Following the tragic loss of the crew of R116 in Mayo last Tuesday morning, a torch was shone on the Defence Forces' response. The Air Corps' initial inability to deploy a Casa fixed-wing aircraft came under scrutiny. This was understandable, and indeed necessary.
However, no good was served by the subsequent predictable and indeed unworthy media responses by the Department of Defence. These statements focused solely on attempting to distance themselves from the calamitous HR strategy that currently exists within the Defence Forces. Continuous recruitment is essential, but retention of hard-earned specialists and specialist skills is even more important.
Government and Department of Defence officials focused on convincing the public that the 28 Air Corps cadets in training, with eight due to graduate in Q4 of 2017, were an adequate response to Air Corps' pilot shortages. It suggested they had the problem under control. The truth is none of these eight trainees will be qualified to even act as co-pilots of a helicopter or fixed-wing Casa in an Air Corps operational wing until the summer of 2019, at the earliest. Nowhere in their statements was this crucial fact explained. Not accepting responsibility for the continuing failures to retain highly trained pilot officers seemed to be the end game.
To train a bomb disposal officer takes six years - two years of specialist training added to his or her four-year science or engineering university degree course. Specialist Naval Service deck officers take years of intensive training to man the bridge of a Naval ship. Naval Service engineer officers take similar years of training to assume their duties unsupervised. Specialist Army Ranger wing officers are front-line responders for the State in response to terrorist threats. They take similarly long years of training at home and abroad, coupled with lengthy operational experience, to assume command positions.
To achieve this wide spectrum of specialist and unique competence, the State invests vast resources of time and money. Failure to focus on retaining these specialists across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service rests exclusively at the door of successive ministers for defence and the Department of Defence. It is they who have overall responsibility for budgetary and associated strategic HR strategies.
If budgetary considerations are so paramount, I would suggest its management leaves a lot to be desired. Take for example the fact that the State already pays for a standing overhead in the Air Corps with aeronautical engineers, avionics specialists, airframe inspectors and allied ground crew specialists. With the contracted services that exist, the State pays for this overhead 'on the double'. A fully transparent and truly independent cost-benefit analysis of the full cost of contracted air services versus a fully staffed and resourced Air Corps is long overdue.
The clumsy imposition of public service standardisation on the Defence Forces following the financial crash is fine in theory, but fails to address the needs of an organisation that must train and develop skill sets from within due to the non-standard capabilities it must deliver.
You cannot induct qualified military skill sets off the street. The unique nature of military service requires non-standard terms of service, from fitness and medical benchmarks to remuneration and supporting conditions of service. Failure to factor in these unique demands, and the timelines required to develop these competencies, inevitably results in manning gaps. The Defence Forces will thus not have the requisite capacity to fulfil the designed range of capabilities required by the State.
At its delegate conference in November 2015, against the background of the Paris terrorist attacks, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officer (RACO) identified these issues. The response of the then defence minister Simon Coveney and his department was to suggest that RACO was scaremongering.
The situation has got progressively worse. The department is curtailed by the Government's public service standardisation policy as opposed to fit-for-purpose policies that deliver the requisite results from a resourcing perspective. One size does not fit all in this context. The blind application of public service standardisation themes will not deliver the appropriate outputs. It is a blunt instrument that is bludgeoning highly skilled Defence Forces personnel out of the Defence Forces.
An example of a simple initiative successfully applied in the past was the Service Commitment Incentive Scheme. This paid a commitment bonus of €20,000 for those who committed for a three to five-year period. During the period of this scheme, the exit of Air Corps pilots reduced considerably. Full operational capability resulted. The cost-benefit analysis of this approach, where the training cost of a pilot is in the region of €1.5m, is a no-brainer.
There is neither a simple nor one-fix solution to the resource crisis the Defence Forces now find themselves in. Yes, the latest recruitment campaign is welcomed, but it must be sustained year-on-year. Equally, a fit-for-purpose retention policy must be immediately introduced; otherwise the State will continue to pay over the odds for expertise that ultimately benefits only commercial organisations.
The recent financial crisis brought into public discourse the belief that the arrival of the Troika led to a loss of our sovereignty. Ideals of sovereignty have been enshrined in international affairs and discourse since before our independence. Treaty obligations on sovereignty revolve, inter alia, around issues such as identifiable populations, defined borders, the assumed ability to defend those borders, protection of its citizens etc.
It would seem that our own view of sovereignty, sadly, now rests narrowly with issues of mammon. Having fit-for-purpose uniformed resources at the disposal of the State to protect its citizens and borders is a long-established and internationally accepted test of real sovereignty. The Defence Forces have never wavered in their loyalty to the State. Some loyalty reciprocation by the State towards the Defence Forces is long overdue.
Brig Gen Ger Aherne (retired) commanded the 4th Western Brigade of the Defence Forces and is a former commander of the European Union Training Mission for Somalia