Difficulties in lining up diplomatic clearances due to religious holidays led to an Irish Air Corps aircraft waiting in Uganda for almost week after evacuating Irish troops from the Congo.
The PC-12 aircraft deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo last week in a secret mission to fly out two Defence Forces officers amid increasing unrest in the country.
Following a 7,000km flight with multiple refuelling and rest stops, the aircraft picked up the officers and their weapons in Goma in the east of the country before flying to Entebbe in Uganda. The officers then flew home commercially, leaving the Air Corps aircraft to transport their weapons and equipment home.
The presence of arms on-board the aircraft meant the Department of Foreign Affairs had to obtain individual diplomatic clearances to fly over various African nations and to stop in Sudan and Egypt to refuel.
Diplomats faced difficulties in lining up the required clearances, which are only valid for a limited period of time, to allow the aircraft make the trip from Uganda. Part of the difficulties were caused by officials in some countries being out of the office due to public and religious holidays, officials said.
This resulted in the Air Corps aircraft and its crew of five personnel being delayed in Uganda for almost a week.
The aircraft finally left Uganda on Thursday before flying to Khartoum and Cairo where it stayed overnight. It departed Cairo on Friday afternoon and was expected back in Ireland sometime on Friday night.
The mission is believed to be longest undertaken by the Irish Air Corps’ PC-12 to date. The crew are expected to be comprehensively debriefed on their return on their experience with the aircraft.
Defence officials rejected the contention that the aircraft and crew were stranded or delayed and said the return journey was always going to be more difficult due to the presence of weapons on board.
“The Air Corps is not, and was never, stranded in Uganda,” a joint Defence Forces and Department of Defence statement said.
“A military operation is being completed (associated with the departure of defence personnel from MONUSCO) to repatriate equipment from DRC.
“It involves diplomatic clearances across the airspace and territory of 14 countries and was always expected to take until the end of this week as a number of countries are observing religious holidays. Our excellent crew is currently in the air and are expected home tonight.”
However, the use of a single-engine aircraft, albeit a modern one, for such a long journey has again raised questions about Ireland’s ability to reach its overseas troops in emergency situations.
“Ireland’s extraordinary levels of overseas commitments far exceed comparable military forces and must be supported by the appropriate logistics,” said Cmdt Conor King, General Secretary of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco).
“The lack of suitable transport aircraft has been highlighted on many occasions through our inability to deploy and recover our personnel and citizens in a timely manner.
“Strategic airlift capability is not only vital for operational capability and force protection, he said. It also enhances “the safety, morale and wellbeing of our people deployed far from home in the service of the state. ”
Cmdt King said it is “vital” funds are made available in this year’s budget to facilitate the purchase of a transport aircraft as recommended by the Commission on the Defence Forces in February. The Commission on the Defence Forces recommended the enhancement of the Air Corps fleet with the addition of a fixed wing aircraft with strategic reach capability.
The Government has agreed to “accept in principle” the Commission’s recommendation of purchasing a “fixed wing aircraft with strategic reach capability”.
Ireland’s future participation in the troubled Monusco mission is currently being reviewed by defence officials.