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An Air Corps Airman monitoring helicopter movements during the operation.
An Air Corps Airman monitoring helicopter movements during the operation.
Image: Niall O'Connor, The Journal.

Pictures: On an anti-terror exercise with Ireland's special forces

The Journal joined the Irish Air Corps and Army Ranger Wing at The Curragh last week.
Mar 4th 2022, 3:32 PM 26,556 0

THE DEFENCE FORCES has not been far from the headlines in recent months as a major move to increase funding and modernise the military is underway.

To examine the strengths of Irish forces we took a look at one key area as we joined the Army Ranger Wing on an anti-terror operation.

The Journal joined members of the unit and the crews of three Air Corps helicopters to see how the two Irish Defence Forces elements work together. 

The Air Corps, based in Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, south County Dublin, is set to celebrate their 100th anniversary this month. 

To give an insight into one of their roles this website was invited along to join them on an anti-terror exercise with Irish Special Forces. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The Rangers unit, or The Wing as it is known in military circles, is based in a secure compound in The Curragh Army Camp, County Kildare. 

The ARW, typical of the ‘quiet professional’ ethos of many Special Forces groups, does not do interviews so the opportunity to see them operating is a rare occasion. 

The exercise occurred on Wednesday of last week – just a few hours before hostilities broke out in Ukraine.

On the first day of the invasion the Government here ruled out a mission to rescue Irish civilians in Kyiv similar to that conducted by the ARW in Kabul – but if such a mission to Ukraine was cleared it would be the Rangers who would be the tip of the spear.    

On the day of our visit we met the helicopter crews in Baldonnel before flying to the Curragh where we would meet the Ranger team.

We lifted off in high winds from Casement, three helicopters flying in formation low over Newcastle and Nass, following the line of the busy M7 towards Newbridge and into the striking terrain of the Curragh plain. 

En route the Air Corps pilots and the airman tasked with keeping this reporter safe spoke intermittently on check lists and weather observations.   

Rangers 5 Army Ranger Wing operators emerging from an Air Corps helicopter during the exercise. Source: Irish Defence Forces

As we were approaching the landing area, in the so-called “gravel pit” on the plain that the Airman opened the door and warned the crew of a huge head wind. 

As the helicopters shut down three men emerged on foot from the tree line along the boundary of the nearby Curragh Camp. 

The three Rangers, dressed in battle dress and with their faces covered, briefed the Air Corps crews and this reporter of what would happen. 

In a barely audible whisper one of the operators calmly explained the exercise – known as a vehicle intervention.

The simulated scenario was to arrest a fleeing terror suspect. Three helicopters were used to stop vehicle driving across the plain.

The tactics used were a sniper in the smaller EC-135 helicopter ‘fired’ a shot into the engine block of the vehicle – bringing it to a stop.

IMG_0132 A sniper's eye view. Source: The Journal.

Then the intervention team from two helicopters, Augusta Westland 139s, landed and approached the disabled car in a tactical formation – weapons drawn.

As part of the team covers the helicopters the driver of the vehicle was handcuffed, detained and taken to the waiting helicopter.

This is part of their anti-terror mission and if this was to happen in Ireland they would then hand the driver over to gardaí. In total there were eight ARW operators involved.

The Journal accompanied one of the teams on board one of the Augusta Westland helicopters and observed as they dismounted and approached the car in a line. 

Alongside us the second helicopter team of Rangers also dismounted and set up a defensive stance on one knee covering the operation.

The whole scene unfolded in just over a minute – the two helicopters taking off again joined by the smaller sniper overwatch aircraft orbiting above. 

The operation was carried out without any verbal commands from the team as they moved to the car in the roaring draft from the two choppers.

The only audible message heard in the headphones inside the helicopter was from the Airman informing the pilots that the Rangers were leaving the aircraft. 

Rangers 2 An Army Ranger Wing operator covers his colleagues. Source: Irish Defence Forces

All of this was conducted in high winds and rain but well within the parameters of the Air Corps pilots, handling the buffeting with ease. 

Officially confirmed ARW overseas deployments have been in Somalia, East Timor, Liberia, Chad and Mali.

Any of their work on the island of Ireland, in so-called Aid to the Civil Power operations, have never been confirmed. 

Their operations have, it is understood, included close protection of visiting world leaders as well as security operations.

They work closely with the garda Emergency Response Unit and sources have said that a number of former members have joined that unit after their military service concluded.  

Ranger 3 An Army Ranger Wing operator with Air Corps helicopters at the Curragh. Source: Irish Defence Forces.

The Defence Forces spokesperson told the The Journal that the scenario in the Curragh was only one of the main joint exercises.

There has also been well documented maritime operations on a Stena Line ferry while it has been confirmed that the ARW also use an aircraft fuselage in Dublin Airport to simulate hostage scenarios. 

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Interoperability is an oft heard buzzword in military circles and this was an example of that doctrine in action the Defence Forces spokesperson explained.

“There has to be full interoperability between all the branches, so between the Army, Navy and Air Corps and then within the Army you have your special operation forces.

“A lot of effort goes into ensuring they work well together whether it’s their drills, their communications systems, and their kit.

“In these sort of operations, and especially in this counter-terrorism type scenario, there’s a huge emphasis on interoperability between the three forces.

“That’s why there’s this continuous training so that if an event were to happen then they can respond effectively,” the spokesperson added. 

Rangers 6 An Irish Army Ranger Wing operator approaches the suspect car. Source: Irish Defence Forces

A Defence Forces spokesperson revealed how the unit has changed its designated role – a methodical process which began in recent years. This will allow them to better align with other special forces teams. 

Previously the ARW, who carry the Irish title Fianóglach on a shoulder patch, defined their role into counter-terror operations and more traditional military special forces missions – known as “Black and Green”. 

“The designation of ‘Black & Green Roles’ is no longer used by the Unit. The designate roles carried out by the ARW are ‘Direct Actions’, ‘Special Reconnaissance’ and ‘Military Assistance’.

“The exercise that we witnessed on the Curragh Plains was a Counter Terrorism Exercise. ARW Counter Terrorism operations and exercises fall under Direct Action or Special Reconnaissance,” the spokesperson said. 

The ARW is currently deployed in Mali where it is undertaking Special Reconnaissance missions – it will withdraw from the war-torn Sahel region in September.

The recent Commission on the Defence Forces examined some future growth for the ARW including deploying a small team to Cork to work with the naval service and another detachment to be aligned with the Air Corps. 

There has also been a name change mooted as well change in their command structure. 

Along with those recommendations there has been a call in the report to codify their joint operations with the Emergency Response Unit.

In its more ambitious recommendations the ARW would get their own combat helicopter capability and a transport aircraft. 

 The Government will report in the summer in regard to what they will adopt from the report.  

- Video edited by Nicky Ryan.

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Niall O'Connor

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