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Ireland's special forces: Inside an Irish Army Ranger Wing maritime mission in the Irish Sea

The Journal was granted unprecedented access to the Martime Task Unit of the Irish Army Ranger Wing.

A gopro image of the The Irish Army Ranger Wing approaching their target.
A gopro image of the The Irish Army Ranger Wing approaching their target.
Image: Irish Defence Forces

THE BEACHES OF South County Dublin and Wicklow are full with mid week sun worshipers, swimmers and waders in the blazing summer sun. 

Splashes and cheers can be heard from brave jumpers near the Forty Foot.

There are kids at a summer camp on small sailing boats, American tourists from a  cruise liner in the bay catch the DART to Dublin and buses to Glendalough.  

Not many pay heed to a Naval ship at anchor a kilometre off Dun Laoghaire – there’s ice-cream to be had and promenade strolls to enjoy.

The lazy life goes on but not for the Defence Forces teams involved in a massive anti-terror exercise in the Irish Sea.

Just kilometres off shore, for the last week and a half, Ireland’s elite Special Forces soldiers in the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) have been honing their skills in boarding a massive cargo ship.

The Journal was granted exclusive access, before they headed out to sea, to the unit and the naval Commander involved in the operation. 

We interviewed one of the senior operators on the elite unit, spoke to Lt Commander Paul Hegarty, the captain of the LÉ William Butler Yeats, and went through how they plan and execute a massive operation to board and take control of a ship from armed attackers.

The Rangers – who represent the top tier operators of the Irish military – are very protective of their secrecy so names and specific locations have not been included.

The group we met were from the Maritime Task Unit in the ARW – specialists in diving and ship boarding methods.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

They were a mix of soldiers from across the four corners of Ireland and a spread of ages – a close and friendly group. They spoke quietly but were welcoming and protected their identities wearing masks and using unmarked vehicles.

The ARW was formed as hijackings and terrorism swept across the globe in the 1960s and 1970s. The various terror networks had upped their game and so the militaries of the world had to also match that pace – Ireland was not immune to that. 

Fianóglach

The Unit is officially designated ‘Sciathán Fianóglach an Airm’ which is translated as ‘The Army Ranger Wing’ (ARW). There is no direct English translation of the term ‘Fianóglach’ but the term Ranger is the closest.

In all professions there is dedicated attention to detail but then there is the microscopic focus of ARW operators. As described by one of the team: “It is about getting the small bits 100%”.

To achieve that they practice perpetually each aspect of a movement. From how they move from the fast boats that bring them to the ship to the minutiae of where they place their feet at the threshold of a door – nothing is left to chance. 

As their training progresses ahead of the main exercise they add those small bits together to the whole.

South Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford residents may have seen Naval and Air Corps activity a lot in the last week and a half.

ARW 7 Two Air Corps Augusta Westland helicopters keeping pace with the LÉ William Butler Yeats during the operation. Source: Irish Defence Forces

When we met the ARW there was training taking place off the Wicklow coast with the LÉ William Butler Yeats as well as helicopter drills being done off Arklow by two Air Corps Augusta Westland helicopters.

The boarding of a moving ship requires both helicopter and seaborne approaches. 

The Naval Vessel was acting as a platform for the ARW to practice with highspeed Rigid Inflatable Vessels (RIBs) and the specialist equipment they use to climb aboard.

Metalwork poles that are designed to act as a way to deliver a specialist ladder are placed against the ship and the Rangers then begin their boarding. This happens in seconds but watching the team it looks purposefully slow – the old Special Forces Maxim of “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”.  

The Air Corps’ Number Three Operations Wing was helping to practise fast roping from the helicopter onto a cargo ship and in the previous days they were doing the same above a navy ship. 

This was all part of the method of taking the operation apart to its constituent elements and practicing until it becomes instinct.

They told The Journal that such training allows them to develop and hone their methods – the reason why the members of the team get the chance to do the job is that they have been given the time to practice it.

“I suppose the normal point then is a lot of what we’re doing here is there’s a higher risk associated to it.

“It takes time, and a lot of training, to invest in the individual. The operators have gone through a long process to get them to the point where they’re able to undertake these challenging roles,” a senior operator told us.

Each member of the ARW has gone through a selection process that tests everything from their psychological capabilities to their physical resilience. The recruitment phase is nine months in duration – each member has already proved themselves in their soldiering capability at their units in either the Irish Army, Navy or Air Corps. 

EU Co-operation

The ARW operators have trained with foreign Special Operations Forces (SOF), for the most part with fellow members of the European Union, on the best methods to carry out their raids.

“We work with these SOF, mostly in the EU, and we share with them methods we’ve perfected and they share with us their best practice.  

