My priority as Minister for Defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Defence Forces, including the Air Corps, is maintained to the greatest extent possible to enable them to carry out their roles as assigned by Government.
The Equipment Development Plan (EDP) published in June 2020, completed through extensive joint civil-military work, provides a comprehensive list of planned equipment projects by means of a five-year rolling plan. The EDP builds on the intentions set out in the White Paper in relation to equipment acquisition, modernisation and upgrade and has been developed to ensure that the Defence Forces have the major equipment platforms, ancillary equipment and force protection equipment to carry out their important roles both at home and overseas.
The Air Corps operate a fleet of fixed and rotary wing aircraft which provide military support to the Army and Naval Service, together with support for non-military air services such as Garda air support, air ambulance, fisheries protection and the Ministerial Air Transport Service.
The Air Corps two (2) EC135 P2 helicopters entered service in 2005 and will continue, along the fleet of six (6) AW139 helicopters, to deliver the required Defence Forces support and other support capabilities. It is not easy to generalise as to the lifespan of aircraft as this is a function of usage, frequency of landings, the maintenance regime adopted, safety factors and changes in and availability of technological updates which can all bear on the availability and cost effectiveness of maintaining an aircraft in service. Subject to these factors, the average lifespan of most military aircraft would be expected to be 30 years, although there are cases where this period is shorter and indeed, much longer. All equipment priorities are kept under continuous review and there are no plans to replace helicopters at this time.
More generally, a step change in military air-based capability is being achieved, however, through the delivery into service of Pilatus PC-12 aircraft. While nominally a replacement for the Cessna, the new aircraft move capabilities considerably ahead of the previous level. The original order of three aircraft which were delivered in September 2020 was augmented on an urgent basis by an additional aircraft delivered in April 2020 to enhance fixed wing capacity to meet demands arising from Covid-19. The PC-12 has proven itself an effective and versatile asset.
The White Paper also provides for the replacement of the two CASA 235 maritime patrol aircraft with consideration to be given to their replacement with larger more capable aircraft which would enhance maritime surveillance and provide a greater degree of utility for transport and cargo carrying tasks. A contract for the supply of two C295 Maritime Patrol Aircraft was entered into with Airbus Defence and Space in December 2019, with delivery of the aircraft expected in 2023.
The examples given, whilst not exhaustive, demonstrate my commitment to update and upgrade the Defence Forces equipment and capability, within the financial envelope available. Investment under the National Development Plan (NDP) continues to increase. Budget 2021 provides for a further increased gross NDP allocation to €131m in the defence capital budget in respect of equipment and barracks infrastructure. This level of capital funding will allow the Defence Organisation to undertake a programme of sustained equipment replacement and infrastructural development across the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service as identified and prioritised in the Defence White Paper and builds on the significant investment programme over recent years.
I am satisfied that the Defence Forces, including the Air Corps have the necessary modern and effective range of equipment available to them which is in line with best international standards in order to fulfil all roles assigned to them by Government.