Wednesday, 15 November 2017
Naval Service Vessels
I wish to acknowledge Senator Gavan's commencement matter. On behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, who cannot be present due to other commitments, I wish to take the opportunity to respond to the Senator on the topic he has raised.
It is a priority of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible. This is primarily to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by Government and as set out in the White Paper on Defence.
The Naval Service is the principal sea-going agency of the State and is charged with maritime defence, fisheries protection, contraband interdiction duties, search and rescue and enforcing Irish and EU law and legislation with the Irish economic zone. This zone currently extends to 132,000 square miles. This area is approximately five times the size of Ireland and amounts to approximately 16% of all EU waters.
The Naval Service currently operates eight ships in a flotilla. Equipment priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service to enable them to carry out the roles assigned by Government are being considered in the context of the lifetime of the White Paper on Defence as part of the capability development and equipment planning process. In this context the principal aim over the period of the White Paper is to replace and upgrade, as required, existing capabilities to retain a flexible response for a wide range of operational requirements at home and overseas.
The defence capital envelope for the period 2018-21 is €416 million. This will enable investment in major equipment platforms, including the continuing replacement and refurbishment of Naval Service vessels. The White Paper underpins the ongoing replacement of the Naval Service fleet. The most significant investment of recent years by the defence organisation has been on the procurement of the new off-shore patrol vessels for the Naval Service. The third ship in the programme, LÉ William Butler Yeats, was commissioned into service in October 2016. The three ships are performing well in operational service and have been a great enhancement to the capacity of the Naval Service.
A contract for an additional sister ship was placed with Babcock International, a British company, in June 2016. The fourth ship, to be named LÉ George Bernard Shaw, is scheduled for delivery in mid-2018. This aligns with the planning process in place under the White Paper on Defence, which will determine the defence organisation's maritime capability requirements. The requirement for a fourth ship is regarded as urgent and expedient given the age of the older remaining ships in the fleet, LÉ Orla, LÉ Ciaraand LÉ Eithne, all of which are over 30 years of age. In tandem with the acquisition of the new ships, the defence organisation has commenced planning for a mid-life refurbishment programme for the LÉ Roisinand the LÉ Niamh. The new ship will allow the Naval Service to meet its patrol day targets with due cognisance to the significant additional operational requirements for the naval fleet under the current Operation Sophia and previously under Operation Pontus in the Mediterranean Sea.
Overall, 17,500 migrants have been rescued since Naval Service vessels were first deployed in the Mediterranean Sea in May 2015 as part of Operation Pontus. The deployment of Irish naval vessels to the humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean over the past three years to engage in search and rescue tasks has been an important element in Ireland's response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. The operation finished in October 2017. Since October 2017, the Naval Service is participating in the EU naval mission Operation Sophia. In accordance with the mandate for the mission, the Naval Service can be involved in surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations, search and rescue operations and disposal of migrant boats and force protection operations. Operation Sophia has thus far contributed to the apprehension of 117 suspected smugglers and traffickers. It has removed 497 boats from criminal organisations and it has contributed to 278 safety of life at sea events. Most important, it has saved the lives of over 41,500 migrants.
The expenditure on the Naval Service vessel replacement programme has to be taken in context the four new offshore patrol vessels will serve the country for the next 30 years and will provide good value for money given the nature of the assets and associated capacity involved. The acquisition of these modern new vessels combined with an ongoing maintenance regime for all vessels within the fleet and the continuous process of refurbishment, refit and repair, will ensure that the operational capacity of the Naval Service as the State's principal sea-going agency are maintained to the greatest extent.
I will address further some of the comments the Senator made in my subsequent contribution.