On the Necessity of a navy

Now, I do have to admit to a certain bias here. I am a HUGE naval buff, as anyone who knows me in person will be able to confirm. Still, I woke up a few weeks ago to a news item that would have been major news in any country, much more so in a small island nation like Ireland. LÉ Niamh, an Offshore Patrol Vessel of the Irish Naval Service, supported by patrol aircraft from the Irish Air Corps and her sister ship Roisin, stopped and boarded the yacht Makayabella about 200 nautical miles west of Mizen Head. The ship was found to be carrying cocaine bales worth an estimated 80 million Euros.

LE Niamh (P52) moored at Haulbowline Naval Base. 
This boarding operation, described as a "textbook" operation by Irish Navy officials is undoubtedly a huge success, and highlights the professionalism of the men and women of the Naval Service. However, the operation also highlighted something else - The value of a well equipped and funded navy. And that, sadly, is something that Ireland is sorely missing. Given the history of this country, and its violent, tormented birth, it is perhaps not surprising that the relation of the Irish State to its armed forces is lukewarm at best. And while the "Emergency", as World War 2 was euphemistically known in Ireland by the de Valera administration, saw an increase in the size and equipment of the Irish Armed Forces, a permanent Naval Service was not established until after the end of the Emergency in 1946. Even then, it was a fleet of "hand-me-downs", a handful of Flower-Class Corvettes and Ton-Class Coastal Minesweepers of the Royal Navy. However, these WW2 veterans never formed a consolidated fleet, the mine hunters not entering service until two of the three corvettes had been decommissioned and scrapped in the 1970s, leaving only one ship in active service. Things became better from 1972 onwards, when LE Deirdre, the first of four new purpose-built patrol vessels for the Naval Service, entered service.

Side view of LE Aisling. She is virtually identical to LE Deirdre, the first purpose-built warships of the Irish Naval Service.
The Deirdre/Emer class ships are showing their age, and with their open 40mm gun mount, are not really suitable for modern patrol requirements anymore.

LE Eithne, the current flagship of the Irish Naval Service
View towards the bow of LE Ciara, one of the two Peacock class corvettes that is currently undergoing asbestos decontamination.

The 1980s saw the entry into service of LE Eithne, an 84 meter long ship designed embark and operate helicopters, although a plan to build three more ships of the class was scrapped due to budget constraints and the insolvency and winding down of the Verolme shipyard at Rushbrooke, where she and the Deirdre class vessels had been built. Still, the 1980s weren't a bad time for the naval service, and by the end of the decade, the acquisitions of two Peacock-Class Patrol Vessels from the Royal Navy, veterans of the Hong Kong Squadron, had brought the fleet strength up to 7, all purpose built modern designs that enabled the Irish Naval Service for the first time to somewhat effectively patrol the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone that Ireland had been entrusted with. The millennium saw the fleet grow to 9 ships, with two more purpose-built patrol vessels of the Roisin class entering service, the last new ships to enter service before the economic crash in 2008.
That brings us to the present state of the navy, which is not quite as good as it was at the beginning of the decade. The Deirdre class vessels are clearly showing their age, with the lead ship of the class having left the fleet in 2001. Both the Peacock class corvettes as well as the Navy's Flagship LE Eithne are currently out of service for decontamination after asbestos had been found during routine dockyard work. That leaves the naval service two Deirdre class vessels, both over forty years old by now, the two more modern Roisin class vessels, and the new pride and joy of the fleet, the 90 meter long LE Samuel Beckett, the largest and most modern ship in the fleet, being commissioned into the fleet only in May 2014.
The shape of things to come? LE Samuel Beckett (P61), the first of three ships of her class in Cork. While her addition is highly welcome, this should only be the start of a large building programme.
If there's one thing about the current Naval Service that is right on the money, then its the armament of the ships. With the Italian-built 7.6cm Oto Melara Super Rapid gun (Seen above on the forecastle of LE Samuel Beckett) being the most powerful weapon in the arsenal, the weapons suite is ideally suited for patrol duties, and drug busts.

