Examiner.ie - Sean O'Riordan: Defence Forces are sleepwalking towards a staffing crisis - 16 Jan 23

Inadequate pay, pensions, and conditions are driving personnel out of Ireland's Army, Air Corps, and Navy

Sean O'Riordan: Defence Forces are sleepwalking towards a staffing crisis

'Sources across the Defence Forces, and particularly the navy, have predicted that the exodus of staff is only going to get worse this year.' The LÉ James Joyce at Haulbowline, Cork. File picture: Larry Cummins

Who is going to replace the leaders in the army when there are so few junior officers in its ranks?

What is going to happen when the ever-depleting backbone of the Defence Forces — its army and air corps sergeants and navy petty officers — become so rare that they cannot pass on their experience to new recruits?

These are troubling questions and many with an Irish military background wonder when the political leaders and civil servants in charge are going to address the failure which has led this country to sleepwalk into a personnel crisis across the entire Defence Forces.

In a recent interview, chief of staff Lieutenant General Seán Clancy said almost full employment in the country is hampering military recruitment.

He may be right to some extent, but the root of the problem is that pay and conditions are far better in the private sector and all other areas of the public sector than in the Defence Forces.

A major incentive will have to be provided for young people to sign up to a career that does not fit the traditional nine-to-five mould and often requires long periods away from family due to sea patrols or other duties. 

Some of these can be very dangerous, as became evident recently in Lebanon when Private Seán Rooney was killed in action and Trooper Shane Kearney was seriously injured. Since the 1960s, more than 90 personnel have been killed overseas.

The Defence Forces — right across the Army, Air Corps, and Navy — are haemorrhaging staff and failing to recruit sufficient personnel to make up the difference. Stock picture

The Defence Forces — right across the Army, Air Corps, and Navy — are haemorrhaging staff and failing to recruit sufficient personnel to make up the difference. Stock picture


Those issues are in addition to the pay issues, and the fact that often, additional unpaid hours are expected, as the Working Time Directive does not apply to the Defence Forces.

There are many worrying trends in the defence of this State at the moment, borne out by figures obtained by this newspaper on the current numbers and ranks.

Officers' pensions 

Let’s start with the officers.

Many simply do not see the Defence Forces as being a viable lifetime career because of a pension which is not fit for purpose.

A recent survey conducted by the Representative Association of Commission Officers (Raco) found that a new pension introduced in 2013 for new entrants is considered to be so poor that they will have to leave at some stage to make up for it. Nearly three-quarters of the junior post-2013 officers said they will quit the force early as a result.

Raco general secretary Lieutenant Colonel Conor King said it is “the single biggest factor negatively affecting officer retention in the Defence Forces, and hence the future viability of the Defence Forces”.

Exodus of staff 

PDForra, the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, which represents enlisted personnel, has continuously highlighted the exodus for more than 10 years, and little or nothing substantial has been done to address this.

The decline is stark.  

For example, the army had 7,309 personnel in 2015. In the same year, the air corps had 748 personnel, and the navy had 1,083 — nearly its full strength.

The drop in the navy figure is the most frightening. Life at sea is the hardest role. People are away for weeks on patrol without seeing their families, and conditions can be a challenge at times, in particular in stormy seas.


Since 2015 there has been a steady decline in the number of personnel in the three services. The navy dipped below the 900 mark in 2018 and the numbers have continued to sink since.

The army hit the 7,000 mark by 2019. The smallest branch of the Defence Forces, the air corps, has fluctuated in numbers in the years from 2015 onwards but on the whole, continues to decline.

Sources across the Defence Forces, and particularly the navy, have predicted that the exodus is only going to get worse this year.


The 'LÉ Stryker' effect

There is a well-worn path from the navy to the pharmaceutical and medical tech companies dotted throughout Cork’s lower harbour, while a joke among dissatisfied members is that the best-crewed vessel in the service is the LÉ Stryker — a reference to Stryker, the medical and surgical equipment manufacturer based in Carrigtwohill. Cruise liner companies have also actively sought to recruit officer engineers and technicians from the navy.

It is little wonder that ex-service personnel are being actively sought by private businesses. Only a few years ago, German supermarket chain Aldi started to headhunt Defence Forces officers who were experts in logistics.

While their new roles were difficult, those who made the move simply felt the remuneration was better and the stress levels lower.


Aviation sector 

Technicians in the air corps, who are highly trained, have also found it easy to get better jobs and conditions in airline or aeronautic companies. This has led to the air corps needing to outsource some heavy maintenance work. 

There are also concerns that pilots may look to move into the commercial airline sector now that it is returning to growth, post-Covid.

In addition, across the forces, there are not enough bomb-disposal experts, medics, communications experts, technicians, marine engineers, and engine room artificers, who are vital for keeping ships at sea.

In 2021, only 300 personnel were recruited by the Defence Forces and 591 left, many of them before retirement age.

In 2021, only 300 personnel were recruited by the Defence Forces and 591 left, many of them before retirement age.


While some efforts have been made by successive defence ministers to tackle poor pay and issues associated with allowances or the cost of living, it seems these have not been enough to turn the tide, as the declining staffing numbers show.

Plans to speed up recruitment are ambitious, to say the least. But, even if large numbers of new recruits are attracted, will it be sufficient to turn the tide? How effective will their training be when the backbone of the Defence Forces is not there to pass on experience?

Recruitment and retention

At present, recruitment of new blood is not keeping pace with the number of experienced personnel leaving.

In 2021, a total of 591 personnel left the Defence Forces, many of those before the mandatory retirement age. There were just 300 recruited.

Since 2015, almost 4,000 personnel left the Defence Forces, many of them highly trained and experienced. The corporate knowledge loss has to be immense as a result.


If you do not pay people properly for the jobs they do, they will not stay. Any successful company will tell you that.

The pay may not be significantly greater in the British armed forces, but the adventure, allowances, and conditions certainly are better. For instance, there are no married quarters provided here, which the British have, as have nearly all European states. 

The British also pay generous allowances for troops to help cover rent in accommodation near their bases.

'Trainees are not staff'

Raco and PDForra have also questioned the validity of the official staffing numbers, as they include those in recruit training who, therefore, are not actually available for duty overseas. 

As of November 30, there were 134 personnel undergoing recruit training. A further 97 cadet officers were also in that process. They cannot be activated in the face of outside aggression.


On the same date, there were 65 personnel undergoing elevation training in their private rank status, hundreds more engaged in NCO courses and apprenticeship upgrade schemes, as well as more than 750 on annual leave, meaning the actual day-to-day live strength is far lower than the data suggests.

Add to those figures — which are quite normal — the fact that at any time, there are also likely to be around 550 personnel on overseas missions.

Thin green and blue lines

Yet those who are left on the thin green and blue lines are supposed to carry out a myriad of tasks, often being ordered by their highly-paid political masters, at a drop of a hat, to fix issues.

It could be driving buses, ambulances, and bin lorries during strikes, manning prisons, cleaning up after snow drifts and flooding, and most recently, aiding the fight against Covid-19.

The Defence Forces were often referred to as the “Swiss Army Knife of the State” because they could achieve so much with their extensive training. Too much of that Swiss invention is now missing. Something has to give, unless the Government addresses the obvious issues. The figures speak for themselves.