Air Corps could provide maritime search-and-rescue service for east coast

Defence Forces proposal ‘would prevent unnecessary duplication’ and address concerns about sovereignty and security

The Defence Forces have urged the Government to task the Air Corps with some maritime search-and-rescue operations currently provided by a private contractor. File photograph: Defence Forces.

The Defence Forces have urged the Government to task the Air Corps with some maritime search-and-rescue operations currently provided by a private contractor. File photograph: Defence Forces.

 

The Defence Forces have urged the Government to task the Air Corps with some maritime search-and-rescue operations currently provided by a private contractor, saying the State could make “significant savings” from the €62.5 million annual cost of the service.

The search-and-rescue contract with civilian helicopter operator CHC Ireland is due to finish in 2023 after a one-year extension, setting the stage for the Government to initiate a new tender process for Coast Guard services that is likely to be hotly contested.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said last year he wanted to explore the option of the Air Corps providing “some element” of the service but ruled out the State taking full responsibility for such operations.

Now the Defence Forces have submitted a 400-page plan to the Department of Transport, saying the Air Corps can provide the service for the east coast from its base at Baldonnel in west Co Dublin from mid-2023.

As pressure grows on the public finances after a huge rise in borrowing to tackle Covid-19, the plan repeatedly highlights the potential for enduring cost savings if the Air Corps takes over part of the service.

Pandemic

The submission was cast as an opportunity for the Defence Forces to strengthen the State with a strategic contribution to financial security while enhancing military capability.

“Given the cost of the pandemic, we have to look in every corner to save money if we can and here is one obvious saving,” said Gerard Craughwell, the independent Senator who is campaigning for the Air Corps to provide search-and-rescue services.

Rory O’Connor, general officer commanding of the Air Corps, said in the submission the tender process as planned would see a commercial provider receiving a contract at significant expense to the State for rotary-wing and fixed-wing search-and-rescue for 10 years.

Mr O’Connor said he was obliged to express concern about value for money particularly, adding that there was potential for the duplication of resources and tasks from two State agencies operating aircraft with similar capabilities.

He also expressed concern about security and sovereignty, an implicit reference to anxiety in the military about suggestions in transport circles that private operators may be allowed to base a fixed-wing aircraft for search-and-rescue in the UK to save costs.

According to the Defence Forces document, its proposal would prevent unnecessary duplication while dealing with concerns about sovereignty and security.

Benefits

The plan would enable the Air Corps to deliver an east coast rotary-wing service at what was described as a significantly reduced cost and with legacy cost benefits to the State.

However, the document is understood to have made it clear that extra resources and finance would be required, in addition to the current defence budget. Two new medium-lift helicopters would be required to augment the current fleet, at a cost of some €17.5 million each, and possibility a third, costing €14 mllion.

Still, the submission said the no provision was required for the Defence Forces to make a commercial profit from search-and-rescue and noted that spending on airfield services and accommodation would be nominal.

Saying the cost of buying helicopters was non-recurring, the submission set out €3.3 million in annual maintenance costs, €2.4 million per year salary costs for aircrew, €1.5 million in salary costs for headquarters staff and a further €300,000 per year for training and other costs.

Any new aircraft would retain residual value as they would likely remain in service beyond their ordinary 20-year lifespan, it said.