The Government has announced a series of measures to increase recruitment and stem the loss of highly-skilled personnel in the Defence Forces.

The Minister of State for Defence made the announcement at the PDFORRA conference this afternoon where delegates highlighted the fact the Defence Forces are at their lowest strength in over 30 years.

The association also pointed out that over 1,000 soldiers, sailors and air corps personnel paid money to leave the service in the last five years.

The inability of the Defence Forces to recruit and retain highly-skilled personnel was highlighted at the PDFORRA conference and raised in the Dáil today.

This afternoon the Minister of State for Defence announced a series of measures to address these problems.

Paul Kehoe said the department would review contracts for personnel, and that there would be 300 promotions, 800 new recruits this year, pay increases, and a budget for 9,500 personnel.

The Chief of Staff also accepted that morale has been affected but he said there is a plan to address this.

Vice Admiral Mark Mellet said he wants people to feel valued and have an opportunity to grow, and he said while the current problems present a challenge, they are not affecting Defence Forces operations and commitments.

He also said that highly-skilled and well-trained Defence Forces personnel would always be sought by the commercial sector.

The issue was highlighted in the Dáil, where Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government is committed to ensuring that at least 9,500 personnel continue to serve in the Defence Forces.

He was responding to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who outlined concerns raised by PDFORRA, which said that around 2,900 members have taken early retirement and 1,000 paid money to leave the forces in the past five years. 

Mr Martin said the Defence Forces were at their lowest strength in 50 years.

"How does the Government plan to keep its commitment to ensure that there is up to 9,500 in the Defence Forces given the poor retention rates of those who join?" he asked. 

The Taoiseach said the Government is "very committed to achieving a target of 9,500 personnel in our Defence Forces.

"In doing so we are going to recruit 800 personnel this year but as the deputy points out, there are a high number of people leaving the Defence Forces each year," he said. 

"580 leave the Defence Forces every year; that has been the case over the past decade."

"Other military such as the UK are experiencing similar issues and it's a normal feature of the military organisations to have quite a high turnover of personnel". 

Mr Varadkar added that pay restoration is having an impact, stating that a newly-qualified three-star private will now earn €27,000 a year, up from €21,000 a year when pay restoration began.

PDFORRA also says the loss of highly-trained specialists is particularly acute in air traffic control, bomb disposal, and in the Naval Service, because staff are overworked and underpaid.

The association says the numbers interested in joining have halved in the past four years, with the majority of those applicants not bothering to complete the entrance test.

There are currently 9,070 serving in the forces, but its optimum strength is 9,500.

PDFORRA also says that because of poor pay and conditions, forced retirement and burnout, more service personnel are leaving than ever before.

It points to the fact that in the past five years over 1,000 of them paid €300 each to get out early, many with specialist skills valued in the commercial sector.

It has also highlighted the particular difficulties this has caused in the Naval Service, Air Corps and bomb disposal units, where it costs over €100,000 to train a specialist.

There are not, PDFORRA says, sufficient personnel to operate a 24-hour air service and air traffic controllers are now on call at night for medical emergencies, a duty they perform without extra pay.

The Naval Service it says has only sufficient numbers for seven crews for its eight ships.

The association says if the Department of Defence is serious about recruiting and retaining personnel, it needs to offer comparable pay and conditions to those in the wider public service.

'No security of tenure'

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, PDFORRA General Secretary Gerard Guinan said that changes to contracts over the past number of years mean there is no security of tenure anymore for members of the Defence Forces.

He said that this, combined with pay cuts, meant a career in the Defence Forces is not the attractive career it once was.

"With the pay cuts that have occurred as a result of the Haddington Road Agreement, pay rates have been reduced. And also significant numbers are having to travel vast distances as virtue of the re-org [re-organisation].

"It's not the attractive career that it once was."