Defence Forces entering ‘irreversible decline’ due to personnel crisis

Committee hears cadets planning their exits immediately after joining

The Defence Forces is entering an "irreversible decline" due to its inability to retain trained personnel, an Oireachtas Committee has heard.

Previous efforts to reverse this trend, such as the Public Service Pay Commission have failed to stem the flow of skilled officers and enlisted personnel leaving for the private sector or other parts of the public sector, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) told the committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence.

At the current rate, recruitment of personnel to replace those who leave will never bring the Defence Forces up to its establishment strength of 9,500, Raco General Secretary Conor King said. "No amount of water can fill a leaky bucket".

“The Defence Forces have been in a state of slow decline for almost a decade, and it has reached the point where this decline is becoming irreversible,” Mr King said.

The strategy of replacing skilled personnel with new, untrained recruits is also detrimental to the organisation’s ability to perform, he said.

Twenty four per cent of Defence Forces personnel now have less than five years’ experience. For officers, the figure is 35 per cent.

Mr King said it costs about €100,000 to train an officer and more for specialised personnel such as those working in ordnance or engineering.

“We can’t go to market to recruit a captain, or a sergeant. We have to replace them with cadets and recruits.”

According to a survey conducted by Raco, 79 per cent of young officers are planning to leave the organisation well in advance of the mandatory retirement age, due to inadequate pension provisions to account for the early mandatory retirement age for military personnel (the vast majority of officers and enlisted personnel must retire before 58).

Thirty per cent of retiring officers said they would not recommend a career in the Defence Forces and another 34 per cent said they would only do so if there was a significant improvement in conditions.

Raco President, Commandant Luke Foley told the Committee he recently taught a newly commissioned class of officers who were already talking about their exit strategy due to the lack of a supplementary pension.

Mr King said the “hardest thing in the world” for officers is telling cadets they will have to retire in their 50s and that they will not be able to survive on their pension afterwards.

The Naval Service has been particularly badly hit, Mr King said, and is “set up to fail.” It has nine ships but only enough sailors to main six of them.

“This has a huge effect on the ability to conduct maritime defence and security operations, effectively and safely and cannot be allowed to continue,” he said.

Primary radar

The Air Corps has no primary radar or aircraft intercept capability and Government spending on overall defence is "dangerous inadequate", he added.

Sinn Féin TD John Brady called Raco's submission "damning" while independent Senator Gerard Craughwell called it "utterly depressing".

“I cannot understand how we have allowed such a proud organisation to become so utterly devastated in recent years,” Mr Craughwell said.

A pop-up recruitment facility by the Naval Service in Dublin last weekend was “a new low”, the Senator said. “That we would find ourselves with a tent beside a ship hoping someone would wander in off the street to join up. Is that how bad things have gone?”

A Defence Forces spokeswoman told the Irish Times, 27 people had expressed interest in a Naval career at the pop-up centre and completed the initial stages of the application process. The military said the initiative was a “proof of concept” exercise.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times

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