NUMBERS IN the Defence Forces have fallen below 10,000 for the first time in four decades due to rising retirements and the moratorium on recruitment across the public sector.
The current strength has dropped to 9,981, a level not seen since before the Defence Forces were expanded at the start of the Troubles.
The figures were revealed yesterday at the biennial conference in Cavan of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco), the group representing all Army, Naval Service and Air Corps officers.
Raco president Lieut Col Mick Baston told delegates retirements were due to “rise further” over the next five years because those large numbers of personnel recruited in the early 1970s were coming to the end of their careers. The current recruitment ban meant numbers were not being replenished.
“Allied to this, because of the continued uncertainty of the economic climate and fears about what will happen to gratuities and pensions, we have serious increases in officers retiring early,” he said.
Of the near 600 Defence Forces personnel who have left since the start of the year approximately 450 are early retirements, with only 150 going compulsorily on age grounds.
Of the 80 retirements this year from the officer ranks, only 25 had reached retirement age. Lieut Col Baston said gaps were emerging in the command structure, particularly in senior ranks.
Those officers who remained on faced a heavier workload and were regularly being transferred to fill vacancies in other parts of the country.
It was imperative senior management within the Defence Forces managed the situation “with a sensitivity” to the increased pressures officers and their families were now under.
Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea said Defence Forces’ numbers would not be allowed to fall any further. He was in talks with Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan to secure an exemption for the Defence Forces to the recruitment moratorium and had already secured an exemption for 50 promotions across all ranks.
“We’re not going to leave it below 10,000 . . . that’s a Government decision. We’ll be recruiting shortly and I’m sure we’ll go back over the 10,000.” The full strength of the Defence Forces in recent years has been 10,500.
Economist Colm McCarthy recommended numbers be reduced to 10,000 over the next three years to save money.
However, early retirements have increased at such a rate since the recruitment moratorium was introduced that Mr McCarthy’s recommended cut over three years has been achieved in a matter of months.
The strength of the Defence Forces reached a record of over 15,000 in the 1990s. A number of reports found a smaller, better equipped force was needed to meet the demands of increasingly robust overseas missions.
Mr O’Dea said these reforms had been achieved under reduced budgets during the last decade when other sections of the public service saw their budgets greatly increase. This achievement on the part of the Defence Forces would not be forgotten in negotiations for the upcoming budget.
Acting chief of staff Maj Gen Dave Ashe said while the Defence Forces was continuing to fulfil its obligations at home and overseas some serious gaps in personnel were now beginning to emerge.
Raco’s conference continues today.