We are privileged to be afforded the opportunity to join the members of the committee and the secretariat today to give the perspective of the officers of Óglaigh na hÉireann on current retention issues affecting our members and the Defence Forces.
The Defence Forces have been in a state of slow decline for almost a decade, and it has reached the point where this decline is becoming irreversible. Numerous reviews and commissions have touched on the root cause of this decline, without actually addressing it, which is the failure to adequately resource defence in order to retain highly qualified and experienced personnel to maintain capability.
RACO represents 95% of all Defence Forces commissioned officers and had the honour of addressing this committee just over two years ago in May 2019. At that time, it was an accepted fact that the Defence Forces was in a manning-level crisis. We were then awaiting the report of the Public Service Pay Commission, which ultimately proved to be a major disappointment. The measures contained within the report fell well short of what was required, and many still have not been implemented two years on by senior military and civil management, who continue to refuse to engage meaningfully with the representative associations. This has seen a scarcely believable deepening of the crisis, with the organisation's strength having fallen further still to its current low of approximately 8,580, with only around 8,200 of these deployable. We ask ourselves whether we have reached the bottom yet.
Although we are dealing with an organisation in crisis, the Defence Forces still has many positive aspects. There are few careers today that can offer the sense of identity, camaraderie, and individual and collective pride that a life in the Defence Forces can. There is much that we do well as an organisation, from overseas deployment, maritime security and emergency aeromedical service and training and education, but we are undermined by a lack of investment, resources and contingent capability. Our members are undervalued and overstretched and are leaving the Defence Forces at an unsustainable rate for more stable opportunities in the public service, or better paid positions in the private sector.
Our mission is "to champion the well-being of our members" and our key message is that the resourcing, remuneration, motivation and retention of personnel is critical to saving the Defence Forces and ensuring its viability into the future. It is our firm belief that without adequately trained, motivated and incentivised personnel, there can be no defence capability. The greatest challenge to the Defence Forces today is simply staffing its appointments, particularly at the middle ranking officer and NCO level. It has been demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that we cannot hope to recruit our way out of this retention crisis. The White Paper on Defence states that the most fundamental requirement and a critical factor for success is well trained, motivated, experienced and capable personnel with a wide range of skills and experience in order to successfully deliver government requirements. However, the increased rates of voluntary departures and rapid induction in recent years mean that 24% of all operational personnel in the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service have five years' service or less. For officers, it is even more stark. Since the commissioning of the latest extraordinarily large cadet class, 35% of all commissioned officers have fewer than five years' service. This has severe implications for governance and supervision and increases organisational risk. It is telling that of all the White Paper projects reportedly closed thus far, five years into the process, none have had any tangible impact on the retention of personnel.
The dysfunctional cycle of turnover, identified by University of Limerick, UL, researchers in 2016, has led to an ever-decreasing pool of suitably qualified and experienced personnel, and in an organisation whose stock in trade is the profession of arms and the management and execution of lethal force, this is a grave risk. Between 2016 and 2020 the organisation inducted 3,116 personnel while losing 3,679, which was 41% of the average strength for those five years.
This rate of churn has also led to a crippling recruitment effort, delivered by our members, but no amount of water has been able to fill the leaky bucket that the organisation has sadly become. Our members are called on by the Minister to care for and mould the countless recruit and cadet inductees who are currently inflating strength figures but are refused the specialised instructors allowance, which was taken from officers under the Haddington Road agreement and has yet to be reinstated. Non-commissioned officer, NCO, instructors rightly continue to receive this payment. However, officers bear the ultimate responsibility.
When we look at the cost of training an officer, the cost-benefit of retention over recruitment is self-evident. The cost of training one officer cadet is estimated at more than €100,000 per student. At what point of dysfunction will management favour retention over the continual failing demands of recruitment? We cannot go to market to recruit a captain or a sergeant; we have to replace them with cadets and recruits. The cost of training a specialist officer in engineering, ordnance or communications is significantly higher. The high rate of turnover has created significant manning level gaps in both line operation and technical units. We aspire to be tech-enabled but we cannot train and retain sufficient technicians to maintain our current equipment.
The solution to the staffing crisis was to be the high-level implementation plan, Strengthening our Defence Forces, which has unfortunately been allowed to fail by Defence Forces' senior management, accompanied by a lack of political will to resource it and an absence of meaningful oversight. To have seven out of 15 projects still behind schedule two years into a one-year plan would be unacceptable at any time but the fact that this is occurring in a Government plan, sponsored and monitored by the Department of the Taoiseach, in the face of the well documented Defence Forces recruitment and retention crisis, is unconscionable. This does not bode well for future expansion to meet unmet defence and security needs that the ongoing Commission on the Defence Forces will likely identify.
