Afghan crisis forces Ireland to do more with less once again

Analysis: Lack of long-range airlift capability greatly limits options for evacuation

It is fair to assume Irish citizens being repatriated from Kabul this week will not mind which country's flag is on the tail of the aircraft taking them to safety.

But for some observers the fact that Ireland, a rich country which sits on the UN Security Council, must rely on the goodwill of friendly nations to evacuate its citizens is a source of ongoing embarrassment.

It is not just a matter of pride. Ireland is one of only two EU countries without a heavy airlift capability. This means the only way Department of Foreign Affairs officials and Army Ranger Wing troops could get into Afghanistan on Tuesday was with the French Airforce, and the only way Irish citizens are likely to get out will be on other country's aircraft.

The team members themselves do not know exactly how they are getting home. On Tuesday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said they will depart "on whatever planes are available" before the de facto deadline of August 31st, when the US military is expected to withdraw entirely.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban last week is the latest in a series of crises highlighting Ireland’s lack of capability to move people long distances at short notice.

In some ways, the Defence Forces and Department of Foreign Affairs are victims of their own success. Despite the lack of long-range aircraft, Ireland usually manages to bootstrap a way of getting Irish people home in difficult situations, meaning the issue is forgotten until the next crises.

Nevertheless, the lack of appropriate aircraft means options are often extremely limited and Ireland is largely reliant on other countries or the private sector.

In May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the Government struggled to evacuate two army officers from the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo amid medical concerns.

In the end, the officers flew home on a commercial flight after handing their weapons over to friendly forces.

Most Irish peacekeeping missions depart and arrive home either on chartered commercial aircraft or on the aircraft of friendly nations. Irish citizens stranded in disaster zones are usually forced to rely on similar arrangements.

During the pandemic, the Air Corps provided an invaluable service ferrying Covid-19 samples abroad for testing but the Government had to rely on Aer Lingus for bulk deliveries of emergency Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

A dedicated long-range airlift capacity would also be extremely useful in delivering humanitarian aid to disaster zones. Ireland was able to use one of its Casa maritime patrol aircraft to deliver aid to Beirut in the aftermath of the port explosion there last year, but it could only move 1.5 tonnes.

Proponents of a long range transport capacity point out that second-hand military aircraft can be picked up relatively cheaply.

Recently, the Department of Defence was offered two C295 aircraft, previously used by the UN Food Programme, for less than €20 million each. The Department is currently in the process of buying two of the same aircraft, brand new, at a cost of roughly €110 million each. They are due for delivery in 2023 when they will be mainly used for maritime patrol missions.

There is also the cheaper option of entering a partnership with other EU nations to share such resources. Ten European countries already operate such a programme under the auspices of Nato.

Other officials say the Defence Forces currently has greater priorities. Indeed, in recent months there have been calls for fighter jets and a Navy that can patrol its own waters without relying on EU vessels.

The Kabul crisis, combined with the growing threat of natural disasters caused by climate change, may lead to a change in views come October’s budget.