The Naval Service is operating with about a third of the required number of personnel needed to safely maintain its weapons.
There are currently only three armourers, also known as armament artificers, in the Naval Service. Between nine and 12 are needed to service and maintain the heavy weapons aboard the fleet’s nine vessels, military sources say.
Some or all of the armourers currently in service recently expressed a desire to leave the Naval Service but were persuaded to stay with an offer of increased pay last week.
Instead of being paid on the so-called “tech five” rate, they will now be paid on the “tech six” rate, which is reserved for highly skilled technicians.
Losing the technicians would have left the Naval Service unable to use its large weapons, even for training purposes.
Each Naval Service vessel has at least one large gun, as well as several smaller weapons. The large guns must be stripped down for cleaning and maintenance roughly every three months.
The three armourers are able to keep the weapons in a serviceable condition but military sources expressed concern about the workload being placed on them, including the safety implications if a mistake is made through overwork.
"Instead of servicing one gun per man they're now servicing three guns per man. Realistically it's only a matter of time before there's an accident," said Former Army Ranger Wing commandant Cathal Berry.
“You have three people doing the work of nine. It’s like playing the Kilkenny hurling team with half a squad. Those people will be working longer hours for no extra pay,” he said.
The shortage of weapons experts is a symptom of the recruitment and retention crisis currently affecting all branches of the Defence Forces. In June the head of the Naval Service announced two ships, including the flagship LÉ Eithne, were being put into operational reserve until personnel could be found to adequately man them.
Sources say roughly 10 additional Naval Service personnel have left for the private sector since then. Efforts are currently under way to recruit former British Royal Navy and merchant marine sailors through direct recruitment channels.
The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces both declined to comment on the lack of armourers or the current status of the two ships.
On Saturday hundreds attended a "respect and loyalty parade" organised by the lobby group Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces in Galway city to call for improved pay and conditions.
“We are the thin green line and we are getting thinner,” Mr Berry told attendees.