52. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the steps he is taking to address the personnel gaps in the Defence Forces; the areas in which these gaps are most acute; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 52732/17 asked on 12 Dec 2017)

Deputy Paul Kehoe: From the most recent figures available, the strength of the Permanent Defence Force is currently 9,219 personnel, or 97% of the establishment of 9,500 personnel. To return to and maintain the agreed strength levels, significant targeted recruitment has taken place in 2017 which resulted to date in 702 personnel being inducted, comprising general service recruits, cadets and specialists for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service. Similar recruitment campaigns are being planned for 2018.

As I have previously outlined, there are particular challenges with vacancies in certain specialist posts, such as pilots, air traffic controllers and certain technicians. These specialists can prove difficult to retain where, as in the current economic circumstances, there are ongoing private sector and commercial semi-State sector job opportunities.

The number of officers as at 31 October 2017 is 1,056 out of an establishment of 1,233. The number of cadets in training has substantially increased recently, with 100 cadets having been recruited in each of the years 2016 and 2017. Approximately 70 Army cadets will be commissioned in January 2018.

To address these difficulties, a range of recruitment methods are being employed, including direct entry competitions for specialist positions. I have directed the civil and military management to develop proposals for expanding such direct entry recruitment of specialists and a scheme to facilitate former members of the Permanent Defence Force with appropriate skill sets to re-enter the Defence Forces. The Public Service Pay Commission will further examine the issue of retention of specialist personnel in accordance with the provisions of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020.

In tandem with these actions, my Department is also engaged in planning on a longer-term basis. Projects arising from the White Paper on Defence around topics such as medium-term manpower planning and encouraging as wide a pool as possible for recruitment are already under way. Further projects, scheduled to begin in the new year, will address issues such as age profiles and a gap analysis of skill sets within the Permanent Defence Force. The gap analysis will help to identify the frequency of such gaps and identify appropriate measures to address them.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who was kind to allow me to come in. The other side of the very poor pay and conditions are the huge gaps in the establishment figure of Defence Forces. The Minister of State told me recently there are only seven crews to man eight ships in the Naval Service. The bomb disposal unit workload has doubled but there are major gaps in that unit. The most serious of all is the Air Corps. A few months ago, the Minister of State told me there were 132 vacancies in the establishment figure. We saw the serious impact of this in March 2017, in the tragedy off the Mayo coast when an Air Corps plane was not able to be brought into use. Clearly, there are major gaps across the Defence Forces. I voted against PESCO. I believe that a strongly neutral country should have an effective defence force that is well paid, well looked after and available to serve the nation. I ask the Minister of State to address the serious gaps in the current force.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: The establishment strength and number of ships in the Naval Service have not changed in decades. The Deputy referred to the Irish Coast Guard. The latter is responsible for coast guard activities and assistance is provided on an available basis.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: The Irish Coast Guard requested the assistance of the Air Corps in the instance to which I refer.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: It is on an available basis only.