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Thursday 14 December 2017

Training for soldiers cut as numbers in freefall

Defence Forces have faced a personnel exodus. Stock picture
Defence Forces have faced a personnel exodus. Stock picture

Paul Williams

Basic training for Defence Forces recruits has been slashed in a bid to reverse a massive exodus of personnel from the organisation. Many are left disillusioned with pay and conditions of service and the Defence Forces are struggling to reach "establishment strength".

The period of basic training for new recruits has been cut from 18 weeks to 16, at the end of which the soldier qualifies as a two-star private, the Irish Independent can reveal.

A further training course to become a fully qualified three-star private has also been cut, from eight to six weeks.

In a special investigation, military sources claimed that the reduction in training periods was "diluting the professionalism" of the Defence Forces.

It is part of an effort to reverse the haemorrhage of highly trained and experienced personnel, but critics say the Department of Defence is failing to address the core issue of retention of staff.

Figures released to this newspaper illustrate how the military is losing the battle to retain the organisation's establishment strength of 9,500 - as more trained personnel are leaving than are being recruited.

Despite the maximum recruitment drive, the current strength of the Defence Forces is just over 8,900, which is 600 below the strenght required to carry out its basic duties.

So far this year a total of 750 troops were recruited but 200 - or 30pc - left before completing basic training while some 700 experienced soldiers, airmen and sailors left in the same period.

Between January and August this year, another 72 commissioned officers resigned, leaving every unit in the Defence Forces operating with 50pc or less of the required numbers of officers, which has implications for training, safety and capability.

Senior sources said that the urgency to replace the losses incurred by the "brain drain crisis" from all ranks has forced the Department of Defence to forgo normal security clearance protocols which involves gardaí carrying out essential background screening of new entrants.

Instead, the Defence Forces are being forced to Google new applicants and also rely on a letter of reference from a "person of good standing", including a local garda, priest or football team manager, who is known to the potential recruit.

Sources have also revealed that a Government commitment two years ago to double the size of the elite Army Ranger Wing (ARW)has still not taken place.

This is despite the increased threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe.

In August 2015, the then-defence minister Simon Coveney confirmed the dramatic expansion of the ARW as a key plank in the State's counter-terrorism measures.

However, senior military sources have confirmed there has been no increase in the unit's strength, which remains no more than 60 members.

Sources have warned that the general reduction in standards across the Defence Forces could have serious implications for its capability to operate as a modern military force.

"This reduction in training is a further example of the dumbing-down of our military services in a desperate attempt to reverse the exodus of badly needed personnel," a military source told the Irish Independent.

"The objective of accelerating recruitment at all costs is that the department and the Government can hide behind statistics and cover up the fact that the Defence Forces are now barely fit for purpose.

"The recruitment of new troops in advance of proper security screening and also the reduction in the training syllabus will have a detrimental effect on our ability to carry out high-risk military operations which require the highest standards of training and evaluation," the source added.

Irish Independent

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