My priority as Minister for Defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service, is maintained to the greatest extent possible so as to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by Government, including overseas deployments.
The Equipment Development Plan (EDP) published in June 2020, completed through extensive joint civil-military work, provides a comprehensive list of planned equipment projects which will be progressed over five years. This plan 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 our 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 current position regarding the major equipment platform projects is as follows.
The mid-life upgrade of the Army’s fleet of 80 General Dynamics European Land Systems (GDELS) Mowag Piranha III armoured personnel carrier vehicles is well underway. This programme is on-going and continues to command significant resources and commitment of effort. The vehicle, which is the backbone of Defence Forces armoured capability, has been well proven in all its roles since the first vehicles were introduced in 2001. By end-2020, some 47 vehicles have been upgraded including modernisation of protection systems and weapons. The overall programme is due to be completed by 2023. In addition, an order for 28 Armoured Utility Vehicles AUVs was recently placed with Centigon, a French company, and these will provide a level of protected mobility between the levels of soft-skinned light transport and heavier armoured vehicles. Delivery of these vehicles is expected to complete in 2021.
With regard to Defence Forces communications systems, there is continued investment in the development of suitable network enabled communications in order to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex operational environment. In July of 2020 a tender competition was commenced for the supply of Software Defined Radios to the Defence Forces and the competition is currently underway. The scope of the project consists of two main requirements; Personal Soldier Radios and Multi-Band Handheld, Manpack, Vehicular and Airborne radios. Given the complexity of the requirements, the procurement process is expected to be comprehensive in nature with the first radios not expected to enter service before 2023.
There is also continuous investment in the non-armoured vehicle fleet. In 2019, a contract was signed with Toyota Ireland for the replacement of the Army's fleet of 3/4 tonne 4X4 vehicles, the first of which entered service in early 2020. In March of last year, a tender process was completed for the supply of one hundred and twenty (120) new 4X4 Troop Carrying Vehicles, with the award of a contract to Westward Scania, based in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. The first vehicles are scheduled for delivery in Q1 2021 with delivery of all 120 vehicles concluding by 2023. Funding is provided on an on-going basis for the required maintenance of vehicles in the military transport fleet, both at home and overseas.
A step change in military air-based capability is being achieved through the delivery into serivce 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 CASA 235s 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 White Paper on Defence also sets out an ambitious programme of capital investment in the Naval Service including the mid-life refit and upgrade of the P50 class vessels, LÉ Róisín and LÉ Niamh, as well as, in due course, the replacement of LÉ Eithne. The P50 mid-life upgrade programme is well underway. The replacement of the flagship LÉ Eithne with a multi role vessel (MRV) is the next scheduled component of the White Paper fleet investment programme. Projects for other vessel replacement will be considered over the life-time of the White Paper in the context of overall capability development and funding and the Equipment Development Plan (EDP) process. The EDP outlines that the MRV project is in the planning ongoing stage with an indicative timeframe for progression from the current year through to 2024.
The examples given, whilst not exhaustive, demonstrate my commitment to update and upgrade the Defence Forces equipment and capability, within the financial envelope available. In accordance with the National Development Plan, the capital allocation for Defence was increased to €113 million for 2020, an increase of €7 million. The National Development Plan provides for a total of €541 million for Defence over the period 2018-2022. Budget 2021 provides for a further increased gross 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 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.