The Naval Service was forced to delay the deployment of one of its ships for three days recently because it could not find the minimum number of sailors required.
The LÉ Ciara Patrol Vessel is supposed to have 39 crew but in late December it had a crew of only 34, the minimum number of sailors required to safely operate the ship.
By the time it received orders to set sail from Haulbowline Naval Base on December 30th on a routine maritime defence and security operations patrol, two of its crew had reported in sick.
This meant LÉ Ciara was unable to sail because it did not have what is known as the “damage control and fire fighting bubble”, ie it did not have enough crew to safely deal with fires or other emergencies if they occurred.
It remained in port for three days while replacement crew were found. The ship was eventually able to depart on its mission on January 1st.
Four days after it eventually deployed, LÉ Ciara was called to act as on scene commander of search operations for the Alize trawler off Hook Head in Wexford.
Military personnel, who described the delay to The Irish Times, said that it is symptomatic of the worsening retention crisis affecting the Defence Forces in general and the Naval Service in particular and expressed concern it could lead to another ship being tied up on a long-term basis.
The Naval Service is currently 168 personnel below the establishment strength of 1,094.
It suffered a net loss of 50 members in 2019 – roughly the equivalent of a ship’s crew. Two of its nine ships, including the flagship LÉ Eithne, have been placed into “operational reserve” due to lack of personnel. Another ship the LÉ Róisín is currently undergoing a mid-life refit, leaving the fleet with only 60 per cent of its ships.
The manpower crisis is affecting the Naval Service’s ability to conduct drug interdiction operations and fisheries patrols, said the representative group for military officers.
"At what point of dysfunction will urgent retention policies be implemented? Are we waiting to fail?" asked Conor King, general secretary of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco).
Mr King said it is not the first time a ship has been unable to sail due to its crew dropping below the minimum safe number.
“The Navy’s ships are routinely operating on the edge of the minimum workable crewing numbers.
“When a ship’s crew is diminished like this, it must get relief personnel either from other ships or from personnel who are not supposed to be on sea rotation, thereby exacerbating an already stressed working environment.”
He pointed to the Naval Service Diving section which was also involved in the Hook Head search operation. It currently had six personnel out of an establishment strength of 27 and “and has had to pull in divers from other units to conduct operations”.
Asked about the LÉ Ciara delay, the Defence Forces said it does not comment on changes to operational scheduling or patrol plans.
“The final authority as to whether a ship deploys operationally is vested with the ship’s captain and thereafter with the flag officer commanding the Naval Service. There are a variety of reasons as to why a ship may not sail as scheduled,” a spokesman said.