The Air Corps is almost 25% below its recommend strength with more than 200 vacancies across all ranks.
New figures published by the Department of Defence show that the Air Corps only had 676 fully qualified personnel at the end of February, despite having an “establishment” strength figure of 887.
Approximately half of the 211 current vacancies are at private rank.
Official figures show that the Air Corps has a particular shortage of lieutenants with just 22 officers at that rank — 26 below the recommended level of 48.
Staffing levels in the Air Corps have come under scrutiny since it emerged an Irish Coast Guard helicopter which crashed off the Co Mayo coast during a rescue mission earlier this month had only been tasked to provide cover to another helicopter after the Defence Forces were unable to respond to an original request for assistance.
The Defence Forces claimed it did not have the capacity to provide its Casa fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft outside of normal hours due to the loss of experienced air crew and air traffic controllers.
Figures provided by the Department of Defence to Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh show the Air Corps has been unable to provide “top cover” support to search and rescue missions on 10 occasions since 2015.
Junior defence minister Paul Kehoe said the reasons for the requests being declined included that the aircraft was undergoing maintenance; no crews were available; crews would have exceeded permitted flying hours; weather conditions; the aircraft was on another mission or no air traffic control services were available.
Mr Kehoe said the Irish Coast Guard search and rescue services can draw on the support of the Air Corps on an “as available” basis under a 2013 service level agreement between the Department of Defence and Department of Transport.
He confirmed that the Air Corps had responded positively to 12 requests for “top cover” since 2015 including three missions so far in 2017.
Because of a significant turnover of staff in the Defence Forces, the minister said targeted recruitment has been and is taking place in order to maintain agreed strength levels.
Mr Kehoe added: “Given the improvement in the domestic economy and demand for experienced pilots, the retention of experienced pilot officers in the Air Corps has been a significant challenge for the defence organisation in recent years.”
He admitted there had been an “outflow” of experienced helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft pilots from the Air Corps in recent years.
Fianna Fáil defence spokeswoman Lisa Chambers said the figures highlighted “ a persistent lack of resources for the Defence Forces over the last number of years”.
“Defence is not a priority for the Government as it has allowed this level of vacancies build up over a long time,” said Ms Chambers.
She observed that the recent crash of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter had shone a light on how under-resourced the Air Corps was.
“It’s totally unacceptable they cannot provide top cover outside a 9-5 basis,” said Ms Chambers. “It’s a service citizens expect to be provided.”
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