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An Army Ranger Wing operator. Irish Defence Forces
Fianóglach

Inside the Army Ranger Wing: Prep for overseas deployments as new laws beckon

The State is set to redraft laws which govern the deployment of the elite unit and other parts of the Defence Forces.

AS THE GOVERNMENT reviews legislation which could lead to more frequent deployment overseas by Irish Defence Forces personnel, the elite Army Ranger Wing trains for scenarios that are likely to occur in peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions. 

Despite a limit to how and where they can be deployed currently, the unit was tested recently in the evacuation of Afghanistan as Kabul fell to the Taliban.

The Rangers were also deployed to work with German colleagues as part of the UN MINUSMA mission dealing with the Islamic terror insurgency in sub-Saharan Mali. 

Most recently, they traveled to the Horn of Africa where they assisted the Department of Foreign Affairs in evacuating Irish citizens from Sudan. 

As the State is set to redraft laws which govern the deployment of the Army Ranger Wing and other units, its members look to those missions and other special forces around the world to keep on top of an ever-changing landscape. 

In a recent training exercise for the group, which The Journal was granted access to watch, the dark closed in around the Wicklow Mountains as the summer evening sun dipped quickly. 

Only the sound of creaking branches and the rustling of undergrowth in a light breeze can be heard as multiple teams from Ireland’s elite Army Ranger Wing move in pitch darkness towards a target. 

They stop and take up positions concealed by the undergrowth as two soldiers, known as scouts, wearing night vision goggles move at walking pace forward – their slow advance monitored by a silent drone high above them.

Two precision single shots ring out – that is the signal as the assault begins. 

The Rangers have found themselves in Liberia, Mali, Lebanon, East Timor and Somalia among other places – but there are new possible missions ahead for the unit.

They have said this exercise demonstrates the methods that could be used in future missions should they be called upon to rescue Irish citizens abroad like they did in Kabul or Sudan – or in the midst of a dynamic peace enforcement mission when the security of the location is not assured.

The Ranger Wing has connections to foreign special forces units and through those connections the lessons learned by other forces in various wars across the globe are feeding back here to Ireland and informing them about the realities of modern Special Forces operations.

The Journal watched through advanced night vision as the soldiers move with pace but smoothly into the dense woodland, some with silenced weapons, shooting as they go. There is no shouting, no screams like in the movies – just one word calls on their radios as they clear each structure.

As they gather at the entrance to the various makeshift buildings they quietly stack up, inches between each other, at the threshold – the lead operator making every effort to see inside by pivoting with his gun pointing into the room before they enter. 

Then a silent signal and they move forward with feet pivoting and guns moving back into their shoulders as the double tap of shots hit their targets. 

arw 5 On target: a Ranger moves through the camp seen through night vision. The Irish Defence Forces The Irish Defence Forces

Their goal is to find and rescue a downed and gravely injured UN pilot taken hostage by an enemy force on a peacekeeping mission. They find the casualty and they extract them on the back of the all-terrain vehicle. As a machine gun in the distance engages the remaining targets posing as a fleeing element of the exercise’s enemy. 

The whole operation lasts minutes but it has taken days to prepare and it follows a lot of the work taking place today in warzones by special forces teams. It also is what the unit has experienced in its deployments to the African country of Mali. 

Over the two-week exercise, they have found themselves in observation posts gathering intelligence on targets and building up a picture of how the opposing faction is behaving.

The unit, that is more than 40 years old, draws a lot from Irish mythology – its name comes from na Fianna, the soldiers accepted into its ranks receive the coveted green beret at the Hill of Allen and there is constant reference to Fionn Mac Cumhaill. 

The night mission, is part of the exercise Badb Catha, which translates to ‘Battle Raven’, a goddess from Irish mythology who appeared on the battlefield as a raven.

The evening began at dusk in a clearing deep in the rolling wooded hillsides. Irish support troops, including medics stood by, chatting and joking. Among them, wearing different style uniform and more advanced kit are the teams of the Army Ranger Wing operators. 

Like all parts of the Irish Defence Forces they have struggled with resourcing issues and retention but the unit does have some of the most advanced equipment at its disposal. 

arw 4 The view of an Army Ranger Wing operator through night vision. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

Tools, tech and secrets

There are drones: winged high altitude remote controlled aircraft and other technology. 

There are masses of high-tech radios, including digital equipment that can communicate with the emergency services at incidents – banks of computer screens tracking individual units superimposed onto an aerial view of the area.

