In the future, the present moment will be recalled as a critical time in the history of the Reserve Defence Force. It will be remembered as a time when things could have gone one of two ways. The force is at the lowest point in its history, with an official strength figure of only 1,513 effective personnel or 37% of what the force should have, an annual net loss in members since 2015, significant underutilisation, and only a trickle of resources being sent its way to support reserve activities, an issue that is most keenly felt in terms of recruitment. At the same time, there are developments in train that suggest a possible brighter future for the force. The passage of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 granted reservists employment protection in the event of an emergency call-up, meaning should reservists be temporarily activated for full-time service, their jobs would be legally protected while they were away in uniform. The Reserve Defence Force also forms one of the key terms of reference of the Commission on the Defence Forces, while the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020, which aims to provide reservists with a legal underpinning to engage in domestic and overseas operational service, was recently passed by the Dáil before progressing to the Seanad.
In the coming months, therefore, one of two things will happen. The Reserve Defence Force will either wither away to nothing and finally cease to exist or it will be given a meaningful, modern purpose and become a fully integrated, utilised and utilisable element of the Defence Forces, thereby becoming a rejuvenated, vibrant force again.
Members of the Reserve stood shoulder to shoulder with members of the Permanent Defence Force during the 1940s Emergency period and later along the Border during the Troubles. For decades the force provided the Defence Forces with a local footprint throughout the State, acted as a feeder for the Permanent Defence Force, and stood ready to boost Permanent Defence Force numbers in times of need.
Ultimately, the future of the Reserve will be decided by key civil and military stakeholders. This includes the members of the committee. Why is it a good idea to utilise the Reserve in such a central way and how could this be achieved? The State's national and international defence commitments will only increase in the years ahead. This will be associated with the changing jurisdictional, legal, political and security landscape arising from Brexit, along with our evolving collective responsibilities in the EU and the commitment Ireland retains to supporting international security and humanitarian missions. Such duties and priorities reflect not only the State's values and ethics but also our responsibilities towards financial, economic and social protection, investment and growth.
The actions of adversaries towards the State and its interests require that the military attends to the ongoing development and modernisation of new military capabilities and strategies, which means addressing myriad factors across air, land, sea, cyber and space. Many of the defence and security challenges and priorities for Ireland will necessitate a shift in military culture in the State and throughout State bodies. While priority should remain on urgently addressing and enhancing the deficits within the Permanent Defence Force, there is significant scope to maximise the utilisation of the Reserve. The Permanent Defence Force's establishment is 9,500 personnel but, as of June 2021, the force's strength is only 8,570, with 500 of these being new personnel in training. This has resulted in skills shortages in several key areas. As of February 2021, 50% of officer appointments in the medical and marine engineering branches are vacant while 33% of engineering, 44% of communications and information services and 28% of ordnance officer appointments are also unfilled. The problem is not limited to officer-specific appointments. It was recently reported that the Naval Service is experiencing a 33% deficiency in chefs along with other shortages in non-officer roles such as engine room artificers and medics. Similarly, the Army nursing service currently stands at only 3% to 4% of establishment.
Due to the current low strength figure, the Permanent Defence Force is now experiencing difficulties in filling overseas missions without resorting to the mandatory detailing of personnel. I stress that reservists do not want to take one cent or one career-progressing opportunity away from any member of the Permanent Defence Force but if our regular counterparts need supporting we should be capable of providing that support. There is also a low carrying cost for the contingent capability provided by reservists. We are not in receipt of weekly salaries and are only paid when we engage in relevant military activities. As a result, a concerted effort should begin to grow and develop the Reserve, with associated improvements to the supports provided for reservists. This process should focus not only on addressing critical shortages in key specialist areas in the Defence Force as a whole but also on returning the Reserve to a strength level where it can meaningfully surge in support of the Permanent Defence Force in response to any contingent event.
Put simply, if the State is to prepare for future defence commitments then investment in the Reserve, along with increased training and utilisation, is the best way to achieve this in a cost-effective manner. How could this greater utilisation be achieved? The legislative developments currently in train and the ongoing work of the commission on the Defence Forces are a promising start. However, the devil will be in the implementation detail. Not one of the Reserve Defence Force projects arising from the 2015 White Paper on Defence has been initiated to date so there are understandable fears within the Reserve community that any Reserve-specific recommendations arising from the work of the Commission on the Defence Forces, even those accepted for implementation, will never be acted upon or will be scheduled for initiation long after the Reserve has dropped below a strength level where it simply cannot claw its way back from the brink. Therefore, the first answer to the question on how greater Reserve utilisation could be achieved is to conduct rigorous oversight of the accepted recommendations arising from the work of the commission on the Defence Forces to ensure they are actually implemented, and implemented promptly.
The Reserve needs to be given meaningful purpose across the full range of operational activities, thereby placing it centre stage alongside the Permanent Defence Force. This will necessitate investment and enhanced training and service opportunities for reservists to get the force to a point where it can deliver on such a role. The Reserve also knows that this means increased expectations and outputs will be placed on members. If the State provides greater financial inputs, we know we have to provide more service outputs in return. This will not be an issue for reservists as the culture of the Reserve has always been one of service, stepping up when needed and giving something back.
