Putting troops through battleground training exercises involving live bullets and grenades has been severely curtailed due to the lack of suitably-qualified officers.
Live-fire tactical training is essential for soldiers to ensure they become used to operating in a high-pressure environment and to prepare them for a real attack.
Yesterday, a RACO (Representative Association of Commissioned Officers) conference heard that tactical training exercises for those undertaking missions overseas are no longer part of regular training.
“The result is that high-end operational capabilities are now diluted, potentially posing a greater risk to those serving in the Defence Forces,” RACO general secretary, Earnan Naughton, said.
Instructors are also being given less time to prepare for such an exercise, because of heavy workloads, and so there is a risk of endangering the safety of those involved.
Meanwhile, serious concerns were raised about the Defence Force’s ability to cope with climate-change damage, due to a lack of engineers and equipment. It has only two bridges, in kit form, which can be assembled in emergencies for use by the public.
One of them, a Bailey Bridge purchased in the 1950s, was used when a bridge was destroyed by storms in Co Donegal last August. The other remains in storage.
An engineers’ unit, once based in Dublin, has been disbanded and the country is served by units in Athlone and Cork.
An officer told the conference one of those units was only at 25% of its effective strength.
Lieut Col Naughton also said RACO had highlighted the manning crisis at its 2015 conference and, since then, there were two comprehensive reviews, by the University of Limerick, on service conditions in the Defence Forces, and a report by the Public Service Pay Commission.
He said both reports showed retention was a major organisational issue, “with evidence that the loss of expertise is negatively impacting on the safety, operational performance, and wellbeing of Defence Force personnel”.
The service had 11,500 members in 1995, but the number of trained personnel had dropped to less than 9,000. It is the lowest operational strength in 30 years.
“The Defence Forces has witnessed eight reorganisations in 23 years,” Lieut Col Naughton said. “Underpinning the 2012 reorganisation was solely based on budget target, as opposed to operational requirements, now resulting in a force that is struggling to maintain effective operational outputs.”.
Lieut Col Naughton said officers are spending 56% of their time away from their base station, not including overseas tours of duty.
He told the Minister with Responsibility for Defence, Paul Keogh, he had to support claims by RACO for the same side deals which gardaí, firefighters, and prison officers secured as part of the second round of Lansdowne Road pay talks.
He also urged Mr Keogh to introduce immediate retention initiatives “that are quick-impact” and which will meet the unique demands of military service.
Mr Keogh said he had asked the department to fill “skills gaps” as a priority and that he was also looking at direct-entry schemes from the private sector and at re-employing former soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
“There’s a lot going on in the background. There are a number of people who have served who want to come back into the organisation,” he said.
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