Nearby are a fleet of new sand-coloured, all terrain style vehicles – open to the elements but small and compact. They will be able to be carried inside the new CASA 295 cargo aircraft when it arrives in 2025.  

The group of Rangers, or Fianóglach, named in honour of na Fianna, quietly stood chatting and preparing for the operation. Known as operators – they are the tip of the spear while behind them is a much bigger crew of support soldiers who work on communications, flying the drones, maintaining their weapons and managing the needs of those operators.

They are not operators but are as much a part of the unit as the assault teams – some of them Ranger applicants who were close to qualifying but because of injury failed the arduous selection. 

The assault team are a mix of ages and accents from across the country. 

DOD_1242 (1) The Army Ranger Wing operators practising an assault. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

There is a breacher, a young man tasked with getting the soldiers through barriers and doors. He uses explosives and other devices to gain entry to rooms in, for example, a hostage rescue scenario. He speaks about constantly working on the skills and knowledge, researching new methods.

He liaises with colleagues from European countries developing methods and techniques. 

There are medics – one of whom speaks about serving in Mali and how he and his colleagues dealt with the bombing of a German military convoy on 25 June 2021. On that day, more than a dozen people were injured and the Irish medics were first responders.

They describe a scene of devastation and chaos as they safely evacuated the casualties. The medics are now, along with other Rangers, working with medical experts and academics to upskill to a point where they can save their colleagues and members of the public in the worst of situations.

There are some of the new recruits to the unit – just fresh from the nine-month terror of the selection process. Now one of them carries a marksman’s long distance rifle with a high powered night vision scope.

There are Rangers who have come under fire and survived – one operator tells how the vehicle he was driving in Mali hit a roadside bomb. He and his colleagues walked away with minor cuts and bruises – the worst of the injuries: a broken nose. 

There are the operators who went to Kabul and were also involved in the Sudan airlift. They speak candidly about the dangerous and desperate conditions during the evacuation of Irish citizens. They speak of the difficulty of the Kabul mission compared to the Sudanese operation.

They speak of their connections with other countries and how those connections help them complete missions – whether that is through offers of transport or bases to operate. The operators spoke warmly of those connections, particularly, with European countries.

They told us they are taking lessons learned by the other special forces units involved in recent engagement and using those to inform their own methods. 

In fact, that is what the exercise is designed to achieve – a senior officer tells us this is about going back to basics and working on classic special forces tactics. 

Gathering intelligence and surveilling targets and then launching skilled and dangerous operations to rescue hostages or deal with capturing a high value leader of the opposing faction.

Last year the ARW performed an exercise boarding a cargo ship in the Irish Sea. But the UN mission to Mali had prevented the whole of the unit from being involved in that exercise. 

“For this exercise, the unit deployed in its largest formation and focused on re-sharpening the core SOF skills of the ability to manoeuvre, medicate, communicate and initiate under the protection of darkness over arduous and challenging terrain and atmospherics, the key and unique advantage that Special Forces provide to Military Leadership,” a senior officer explained.

After the unit returns to their woodland base the Rangers gather alone in a circle in the early hours of the morning to assess each operator’s performance. 

“Each team member has an equal say in these debriefs, regardless of rank or experience, commonly referred to as the circle of truth, the circle is damningly honest, the process is essential to team capability enhancement,” the Commanding Officer said. 

“Professionally no offence is taken, it’s part of the mind-set, critical appraisal from those most important to you, rehearse, refocus, re-engage. Self-empathy has no place here.” 

arw 2 (2) Waiting for the go - an Irish Army Ranger Wing operator waits for word to go into battle. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

Demanding

The Commanding Officer said that the specific training task has taken months to plan but the real goal is to exercise the specialist skills of the unit.  

“It takes everything all the time to achieve this. It’s a snapshot for the group in their cyclical training programme, but it’s the most demanding programme. It ensures honesty when it comes to operational expectation, it ensures Ireland and Defence Forces leadership has options to help those most vulnerable, in the most difficult of circumstance and the unit wholly accepts its responsibility to be at their best when vulnerable people are at their worst,” he said. 

Those skillsets were tested recently in Kabul, Mali and Sudan.

And, if legislation passes, the Fianóglach could be used overseas more.

At the location in Wicklow, no one discusses the Government’s plans for updated legislation that could see them leave the country more often- they are focused on the task in hand. 

As one group headed for rest, another element were preparing for a second night operation as they made their way into the mountains to prepare an ambush – the early morning dark wrapping them.

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