“It is a critical relationship to have for all of us and it has brought us forward,” one operator told us. 

In a chat with the ARW team we were shown their equipment – it is the most technologically advanced. 

Everything is designed for the specific task – from specialist suits which have added buoyancy technology to their helmets and night vision goggles – nothing is left to chance.

One of the team carries a large gas tank on his back. The Journal asked if he was a diver – but it turned out the tank was part of a welding unit.  One of the operators responded: “No, if we come to a locked hatch we bring the capability to cut through the metal”.

In speaking to each operator and their leaders they are very detail focused – there are no loose ends on their kit. All of their laces are tucked away safely, the legs and arms don’t hang loose, every bit they wear is measured perfectly.

“We’ve also been building on all of the lessons. At our unit level, we focus on our own individual skill sets, whether it’s close quarters battle, which is essentially moving tactically through a ship dealing with threats as they become apparent, and then also our own ongoing medical communications, and other specialist training that’s required to deliver this capability,” a senior operator said. 

It is very dangerous work. They recalled the death of a New Zealand SAS soldier who was killed in a similar operation, but as one of the operators told us: “we mitigate the risk by getting everything we use tailored specifically and practising how we do it”. 

Many of the ships they could be tasked to climb aboard have decks tens of metres above the raging sea. The stamina needed to haul such heavy kit up a tiny ladder is immense. To mitigate that risk there is one bit of kit they have that is crucial in their operations – it could mean the difference between death and getting on board.

ARW 2 A GoPro screengrab of the Rangers climbing onboard. Source: Irish Defence Forces

It is the FiFi hook, a tiny device shaped to fit an average railing diameter on a ship – it can be hooked onto the vessel to prevent an exhausted special forces operator from falling backwards into the tide. 

One of the senior operators, sanctioned to speak to The Journal spoke about the dangers and why that obsession on detail is critical. 

“It does require a lot of work. It’s a complex and challenging working environment, the maritime domain as we refer to it. So it takes a lot of practice to deliver the skill sets and the capabilities that we’re practicing here today.

“So what’s happened, I suppose to get us to today, and what’s going to culminate in our final exercise has been the last two weeks of training alongside the Naval Service and the Air Corps, exercising particular skill sets that are required for this exercise.

“And that includes everything from fast roping on to container ships, and abseiling from those container stacks,  five or six containers above the deck which is 15m to 20m, working with the naval coxswains in their boats, linking up with the ship via either a heli-cast (diving into the water from a helicopter) or being fast roped or winched onto a ship.

“All those little pieces need to be exercised individually, before you put them all together to exercise the full military capability. So that’s kind of a process that we’ve been working on for the last two weeks,” he said. 

The mission

On Wednesday, as the Commission on the Defence Forces Action Plan launch was taking place in Dublin, Rangers boarded three helicopters near their base in the Curragh and while others waited onboard the LE William Butler Yeats in the Irish Sea. 

The Irish Sea is one of the busiest maritime areas with approximately 50% of all cargo travelling to Dublin Port. Such is the volume of marine traffic in Irish waters that the Irish Defence Forces have developed a Special Forces capability to respond to the risk of terror attacks and malicious activity on those ships.

There are also various potential risks associated with the movement of nuclear waste ships from British nuclear power plants.

There have been exercises for a boarding in which terrorists have taken over a ferry in previous years. The specific scenario the ARW were using as a template this year was the incident of the Nave Andromeda in which seven stowaways hijacked the oil tanker off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel in October, 2020.

On that occasion the British Special Boat Service boarded the vessel and took back control. 

ARW 5 Rangers awaiting their helicopter transport in the Curragh. Source: Irish Defence Forces

The Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO) scenario that was staged this week was that of a so-called ‘opposed boarding’. The other categories are ‘compliant’ and there’s also the more aggressive ‘non-compliant’ boarding.

There are teams on Irish Naval ships trained to deal with this and they have had a lot of success in the past with the tactic – particularly in drug interdiction operations.

“More often than not, they’re boardings that are compliant in certain circumstances, those boardings can become non-compliant, that is the personnel or the individuals on the boat for the ship, don’t want to be boarded.

“Or they could escalate as far as an opposed boarding, whereby they’re taking active measures to try and prevent the boarding team getting access to the boat or ship. And that’s an operation that’s undertaken by special operations forces across the world. And in the Irish case, it’s the Army Ranger WIng,” a senior member of the team said. 

In a set phased approach they launched their attack – the first of which was a circling Irish Air Corps Spectre PC-12 aircraft and a CASA maritime patrol aircraft. 

