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Documents show Ireland was offered aircraft eight months before Afghan rescue mission - despite Coveney denial

Seraph Aviation Group offered two aircraft – which would have been suitable to rescue Irish citizens in Afghanistan.

Irish Army Ranger Wing onboard a heavy lift aircraft during the Kabul mission.
Irish Army Ranger Wing onboard a heavy lift aircraft during the Kabul mission.
Image: Irish Defence Forces

THE DEPARTMENT OF Defence refused efforts to provide two long-range second-hand heavy lift aircraft for the Irish Air Corps, not long before troops were forced to hitch a lift from other countries to rescue Irish citizens in Afghanistan. 

An investigation by The Journal has also discovered evidence that Simon Coveney’s Defence department was aware of the offer a full eight months before the Afghan operation, despite Coveney saying he was not aware of any offer. 

Members of the Army Ranger Wing, the Irish army’s special forces unit, with two diplomats, were dispatched to rescue Irish citizens from Kabul.

Their flights to and from the war-torn country were on board French and Finnish aircraft as the Irish Air Corps did not have a long range aircraft suitable for the mission.

Coveney’s denial was made during a late night impromptu interview about the Afghanistan crisis, in an RTÉ Primetime interview on 26 August when he stepped out from a reception, and the Minister appeared to be taken by surprise by the question: 

Q: ”Were we offered a second-hand plane in recent times?” 

Coveney: ”Not that I’m aware of, I have to say.”

Q: ”And if we were, would we have bought it> Because costs seems to be the issue. So if planes are available that are a bit cheaper than brand-new, should we have taken that opportunity?”

Coveney: Look, I mean, with respect, if you’re going to spend tens of millions of  euros purchasing military equipment, well then you go through a process on that, and we of course will have a review after the experiences of the last ten  days… to ensure that we are appropriately equipped… but I think the point here is that we have done everything that I believe we could have done over  the last ten days to get as many Irish people safely into the airport and onto airplanes. We have worked with partners in a very successful way.

Coveney also said in the interview: “If we had our own long-range plane, it wouldn’t have made a big difference in the last few days.” 

The Journal was contacted by a number of security sources who revealed that, despite pleas for such an aircraft, that the Department of Defence refused offers of two second-hand long range heavy lift aircraft from a leasing company. 

Freedom of Information enquiries have shown that the department knew in 2020 of two aircraft said to be fit for purpose, which has cast doubt on the accuracy of the Minister’s recollection. 

The offer was refused as the option for “wider military lift capability” had not been identified in the Defence Forces’ five-year Equipment Development Plan (EDP). 

A trawl of documents released under FOI and explanations from sources show the backroom discussions and wrangling on what sources have said was a “failing of resource management”.

Sources said that the Irish team were forced to split into two groups to leave the country as a major threat of a terrorist attack developed in Afghanistan in August. 

51413078124_585e19e15b_k People, rescued during the Kabul Mission, boarding a heavy lift aircraft. Source: Irish Defence Forces

Part of the team hitched a ride onboard a French transport aircraft to Paris via the United Arab Emirates, while another group left the country onboard a flight to Finland.

An Air Corps aircraft was then dispatched to Helsinki to collect the group there while others were flown on commercial flights back home.

Sources said an Irish Air Corps Lear jet was flown to the UAE but was forced to stay at a military base over confusion associated with Covid-19 PCR tests. 

51411583472_36212ca3cd_k Members of the Irish Army Range Wing next to a French heavy lift aircraft. Source: Irish Defence Forces

The documents obtained show repeated and detailed offers to provide the specialist aircraft to Ireland from Seraph Aviation Group, a leasing firm with offices in Dublin.

The first contact was made on 3 December 2020 when the Chief Technical Officer at Seraph contacted Simon Coveney through his Oireachtas email address. 

In that email the firm’s representative, based in Ballsbridge said: “We generally deal with the traditional leasing aircraft of Airbus and Boeing, however we also have and manage a number of niche aircraft, two of which are coming available.

“These two subject [sic] aircraft are nearly new CASA C295H’s and I’m aware our Government (Air Corp) have placed an order for two new variants of the same aircraft type and our potential opportunity would not intend to impact or interfere with this,” the email read. 

The executive went on to say that he had read media reports about the Air Corps regaining its Search and Rescue contract and he said that the aircraft would be “very complimentary” to the fleet. 

He said that the aircraft were available for “either purchase, leasing or finance leasing (lease to purchase). The representative accepted that the process would have to go through the “regular governmental process”. 

“We would be happy to have a call (video or voice only) with the relevant persons if (sic) you feel should be involved,” the correspondence concluded.

Defence Minister

Our discovery of documents show that the next contact by Seraph was on 6 January 2021 when the same executive sent another email, this time to the ministerial email address for the Department of Defence. 

He addressed it to Coveney’s private secretary, and asked was there any feedback from “Mr Coveney or his officials on this opportunity”.

This correspondence was answered the following day on 7 January 2021 when a member of the Minister’s team, responding from the ministerial email address, confirmed receipt of the correspondence. 

“The Minister officials (sic) are looking into this matter and will revert back to you in due course,” the response from the Department read. 

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The offer remained under consideration by the department with Defence Forces personnel and on 17 May 2021, the member of the Minister’s team wrote a lengthy email to Seraph Aviation Group.

polish-air-force-casa-c-295m-023-support-aircraft-for-the-polish-team-attending-the-airshow-departing-runway-05 The aircraft offered by Seraph Aviation Group were similar to this Polish C295M. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

It began with an apology for the delay in replying and said that the Minister’s “priority is to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible”. 

The official said that the Defence Forces role was set out in the White Paper on Defence and said that “equipment priorities” were being considered and informed by that document. 

The senior civil servant said that the Defence Force’s “immediate priorities” for “air-based capability” was the acquisition of three Pilatus PC-12 aircraft for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. 

The official also said they were also acquiring two Airbus C295 maritime patrol aircraft while an additional PC-12 was also purchased in response in response to Covid-19. 

“No decision has been made for the acquisition of additional aircraft in other roles. Some €276 million, including VAT, has been committed to the acquisition of these enhanced capabilitities,” she said. 

The letter added that the option for “wider military lift capability” has been mentioned but that it was not identified in their five year plan for Equipment Development Plan (EDP). 

The private secretary said that the longer range lift capability for military purposes “is provided by way of chartering aircraft through a competitive procurement process on an as-required basis”. 

“To date, this has been considered to be the most cost effective approach taking account of the acquisition, running and maintenance costs of larger aircraft in the context of their expected usage and contingency requirements. 

“The overall priorities in the EDP will remain under review as it is progressively implemented and taking account of funding availability,” she concluded. 

A spokesperson for Seraph Aviation Group said: “We confirm that we have written to the Department and the Minister. We also note that the two C295 aircraft remain available to the State.  It is not appropriate to comment further.”

A spokesperson for the Department said: “The Department of Defence does not have discretion to acquire second-hand aircraft without following public investment guidance, which includes following the Public Spending Code and EU and national public procurement rules.”

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