The dramatic interception of 2.2 tonnes of cocaine by the Defence Forces off the south coast earlier this week was threatened by a number of crucial failings and shortages, including a lack of available helicopters.
The operation, which was undertaken by a joint taskforce comprising the Garda, Revenue, Naval Service, Air Corps and Army Ranger Wing (ARW) was the most complex drug interdiction ever undertaken by Irish agencies and led to the biggest cocaine seizure by weight in Irish history.
The Naval Service’s LÉ William Butler Yeats tracked the Panamanian registered MV Matthew as it sailed along the south coast before a team of elite ARW personnel fast-roped on to the ship from an Air Corps helicopter and secured the cargo and crew.
Overhead, two fixed wing aircraft, a CASA 235 and a PC-12, provided surveillance and top cover.
The operation and the skills of the Defence Forces personnel have been widely praised by Government officials. However, multiple defence sources have described several equipment shortcomings that could have compromised the mission.
The Air Corps had no serviceable helicopters available capable of inserting an ARW team on to the deck. This meant an AW139, seconded by the Air Corps to the National Ambulance Service, had to be recalled and pressed into service.
The helicopter normally operates as part of the Emergency Aeromedical Service (EAS), a 365 days a year air ambulance service, based in Custume Barracks in Athlone.
Furthermore, complex operations such as the one involving the MV Matthew normally require two helicopters. Standard procedure is that one helicopter inserts the boarding party, while sharpshooters in the second aircraft provide cover.
A second helicopter is also required to provide rescue capability should the first helicopter crew get into difficultly. However, just one helicopter was available for Tuesday’s operation, meaning sniper cover had to be provided from the same aircraft that inserted the ARW team.
There were also failings involving the CASA 235, an almost 30-year-old maritime surveillance aircraft which is due to be retired this year. The CASA was to monitor the operation but its mission computers failed, meaning it could not use its cameras, search radar or other surveillance equipment.
Footage of the mission taken from the aircraft and shared by the Defence Forces afterwards was taken on a camera phone, sources said.
The aircraft’s replacement, the CASA 295, has already been purchased and comes equipped with an advanced suite of surveillance equipment. However, it remains hangar-bound in the Air Corps headquarters in Baldonnel as it is not mission-ready yet.
The most obvious shortcoming in the operation was the use of just one ship, the LE William Butler Yeats. Previous large drug interdiction operations saw multiple naval vessels deployed. In 2008, Operation Seabight, which led to the seizure of 1.5 tonnes of cocaine from a yacht, involved the use of three naval ships to track the vessel.
However, severe manpower shortages meant only the Yeats was available for this operation. Last month it emerged that the Naval Service is capable of deploying only two ships to sea.
“This was an incredibly impressive operation by the Defence Forces but the complete lack of any contingency or failsafes can’t be ignored. If one thing had gone wrong, it could have been disastrous,” said a military source.
“The Government shouldn’t be able to use the success of this to justify its irresponsible approach to defence spending,” they added.
‘Reach for the negative’
A Defence Forces spokesman did not respond to queries, stating it “will not be commenting on the details of the recent operation”.
Speaking in Midleton, Co Cork, Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin said such operations are not “all about physical ships at sea”.
He said: “There tends to be a tendency to reach for the negative within an hour of what was by any standards a very effectively conducted mission by all of the agencies involved.
Speaking in Waterford on Saturday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the drug seizure had been made possible because of the critical roles played by the Navy and Defence Forces, as well as gardaí and Revenue.
“I think we should be congratulating them and celebrating that achievement,” the Taoiseach said when questioned about a lack of resources and manpower in the Navy and Defence Forces in particular.
He accepted that there was a “real challenge” when it came to recruiting and retaining members of both forces but stressed that staffing issues were “not unique” to the armed forces. “We have full employment and there isn’t a single public or private body or business in the country that isn’t struggling,” he said.
At a press conference following the operation on Wednesday, officials were asked if the lack of ships hampered the operation.
Assistant Garda Commissioner Justin Kelly pointed to comments by the executive director of Maoc-N, a multinational drug interdiction agency based in Portugal, that Irish assets have “never been found short” when their assistance was requested in Irish waters.