That plane was feeding video back to the planners – as the intelligence was gathered the moving parts came together, and all those tiny little steps were all put together in harmony. 

The RIBs containing the seaborne element began their run into the target as above the helicopters joined the pursuit of the Elbtrader cargo ship. One helicopter with a sniper circled above the deck as the Augusta Westland choppers hovered above the high containers – ropes fell out and heavily armed Rangers slid down to the top of the metal work boxes.

The RIBs crew could come at the vessel using specialist over the horizon tactics or conceal themselves before they strike behind a navigation buoy or island. 

The teams that fast roped onto the containers set up an abseiling system which would take them down to the deck.

As all that was taking place the RIBs moved in – deployed the hook and ladder system onto the railing of the vessel and began to scale the sheer cliff of the hull.

Screenshot (214) Aerial surveillance image of the Rangers fast roping onto the deck. Source: Irish Defence Forces

They then moved, briskly and with purpose, towards the bridge of the ship – the Rangers quietly talking to their colleagues about their intentions and what they were spotting.

They were joined with more of their colleagues and together they assaulted their way to the locations at which they would have full control of the giant ship.

Their aim is to take critical parts of the vessel including the bridge and the engine room to control the vessel. Once the ship is safe a Ship Control Party from the Irish Navy board the giant boat and they take control of its navigation. 

While this was the spectacular boarding of a giant cargo ship there are also other capabilities that the ARW have that give them the ability to operate in all locations. 

“The Army Ranger Wing is no different to other special operations units across the world, we have a number of capabilities that define us as special operations.

“Namely, they are the methods in which we can insert or infiltrate onto targets,” the senior operator said. 

The skills include military freefall, fast roping from helicopters, and also a dedicated maritime skill set which includes combat diving operations,” he said. 

For that underwater capability they use rebreathers – an internalised system of oxygen and gases that do not emit bubbles.

“That allows us to infiltrate areas covertly via the beach or ship, or any other position that we need to infiltrate,” he added. 

They also have “fast intercept craft” which are high speed RIBs.

“So the idea is that we have those skill sets to get us there to actually do the job,” he added. 

Future for the ARW

Contained within the Commission on the Defence Forces (CODF) action plan is a strategy to send elements of the ARW to work directly in Cork at the Naval Base in Haulbowline and to the Air Corps in Baldonnel, Co Dublin.

There are also long term plans to grow the size of the Wing and rename it IRL SOF – meaning Ireland Special Operations Force. 

ARW 8 An Army Ranger fast roping during practice runs ahead of the exercise.

The CODF was a Government review of how the Defence Forces function and it made strong reference to Ireland’s special forces. 

The senior operator said that everyone in the unit were very hopeful for the future in light of the Commission recommendations. 

“We’re looking forward to the Commission, and hoping that the goals and the objectives that we identified in the white paper process previously will be pushed on through.

“Because ultimately, what it will do is it will allow us to deliver a more robust capability in all the domains whether it’s on land, or in the maritime domain, or by air. So they’re all the keys here and obviously, the cyber domain as well, which is a developing dynamic aspect to national security,” he added. 

None of this operation would succeed without the help and assistance of the men and women of the Naval Service and the Air Corps. 

For Lt Commander Paul Hegarty, the commanding officer of the LÉ William Butler Yeats, it is an opportunity to test the various capabilities.  

“Like every other type of operation there is always a risk, that’s the reason we prepare and exercise or routine with the Air Corps and the Rangers in such a similar circumstance, I suppose the main thing is that you’re always prepared and you’re ready.

“The worst case scenario is that we wouldn’t prepare for such eventualities or scenarios and the state will be found wanting in that case.

“So it’s always a threat, it’s always a risk that there are a lot of vessels that do operate in our maritime environment that do pose a risk to the state, for example narcotics , or carrying nuclear waste, for example.

“So I suppose it’s the state’s ability to respond to that and take control of a vessel and make sure any potential disaster is averted,” he said. 

While there has been difficult times for the Defence Forces in funding and in retention Hegarty said that the exercise shows the specialist nature of the Irish military.

Really, it proves that the defense forces have the ability and the capability to respond to protect national interests, in this case, in the maritime domain.
So again, it shows that having an investment in the Rangers, the Naval Service, the Air Corps, it’s having those capabilities is what makes the defence forces so unique, and that it can deliver that capability at sea on behalf of the State.
No other agency in the State could can do. It’s the skill sets that require so much time, dedication, professionalism and training, and getting people that experience that they can do that at a moment’s notice.
That’s why the Defence Forces exists and allows the state to exercise its sovereignty over its waters and particularly territorial waters where such threats do exist, the Defence Forces are the State’s insurance policy.

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