Our military structures need significant adjustment. Critical to the majority of the significant human resource issues in the Defence Forces at this time is a lack of contingency built into the establishment. The employment control framework was imposed at a time of severe financial crisis and is no longer fit for purpose. The reorganisation in 2012 cut what was seen as the fat of the organisation at the time, seeking a lean organisational structure. However, in an organisation that has been structured on a lean basis, every appointment has, therefore, been deemed essential. Thus, the removal of any personnel to fill a non-establishment vacancy, such as overseas, training courses and, most recently, the establishment of a joint task force to support the HSE, strips away an essential employee from his or her normal place of work. Consequential staffing gaps have a direct impact on the welfare and morale of personnel exacerbating the dysfunctional cycle of turnover. Trainees should not be part of the organisation's reported strength as this provides a misleading perspective on the strength and health of the organisation. Indeed, the high level of inductees in training further diminishes capability as those personnel who are required to instruct are also removed from day-to-day operations. In many instances, there are no dedicated appointments for this training.
The catch-all pay determination model that applies to the public sector fails to catch all of the public service. The worst off in this model are the Defence Forces. Our members willingly forgo the right to industrial action and submit themselves to abide by military law. They are subject to mandatory selection for overseas service, are required to achieve strict annual medical and fitness standards, are subject to compulsory random drug testing, are liable to be posted away from family for extended periods of time and bear an unlimited liability in their service to the State, ultimately willingly volunteering to place themselves in harm’s way. Unfortunately, this loyalty and commitment to serve has attracted much praise but little else from successive governments.
The only way for the Defence Forces to become employers of choice as envisaged in this high-level plan is to compensate for the restrictions of military service by breaking relativities with other public sector bodies. RACO welcomed the commitment in the programme for Government to a standing independent pay review body but fails to understand how such a body can recognise the unique nature of military service, while remaining within national wage structures as envisaged in the terms of reference. Such a mechanism for pay determination must deal with the unique retention issues that the Defence Forces experience in isolation or it cannot, and will not, work. Our members noted with dismay the appalling treatment of the Defence Forces in the recent pay negotiations despite pronouncements by relevant Ministers, verbally and in writing, that there would be parity of esteem and fair treatment.
The removal of a supplementary pension provision means 79% of post-2013 Defence Forces' officers are planning to leave the organisation well in advance of their mandatory retirement age due to inadequate provisions. To put this in context, this cohort makes up 45% of our membership. It is the ticking retention time bomb that will undo any other good work done by our members who have worked so tirelessly to facilitate the unprecedented induction training levels. If this is not resolved, then all the effort put into inducting and training the recent extraordinarily large cadet classes will have been for nothing as we watch them walk out the door. It is the very opposite of value for money and threatens future organisational viability. It is a significant barrier to retention of our members, which is reflected in our recent exit survey finding that 30% of retiring Defence Forces' officers would not recommend a career in the organisation to their family or friends and a further 34% would do so only with significant improvements in conditions.
The working time directive's health and safety provisions set out limits on the number of continuous hours employees can work over certain periods. It is clear that in the current environment the Defence Forces cannot meet the requirements of the directive and maintain its operational outputs. What is equally clear is that a failure to provide adequate rest and compensatory time off for military personnel is significantly impacting their home life and, therefore, the ability of many of them to maintain a career in the Defence Forces. For too long our management has treated members’ time as an infinite resource, without consideration of work-life balance. The fact that our organisation has never even recorded working time, in contravention of EU law, has denied our members access to benefits, such as overtime, which are available to other public sector employees.
The current strength of the Defence Forces is well below the established minimum. What is not reflected, and what the implementation of the working time directive will surely reveal, is just how inadequate that minimum actually is. RACO has attempted to seek engagement on the implementation of the directive with our management in a reasonable and collaborative manner through the conciliation and arbitration scheme for the Defence Forces, for many years now, without success. This has now necessitated the commencement of legal proceedings to vindicate the rights of our members. Enhanced capability ensures the protection, health, safety and well-being of our personnel, inspires pride in service and improves retention. Critical enablers possessed by normal military forces, such as strategic airlift, are not only logistical and strategic assets, they also enhance the well-being of personnel by ensuring that our people can be deployed and recovered from overseas missions in a safe and timely manner.