The Samuel Beckett, and her two sister ships currently in planning and under construction at Babcock Marine's shipyard in Appledore, Devon, are one of the few success stories of the Irish Naval Service in the last years. Once the three ships of the class are fully operational, they will provide the navy with a substantial increase in their patrol capabilities in the EEZ. That, however is still some years off, and at the moment, with five ships available, operational demands, refitting and resupplying, crew training and workup phases can mean that only one or two ships are available to patrol a sea area of 410,000 square kilometres, an area substantially larger than Germany. You don't need to be a naval genius to notice that this is nowhere nearly enough, especially as air support from shore is limited as well, with only two maritime patrol aircraft in the inventory of the Irish Air Corps.
But why the hell should Ireland even need a navy? It's not like there are any disputed borders, and Ireland certainly does't have an foreign policy that would require the power-projecting abilities inherent in a well equipped naval service. Well, the answer is, that the coasts of a country are always open borders, open for commerce, leisure, and diplomacy, but also open for crime, smuggling, human trafficking, drug running, etc. The drug bust I mentioned in the opening of this article bears witness to that. In addition, the territorial waters and the EEZ of a country are more than just vast expanses of water. They harbour substantial resources, from fisheries to oil and gas fields. Resources that need to be guarded against exploitation both by national and international parties, especially with nations like Spain and France being known for their aggressive fisheries policies and fishing fleets in the neighbourhood.
It is therefore imperative in my eyes that a large scale investment program for the Irish Naval Service is carried out over the next decade, an investment program both for new ships, new shore facilities, and new supporting assets in the other branches of the Irish Government and the armed forces. Planning needs to start now to replace the Peacock class corvettes and the flagship LE Eithne, as all three are also slowly but surely approaching the end of their service life, being more than 30 years old by now. In addition, the fleet must be expanded to ensure a proper coverage of Irish territorial waters and the EEZ to safeguard Irish maritime interests and resources. The easiest way to go about this would be to increase the number of Beckett class ships currently on order from two to five, which would result in a total number of six vessels of the class in service with the Irish Naval Service. In addition, the numbers of ships of the smaller Roisin class should also be increased from two to four. As the Samuel Beckett Class is based on the Roisin class, and both classes were built at the same shipyard in Appledore, such an order could result in substantial savings over the piecemeal approach previously taken by Irish governments.
This alone would bring the fleet up to ten ships, not counting the Eithne and the Peacocks, which, as mentioned previously are closing on the end of their service lives anyway. Patrolling the territorial waters and the EEZ is only one aspect though. Like all other countries on this planet, Ireland also operates in an environment where global commerce, politics, and even populations are so intertwined that singular action by one country will have knock-on effects all over the world. Often, reacting to these singular actions will require a multinational response, the concept of neutrality quickly becoming a thing of the past. Ireland has recognised this, being an active contributor to UN Peacekeeping operations since the 1950s. Currently, the country has 422 armed forces personnel participating in UN peacekeeping operations, namely with UNIFIL in Lebanon and with UNDOF in Syria, right in the heart of darkness. The Irish Naval Service has supported such operations in the past, and it is only logical to presume that such support will be needed in the future as well. However, with the fleet being geared towards patrol duties, it is by no means certain that the Irish Naval Service would be able to provide such support on short notice. 
Current long-term planning for the Irish Navy stipulates the acquisition of at leat one Multi-Role Vessel (MRV), possibly along the lines of the Royal Danish Navy's Absalon class, a hybrid between a landing ship and a conventional frigate. It is unclear whether these acquisition plans have survived the economic crash of 2008, however two such ships, coupled with a fleet oiler for replenishment at sea, would enable Ireland to fulfil its obligations towards the EU's Nordic Battle Group, as well as, when deployed within home waters, provide extended helicopter support even near the outer fringes of the EEZ, and enabling the smaller patrol vessels to remain at sea for longer in between port visits for restocking their supplies. 
Speaking of ports, the question of basing is one that needs to be addressed just as urgently as the issue of ships. Traditionally, the Irish Naval Service has operated out of Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour, from a dockyard originally established by the Royal Navy. While parts of the dockyard on Haulbowline Island had fallen into disrepair and neglect owing to the fact that the base had been vastly oversized for the Irish Naval Service, the last few years have seen increasing investment in infrastructure on the base, and just recently, the new Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, announced a 50€ investment package to improve facilities at the base, including dedicated facilities for UAV operations.
The Issue here however is not with Haulbowline Island. It is a lack of shore facilities in other parts of the country, particularly in the north west of Ireland. It is exactly that area however, where the heart of Ireland's fishing industry is located, the fishing port of Killybegs. With agriculture and aquaculture being at the heart of Irish exports, it is in my eyes vital that these assets are not only protected but that the state is in protecting them. Furthermore, any Irish Naval vessel that is tasked with patrolling the waters off the north-west coast of Ireland will have to round Mizen Head and sail up the west coast of Ireland, loosing several days of patrol-time in transit. From that point of view, a small dedicated naval base at Killybegs would make sense on more than one front. It would provide a new home port for the smaller vessels of the fleet, currently the last two Deirdre class vessels and the Peacocks, once they're back operational, and free up the facilities down in Haulbowline for the MRVs as well as the Beckett Class ships. It would also provide a secure facility to impound vessels found in breach of fishing regulations or caught smuggling, and a similarly secure facility to hand these over to an Garda Siochana, the Irish police service. The fact that the area around Killybegs is not exactly an economic powerhouse, with the exception of the fishing port itself, would also provide additional benefits from a new base in that location.
All of the above will probably fail because of one single issue: Money. Ireland, while slowly improving, and having successfully left the EU/IMF bailout programme, is still cash-strapped, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. However, the question must be asked if Ireland, with all of its confirmed and suspected offshore resources, from fish to oil and gas, can really afford to leave these resources unguarded. With Ireland sporting one of the highest rates of cocaine use in Europe, is it really more affordable to deal with drug abuse on a case by case basis, even if it threatens to become endemic in some areas, or is it more affordable to stop the stuff from coming in, which will invariably be via the sea? Ultimately, this is not a question that I can answer. This is a political question, one that the Irish people, and their elected representatives in Leinster House will have to answer. I can only leave it with the warning that sometimes, it is more expensive not to act on a problem than it would have been to act on it.


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