To secure the availability of future reservists as and when needed additional legislative changes will be required. Reservists are currently considered as volunteers, a status which means that we cannot be compelled, except during an emergency call up, to report into barracks for anything. Therefore, every time members of the Reserve report for training or any other military activity they are technically doing so of their own free will, and each time it all comes down to the personal availability of each individual reservist on that particular day, which will almost always be dictated by whether or not they can get the time off work. Therefore, to provide Permanent Defence Force commanders with the assurances they need that Reserve members will be able to report in without issue if called upon, the Reserve needs to be redefined from volunteers to part-time workers, and a form, or forms, of employment protection legislation needs to be enacted to secure reservists' employment in their absence should they be called up for temporary military service. Coupled with employment protection legislation, there will also be a need to introduce corresponding employer supports designed to help offset the burden placed on employers during their reservist employee's temporary absence. Such schemes have existed for many years in other states and there are multiple successful examples to study and learn from. Such significant changes could not be successfully implemented without the proper emphasis being placed on the management of cultural change within the wider Defence Forces. This is a key area for change managers to address if the Reserve is to be meaningfully utilised in future.
The future Reserve needs to expand, not contract, its footprint across all counties and then be resourced properly to recruit up to full strength. A geographically dispersed Reserve would allow the Defence Forces to maintain a footprint nationwide, which aside from allowing the Defence Forces to have active personnel available throughout the country would make them more visible in general, thereby allowing the Reserve to return to being a meaningful feeder for Permanent Defence Force recruitment. Ultimately, given our current precarious status, reservists nationwide are pinning all their hopes on what will follow the publication of the commission on the Defence Forces' final report. Our current status has also made the Reserve a fertile ground for change. Members are willing to adopt the positive changes that will, hopefully, come our way and are enthusiastic about engaging in the change management process.
The view is that anything would be better than maintaining the status quo. However, tangentially, it is worth noting that in recent months many of the key Reserve issues that need addressing now, and not at some undefined point in future following the conclusion of the commission's work, have been consistently deferred to after the commission’s final report has been published. The commission's ongoing work has become too tempting an excuse to stall fixing a Reserve issue now, by essentially saying we do not know what the commission will come back with so we have decided not to take any action at this time.
In the area of recruitment, current inaction is threatening the Reserve's existence to survive until the commission publishes its final report. While it is accepted that the few applicants still live from the 2019 and 2020 recruitment competitions will now finally be called for induction testing in the coming weeks, this represents only a tiny percentage of what could be achieved if a new properly resourced recruitment competition seeking new applicants was launched nationwide.
While we have outlined the four key enablers for the future Reserve, to stay alive long enough to benefit from the commission's report the current Reserve needs new recruits. There are many other benefits to creating an operational future Reserve. In March 2020, it was reported that 6.9% of the Permanent Defence Force were female, with females comprising 4.2% of overseas missions. As of January 2021, the effective strength of the Reserve is 13.3% female, almost double that of the Permanent Defence Force. The current Army Reserve potential officers course, which is in the process of training the next generation of Army Reserve managers, is 24% female. The part-time nature of Reserve service tends to make it more attractive to females because, by definition, the Reserve has inherently flexible working practices. Given that retention of working mothers is linked to family-friendly organisational cultures, and that, as of March 2020, it was reported that 50% of serving Permanent Defence Force female personnel are mothers, the creation of temporary part-time Permanent Defence Force appointments specifically in support of the Reserve may be beneficial for Permanent Defence Force female personnel by allowing them to avail of a short working week for the duration of their time in such an appointment. Furthermore, Permanent Defence Force personnel seeking a career break could be permitted to take up appointments temporarily on the strength of the Reserve, in essence becoming reservists themselves, for the duration of their career break before returning to the Permanent Defence Force afterwards with no break in military service. Overall, such measures may promote retention of personnel within the Permanent Defence Force.
Anecdotally, a significant proportion of Reserve members have heritage links to other countries, often places where the military has greater visibility or where military service, either of a voluntary or compulsory nature, is more widespread among the population than in Ireland.
Often such members have strong traditions of military service in their families and while preferring to work or study full-time in a civilian capacity, they see service in the Reserve as a part-time way of engaging with this aspect of their heritage. This means the Reserve tends to be more culturally diverse than the Permanent Defence Forces.
The Reserve's annual budgetary allocation, which has remained unchanged since 2014, is €2.15 million per annum, or 0.26% of the €810 million allocated to Vote 36 for the 2021 defence budget. That is not 2.6% but 0.26%. All of this has come to pass while the Vote 36 budgetary allocation has increased by approximately 18% during the same seven-year period. We are stating these figures to show what the Reserve has managed to survive on. It is subsisting but it has nonetheless survived for the past decade. Even still, it has managed to deliver a level of professional training to members as well as supporting the Permanent Defence Forces inside and outside of barracks, albeit in an unfortunately limited fashion, both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic and in support of the HSE during the recent cyberattack. We did all this on the budgetary equivalent of peanuts.
A modest investment in the Reserve, along with the operational utilisation of members, the introduction of a form or forms of employment protection and employer supports, a geographical expansion of the force and the proper resourcing of recruitment, along with rigorous oversight of the whole process will create a well-trained, utilisable and cost effective force that can support the Permanent Defence Forces as and when needed. It can do so in the areas of both specialist skills and in a surge capacity in cases of contingent events. This is a crossroads moment and a once in a generation opportunity for the Reserve to finally become an integral element of the Irish defence infrastructure. We sincerely hope this will become a reality in the near future.