Irish soldiers: Idle anti-tank missiles should be sent to Ukraine

Many in military believe Ireland should supply lethal weapons in fight against Russia

There are currently just under 2,000 anti-tank weapons lying idle in Irish munitions depots which many have come to believe would be far better off in the hands of the Ukrainian soldiers currently fighting Russian invaders.

There is a belief across all ranks of the Defence Forces, among large sections of Irish society and even among some Government TDs that Ireland should be joining with the majority of the EU and providing the Ukrainians with lethal weaponry.

"I feel like taking my commission and burning it in front of Leinster House," one officer said after learning Ireland would stop short of sending weapons.

“One hundred per cent of people I’ve talked to about it are outraged. It just feels like another example of Ireland’s carefree and careless approach to defence and I think for anyone in the Army, this hits home a lot more because we take pride in our job and training,” he said.

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At least one Irish soldier feels so strongly that he is planning to take a leave of absence to travel to Ukraine and join the fight, a move which will likely land him in serious trouble with Irish military authorities on his return, military sources say. He does not have a Ukrainian background but has friends in its armed forces.

Defence Forces members point out that it is not as though Ireland does not have the means to assist Ukraine with weapons. For a such a small and underfunded military, the Irish Army has surprisingly extensive anti-tank capabilities.

Military sources say the Army possesses about 1,800 Swiss-made AT-4 anti-tank weapons and some 100 units of the much more advanced Javelin missile system. It also possesses smaller numbers of the older but still useful Carl Gustav anti-tank missile.

Shelf life

What’s more, all of these weapons have a shelf life, meaning if they are not used, they are simply fired off in training before they go out of date.

There has been much publicity and propaganda surrounding the Ukrainian army's use of the Javelin, many of which were donated by the US and Estonia, to fend off Russia armour. In the last week social media has been flooded with videos of smouldering Russian armoured vehicles which fell foul of the weapons system.

Acquired by the Irish army in 2002 to protect its armoured personnel carriers from attacks during peacekeeping missions, the Javelins are indeed a highly effective weapon. The Irish Times viewed a demonstration in Wicklow last year wheretwo missiles were launched at a storage container 2 kilometres away. Both hit the mark precisely, causing a shockwave which could be felt from the firer's position.

But ordnance experts in the Defence Forces said the more basic, single-use AT-4 would be more effective in the type of battles the Ukrainians are likely to face in the days and weeks ahead.

While Javelins required extensive training to operate, the AT-4 is much simpler to use. “The instructions are literally printed on the side of the thing. A 10-year-old could use it,” one military source said.

They are far easier to transport and store, as well as costing a lot less per unit (about €1,500 each versus €150,000 for a Javelin missile). More importantly, Ireland could spare far more of them while still retaining an adequate inventory.

Academic

All of this is likely to be academic. At the weekend Ireland agreed to join other EU nations in financially supporting the Ukrainian defence effort. However, while most other countries are funding the purchase and delivery of lethal weapons, Irish funds, amounting to €9 million, will exclusively be used for non-lethal supplies including fuel, body armour and medical supplies.

This is unlikely to change in the near future, even if, as seems likely, the military situation deteriorates in Ukraine. Government sources point out that even funding non-lethal supplies is a massive policy shift for a country which claims to be militarily non-aligned.

“It’s something that would probably have been unthinkable a month ago. But the public and political mood has shifted since then,” said one Government official.

Asked if the decision against sending lethal weapons might change, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs pointed to the Programme for Government, which states: “Ireland will not be part of decision-making or funding for lethal force weapons for non-peacekeeping purposes.”

Furthermore, Government officials say that Ukraine is quite happy with Ireland's contribution. In terms of weapons, "the rest of Europe has it covered," one source said.

Nevertheless, there are continued calls for Ireland to do more, including from Government TDs.

"We should be sending them our Javelin missiles and anything we have to hand that could be used by the Ukrainian forces, and I'll be saying so in the Dáil," said Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond.

No constitutional bar

There is no constitutional bar on Ireland sending weapons abroad, said Dr David Kenny, assistant professor of law at Trinity College Dublin. While the Constitution probably bars Ireland from joining Nato without a referendum, it does not prevent Ireland helping another country with weapons, or even troops, on a bilateral basis.

Some observers have pointed out that other militarily non-aligned countries, such as Sweden and Finland, are donating weapons and that Ireland's decision not to do so will damage its reputation on the world stage.

That does not seem to have transpired so far, however. Diplomatic sources from several EU nations said on Tuesday that their countries recognised Ireland has come a long way on the matter and expressed appreciation for the solidarity it has shown.

“Also, we have other things to think about,” said one diplomatic from a Nordic country.

"In my view, saying we are not going to supply weapons and ammunition is not a moral or honourable position," said Ed Burke, associate professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham.

“But it is a reflection of the paucity of dialogue we have in Ireland about what is a moral security policy. We are a capable, rich State that has a lot to offer when it comes to security.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times