Government spending on defence, the lowest in the EU by any identifiable metric, is dangerously inadequate. What defence services do we not provide the citizens of this State that other EU armed forces provide and does this capability gap pose any strategic risks to Ireland, our citizens or our EU partners? We must never apologise for the maintenance and resourcing of the State’s insurance policy. The Chief of Staff should be accountable for a significant operational share of the defence budget, with an emphasis on operations, capital expenditure and infrastructure. Furthermore, we cannot continue to rely on pay savings to fund capability development.
The Army is required to maintain a contingent capability in order to be able to discharge its primary role, "to provide for the military defence of the State from armed aggression". There are very significant capability and capacity deficiencies within the brigades. The Defence Forces' current level of deployment on overseas operations is significantly higher than that of comparable militaries. Our members are very proud of our record of overseas service. However, the retention crisis has resulted in a significant impact on the frequency with which our personnel are required to travel. According to military management, in 2020 almost 25% of deployable Army strength was deployed overseas at one point or another.
The Naval Service must be equipped and able to respond to identified threats. However, it has nine ships but barely an establishment for six and, therefore, is set up to fail. A lack of resilience in human resources has plagued Naval Service operations in recent times, with patrols cancelled due to the lack of suitably qualified and experienced personnel and two of our State’s national fleet being tied up for the long term. This has a huge effect on the ability to conduct maritime defence and security operations effectively and safely and cannot be allowed to continue.
The Air Corps has no primary radar or intercept capability. Coupled with these deficiencies, the State’s capacity for air mobility remains inadequate, leaving the air domain open to exploitation by any hostile actor or element. By formulating a whole-of-State policy, assigning specialist aviation roles such as search and rescue to the Air Corps, mutual benefits can be achieved for the State, the Defence Forces, the Air Corps and, most important, the personnel who deliver these services.
Our infrastructure is in dire need of an overhaul. The Defence Forces training centre, which is a centre of excellence for all training in the organisation, is in a dilapidated state due to lack of investment. The 19th century structures are in urgent need of repair and, in many cases, demolition. Our stock of accommodation is insufficient for our personnel needs throughout the country. If the defence organisation is really serious about dignity in the workplace and the health, safety, and welfare of its people then it has much work to do. Much of it comes down to an apparent policy of managed decline. The failure to replace civilian tradespeople as they retire has also severely curtailed the maintenance and upkeep of our facilities. Our people deserve to feel proud of the conditions in which they live and work. In too many locations, this is simply not the case.
The ongoing Commission on the Defence Forces, which RACO called for in our previous appearance before this esteemed committee, is currently examining what the State wants us to do and what resources are required to execute the mission. If we are to be serious about defence and security then major surgery and enormous investment are required in Defence Forces capabilities, structures and staffing. We have allowed this proud organisation to deteriorate to an alarming degree through a mixture of unsuitable policy, comparatively poor pay and conditions of service and a failure to invest in our people and structures. The commission must be bold and ambitious in its recommendations if it is to make any tangible impact on a problem that is becoming unfixable. We note that the terms of reference state that in arriving at its findings and recommendations for arrangements for the effective defence of the country, the commission will have regard to the level of funding provided by Government for defence. We earnestly hope that this funding will be adequate to meet the demands generated by the experts' recommendations and, more fundamentally, that these recommendations will not be constrained by the resources allocated.
Planning without resources is simply dreaming. We have a poor track record of policy implementation in the defence sector from the White Paper on defence to the high-level implementation plan. The commission’s recommendations must be fully resourced and accompanied by a strong implementation oversight body to ensure that its good work is not allowed to wither on the vine. If that occurs, there could be a bright future ahead for Óglaigh na hÉireann.
In conclusion, I acknowledge the phenomenal efforts of all of our members - supported by their families - who continue to put their shoulders to the wheel for the State during the pandemic response and in their normal day-to-day roles on land, afloat, in the air and overseas. From testing, tracing, vaccination and logistical support to the HSE, they have all truly done the nation proud during the fight against Covid-19 and are owed a debt of gratitude and not just flattery. The versatile and steadfast insurance policy that the Defence Forces provides to the State has been highlighted time and again. We cannot allow the likes of Covid-19 and the inevitable shock to the public finances to be a reason not to invest in defence. On the contrary, it is specifically because of "Black Swan" events such as a global pandemic that we need the robust national insurance policy that the Defence Forces provide. We must acknowledge and reward our people’s efforts in facilitating the organisation’s essential contribution to national resilience notwithstanding the inadequate defence budget and argue that the insurance policy which the State demands from the Defence Forces can only be comprehensive if it is properly funded and resourced. I sincerely thank the Chairman and committee members for their time. We are happy to take any questions from members.