A clear and present danger
As the Rangers prepare to fly out to East Timor, the Government is getting ready to approve Ireland's membership of the NATO-led Partnership for Peace. Could this be the first of many dangerous missions for the Irish Army? Jerome Reilly reports from The Curragh
As the Army Ranger Wing, Scaithán Fianóglach an Airm, prepare to drop into the still smouldering wasteland of East Timor, there is a deep realisation among them that this will be the most dangerous mission involving Irish troops since the Congo.
``There is the real possibility that we could take casualties. We will be operating in a very hostile environment where we could be shot at. We recognise that fact and accept it for what it is. It is a possibility,'' the commanding officer of the elite unit said.
Yet his hardest job this week was to tell two-thirds of his men that they would not be flying out in the first detachment when the call to deploy comes from the Australian-led UN mission.
Every fit member of the unit volunteered for the peace enforcement mission on the other side of the world. This, they believe, is a real mission for real soldiers, and every one of the 100-plus-strong unit wants to be a part of it. They have trained hard for years so that when the call comes, they are ready to fight, no matter how tough the battle.
About 30 have been chosen for the first deployment, a mixture of young, ultra-fit Rangers who will cope better in the hot and humid conditions ,and experienced men who have served in Somalia and the Middle East. It is generally accepted that four months is about the maximum troops from this part of the world can cope in the jungles of East Timor without adverse health problems.
The warning order that they could be on the move came to Plunkett Barracks in The Curragh tomorrow. All Rangers are on one-hour call to respond to any emergency to aid the civil power and all carry bleepers. The word spread to every Ranger within minutes.
They have had their shots for typhoid, malaria, tetanus and cholera. The vital administration work has already begun, including the making of wills, which is mandatory for all Irish soldiers about to serve abroad.
Weapons will be ``zeroed'' (adjusted to pinpoint accuracy), and communications equipment and kit checked and re-checked. The commanding officer and two other members of the unit will fly to Australia on Tuesday, then on to East Timor to carry out reconnaissance.
There was a palpable air of expectancy at Plunkett Barracks on Thursday and an urgency to the preparations, even though it could be some weeks before they deploy.
`The reconnaissance will be a key element and give us a good idea how we may be deployed in the best possible way,'' said the commanding officer. ``We realise that this is possibly a dangerous mission, but despite all the hype, it should be remembered that this is a UN backed peace enforcement mission not a war. It is unlikely that we will be dropping behind enemy lines or any other covert operations like that, though we could do that if it was called for.
"Our primary role will be to maintain peace on East Timor, or to enforce peace on the island. Our job is to stop blood being spilled and to separate beligerents, nothing more, nothing less,'' he added.
Despite the hazardous nature of the mission, there was no differentiation between married and single members of the unit when choosing the initial force for East Timor.
``It is a tribute to the wives and girlfriends of the men that they are always fully aware and accept that an essential part of their men's work is that they must be on immediate call to respond to any task, no matter how long its duration,'' the CO said. He sees the UN mission working in classic military terms: first securing the seaports and airports and centres of population, like Dilli, and working out from from there.
While yesterday brought the news that some units of the murderous militia were fleeing East Timor, bound for Jakarta, there will probably be many more left behind. They are armed and dangerous.
Members of the Irish Army Ranger Wing cannot be identified because of possible threat from subversives. The Ranger Wing is among the best-trained and best-equipped special services unit in Europe. Within its ranks, there are masters in all the arts of soldiering. In common with other special services units, the training regime produces soldiers with exceptional abilities to prepare them for inclusion in the unit's assault units.
As well as absolute physical fitness, advanced shooting skills and marksmanship are required, as well as the ability to cope with long-range patrolling in hostile environments, survival training and rough terrain navigation, and hostage rescue tactics, including house, aircraft, bus, train and ship assaults.
However, that represents merely the basic skills course. Throughout their careers, Rangers undergo further specialist training, including fast roping, boat handling, sniping, underwater combat diving, explosives intervention, close protection, parachuting and advanced navigation.
Every member of the unit undergoes an advanced first aid course, run by the Army Medical Corps. The syllabus includes basic trauma life support, and covers intravenous infusion and oxygen therapy. They carry a full range of medical equipment on all operations and it is a source of pride that each Army Ranger has the ability to care for casualties until they are turned over to the emergency medical services.
Up to half the members of the Army Ranger Wing are qualified snipers with skills in navigation, camouflage and concealment.
``We see our role as that of a force multiplier, offering a range of skills and equipment to the UN in this instance,'' said the CO.
Established 19 years ago in response to the growth in domestic and international terrorism, the Rangers report directly to the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Dave Stapleton. They are not answerable to the Army's normal area commands.
The olive-green berets and the Fianóglach shoulder flash insignia are their main identifying features, though the range of specialist weaponry at their disposal is markedly superior to that available to ordinary troops.
Yet despite the air of mystique surrounding the unit, its members are not gung-ho types. The selection process which draws on all parts of the defence forces, including the Navy and Air Corps, quickly weeds out all but the fittest, strongest and brightest.
In the next few weeks, the chosen men will revise tactics and techniques learned during training operations in Belize. But despite the mission to East Timor, the Wing's primary function is to organise, train and remain on immediate call to perform military tasks of a specialised nature here in Ireland. ``That is why not all the Rangers are going to East Timor,'' said the CO. ``We must always ensure there is a strong presence here at home to respond to any emergency.''
The unit emphasises non-lethal force, with each member trained to wound rather than kill. During training on the firing range, the emphasis is on shooting non-vital organs and on using the minimum number of rounds.
When the call comes to go to East Timor, the Army Rangers will be soldiering alongside a unique multinational force of about 7,500, heavily weighted in favour of special forces or combat-hardened troops under the command of the Australians. The British Gurkha Paratroopers are already on their way.
Yet this looks like being a long, drawn-out mission which could take many months. The first priority is to secure Dili and the ruined UN compound which was torched by the militiamen after its evacuation.
Although the Indonesian Commanding Officer has pledged to peacefully withdraw from the island, there is a history of lies and evasion from that quarter. There is compelling evidence that the murderers who killed and maimed thousands of people during the last month on the island were aided and abetted by the Indonesian military.
It is into this hostile and rapidly-changing war zone that the Army Rangers are to be sent. Yet, to the last man, they are looking forward to it. It is what all their training was for. It is their raison d'etre.