremists, posed the most severe threats to Irish security, which it said the Defence Forces were ill-equipped to deal with.

The commission’s report recommended the most far reaching programme of reform in the Irish military’s century long history, with most of the emphasis being on reforming and expanding the Naval Service and Air Corps in recognition of Ireland as an island nation. However, 12 months on, the long and gradual decline of the Defence Forces has continued.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times