My priority as Minister with responsibility for Defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible.
The allocation of over €1 billion for the Defence Sector for 2019 emphasises the importance attached by the Government to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the resources necessary to deliver on all roles assigned by Government, both at home and overseas.
In terms of equipment, priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are considered in the context of the White Paper on Defence as part of the capability development, infrastructure and equipment planning processes. The principal aim over the period of the White Paper is to replace and upgrade, as required, existing capabilities in order to retain a flexible response for a wide range of operational requirements, both at home and overseas.
Significant work is well advanced in relation to updating the Air Corps' fleet of aircraft with the replacement of the existing Cessna fleet with three larger, more capable, fixed wing utility Pilatus PC 12 aircraft which are being equipped for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance). It is expected that delivery of these new aircraft will commence in 2020. Planning is also well advanced to replace the CASA Maritime Patrol aircraft and a tender competition is currently close to finalisation in this regard.
The on-going Naval Service ship replacement programme is evidence of the Government's commitment to investment in the Naval Service. Four new Offshore Patrol Vessels were delivered between 2014 and 2018. In addition, planning is now underway for the replacement of the current Naval Service flagship LÉ Eithne with a new Multi Role Vessel.
In terms of personnel, between 2016 and 2018 over 2,000 personnel were inducted into the Permanent Defence Force (PDF) while, in February 2019, the largest ever cadet class in the history of the State was commissioned. Nevertheless, I recognise that reaching a full strength of 1,094 Naval Service personnel and a full strength of 886 Air Corps personnel is a key challenge for the Defence Forces at present but I am committed to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the means to continue to carry out the roles assigned by Government. In this regard, a range of alternative recruitment approaches are being taken including the fact that the competition for General Service Recruits now remains open throughout the year to maximise the Defence Forces' training capacity and to give applicants more opportunities to apply.
As I have previously outlined, the UK decision to exit from the EU does not of itself give rise to greater responsibilities for the Defence Forces. However, prudent planning in relation to all situations that may require a Defence Forces response, including by the Naval Service and the Air Corps, is undertaken by the Defence Forces in the normal course. Furthermore, my Department continues to monitor the ongoing situation to ensure that both it and the Defence Forces are fully prepared to address any potential issues that might arise in the defence area as a consequence of Brexit.