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Irish Defence Forces
strategic risk

Irish Army captain: dangers of live fire exercise an increased risk due to staffing shortfalls

Capt Karl Muckian said that such is the shortfall that the issue should be added to the strategic risk register.

A DEFENCE FORCES captain has warned that the shortage of officers in operational units is a safety risk for live fire exercises. 

Capt Karl Muckian told the annual conference of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (RACO) that such is the shortfall that the issue should be added to the strategic risk register. 

This is an internal document that identifies all risks to the Defence Forces organisation and prioritises a response to those risks and develops mitigation measures. 

Muckian used the example of the death of Irish-born Ranger Michael Maguire in 2012, who was serving in the British Army, who was killed in an accidental shooting at a UK military range to illustrate the problem. 

Two UK military officers were found guilty of his killing through negligence following a British courts martial.

They were convicted after the trial was told they failed to attend a reconnaissance of the range when preparing a safety plan for the use of the range and placed targets too close together.

Muckian said that this incident was a clear indication of the importance of safety on military ranges and the need for appropriate staffing levels to mitigate against potentially lethal mistakes. 

The officer said that the current problem of retention within the Defence Forces was being exacerbated by the need of officers to take on more and more work to meet the demand created by higher recruitment levels and falling instructor numbers. 

“Why should we accept a level of risk where a similar incident could happen to us due to a lack of supervision, knowledge or experience? For us here, what we must takeaway is
that a lack of supervision, a lack of knowledge and a lack of experience leads to accidents
and in the most extreme, death.

“The loss of corporate knowledge in the Defence Forces as we haemorrhage experienced personnel is an unacceptable risk for us as the organisations managers. Knowledge, experience, supervision and oversight is a key aspect of safety currently affected by staffing levels.

“The risk to the organisation is that inadequate staffing levels and the loss of experienced personnel is directly affecting safety. Everyone knows this. The dogs in the street know this. It is for this reason that I ask all here today to support the motion of adding staffing levels to the Defence Forces Strategic Risk Register,” Muckian said. 

50432128161_e48c03fdde_o An Irish Defence Forces machine gun crew conducting a live fire range practice in the Glen of Imaal. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

Strength in station

RACO conducted a strength in station survey on a given day in November 2022 to determine the an accurate picture of the number of officers normally or routinely present for duty.

Lt Col Conor King, General Secretary of RACO, said the survey found a chronic shortage in officer ranks, particularly among those at captain rank.

Captains are a critical leadership rank and they lead operational companies across the Defence Forces.

The survey did not identify the locations of the various infantry battalions but found that in two of the groupings they were at 40% and as low as 36% of the recommended staffing level. The other two were at 60% and 52%.

None of the seven infantry battalions had more than 50% in the strength of captains while two of the infantry battalions had just one captain each or just 12.5% of the required level of members. 

All infantry battalions have just between four and seven lieutenants out of 11 and of the three cavalry squadrons surveyed two of those groupings had one out of a recommended three captains. While the third had no captain at all. 

In one of the Communications Information Services Corps one company there were just three captains out of a recommended 12. 

The Naval Service had just seven qualified Sub Lieutenants out of a recommended minimum strength of 22.

One of the operational wings of the Air Corps has 12 qualified pilots out of a recommended strength of 48.

The strength of medical officers is at 11 out of a minimum recommended strength of 21 Medical Officers available to see patients.

King said that RACO has been highlighting the issue of understaffing in operational units since 2015. 

“The fact that not only has this risk not been mitigated by credible retention initiatives but has in fact deteriorated has resulted in 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.

“Voluntary outflow can be healthy but only where it is replaced with adequately trained and experienced personnel.

“Trained and experienced professionals are a prerequisite for safe and effective operational output. You cannot lead from an empty desk.

“The link between inadequate supervision, mentoring and governance, and ineffective grievance management procedures is undeniable,” he said.

RACO President Comdt Martin Ryan said Defence Forces units are operating at a chronic shortage of members – he said that his own unit has an overall working strength in station of 27%.

“We urgently need an establishment that accurately reflects the body of work undertaken by the Defence Forces at home, abroad, in the air and at sea. We ask you again to end the system of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The RACO President called for the creation of an organisational structure that is fit for purpose, that matches the newly acknowledged required establishment of 11,500.


Speaking to The Journal Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said that his department were on course to increase officer numbers but admitted that there are concerns around the number of captains. 

The Minister uses the word establishment which is military speak for the agreed minimum staffing requirement.  

“In truth we’re actually above the establishment strength in terms of officers in the defence forces.

“So while there are issues within elements of the officer corps, like, for example, at captain rank where we need more numbers, the overall numbers in terms of officers and of course, the pipeline in terms of people coming in to the officer ranks in the defence forces are strong and are actually ahead of the establishment.

“In other areas in the Defence Forces, we have huge challenges. We are considerably below where we’d like to be, in terms of numbers more than 1000 people below,” he said.  

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