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.
The mid-life upgrade programme for the Army’s fleet of 80 MOWAG Armoured Personnel Carriers, which is currently well underway, will extend the utility of the fleet and provide greater levels of protection, mobility and firepower. Other recent enhancements have been the acquisition of 24 4 x 4 armoured utility vehicles and 10 new armoured logistic vehicles. These measures will provide essential force protection overseas.
Significant work is also 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 in progress to replace the CASA Maritime Patrol aircraft and a tender competition is currently underway 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.
The examples given, whilst far from exhaustive, demonstrate my commitment to the continued update and upgrade of the Defence Forces equipment and capability, within the financial envelope available. In accordance with the National Development Plan, the capital allocation for Defence increased to €106 million for 2019, an increase of €29 million. The National Development Plan provides for a total of €541 million for Defence over the period 2018-2022. 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.
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 strength level of 9,500 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.
In terms of overseas, at present there are some 670 members of the Defence Forces serving in missions worldwide. Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions are equipped with the most modern and effective equipment. This equipment enables troops to carry out the mission assigned, as well as providing the required protection specific to the mission. Ongoing threat assessments are carried out in mission areas and we continually review both equipment and force assets to ensure that Defence Forces' personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfil their roles.