I propose to take Questions Nos. 68, 72 and 106 together.
The decision to cancel the tender competition for the acquisition of the medium lift helicopters for the Air Corps in July 2002 was taken due to budgetary constraints which meant that the level of defence expenditure had to be reduced. Any decision to acquire medium lift helicopters for the Air Corps in the future can only be taken as the financial resources permit. The decision to cancel the tender competition was an extremely difficult one for me. I am also aware of the acute disappointment felt by the Air Corps personnel when the decision was announced.
However, having consulted the military authorities on the matter at that time, the main priority outlined for the Air Corps was the purchase of fixed-wing trainer aircraft to ensure that cadets continued to be commissioned, trained as pilots and retained in the Air Corps. In that regard, I was delighted to sign a contract with Pilatus of Switzerland in January 2003 for the supply of eight turbo propeller training aircraft which will be delivered in 2004. The value of the contract, including VAT, is around €60 million. These aircraft are a tangible response to the needs of the Air Corps at this time.
When the decision to cancel the tender competition was made, I asked my officials to initiate a review of the provision of helicopter services in conjunction with the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to determine how best to meet the State's obligations in search and rescue while taking account of the current financial position.
An interdepartmental working group was established to examine and consider alternative solutions to the funding issue, such as public private partnerships, with a view to providing medium lift helicopters for the Air Corps by other means. The public private partnership unit in the Department of Finance was also involved in assisting the working group in identifying and assessing possible solutions. In parallel with this, a joint military-civil board was established to review the overall rotary wing requirements for the Air Corps, in particular, the possible procurement of modern light utility helicopters for the Air Corps to replace its current fleet of Allouettes and Gazelles.
Obviously, the procurement of light utility helicopters raises similar issues regarding funding options. Having regard to the need to prioritise asset requirements in the context of available resources, the advice of the working group on funding has been incorporated into the report of the joint civil military board on rotary wing requirements, which deals with both search and rescue and light utility helicopters. This report has been completed by the board and is currently the subject of detailed consideration by senior civil and military management in my Department. I expect the report to be submitted to me in due course.
As the Deputy will appreciate, replacing the rotary aircraft of the Air Corps with modern aircraft would involve significant cost and can only be considered on the basis of prioritised requirements, having regard to available resources. I am committed to maintaining the Air Corps' role in the provision of SAR services, and to this end, the S61 helicopter is being acquired for the Air Corps to operate in the north-west region as a replacement for the Dauphin helicopter. The S61 is being leased by the Irish Coast Guard from CHCI pursuant to existing SAR contracts and has been tasked by the Irish Coast Guard to the Air Corps.
The Air Corps is providing the flight crews and the aircraft is being maintained by CHCI. All of the costs of this operation are being met from my Department's Vote. The S61 will operate out of Sligo Airport, where training is currently on-going. It is expected that the helicopter will go operational for daylight hours this month, with a full 24-hour service operational from October 2003.