THE Army's elite special forces unit, the Ranger Wing, has been mobilised for its toughest mission yet – tackling Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.
The Irish Independent can exclusively reveal that the Defence Forces will be given the green light to send a contingent of the highly trained commandos to join the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) - subject to Cabinet and Dail approval.
Such is the international reputation of the Ranger Wing that the EU made a formal request to the Government to provide the troops several months ago.
The unit has been secretly training for the mission all year, working closely with the Navy and Air Corps.
The Rangers put their training to the test last month with a “live” night-time exercise off Tuskar Rock when they “rescued” a sea-going cargo ship.
The operation included the use of an Air Corps Casa maritime aircraft, which kept the target ship under secret surveillance while guiding the navy to its location.
The troops stormed the ship after being deployed by high-speed navy boats and AW 139 helicopters from the Air Corps.
A source revealed: "Every aspect of the exercise was treated as if it was the real deal and was being closely monitored by the top brass to ensure the lads were ready for deployment. It was all kept very hush hush and was filmed from the Air Corps Casa to be reviewed later."
The troops are now deemed "mission ready" and currently await the order to move at their base in the Curragh Camp, Co Kildare.
It is understood that the contingent will involve up to 30 Rangers, including three six-man specialist assault teams, who will be based in a "friendly" country for the duration of a four- to six-month deployment.
According to high-level sources, the soldiers will be deployed to protect ships carrying humanitarian cargo for the World Food Programme through the Indian Ocean.
The EU NAVFOR was launched in December 2008 in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions and has been extended by the European Council to continue until at least December 2014.
Its priority is to protect vessels carrying humanitarian aid and to "prevent and repress" acts of piracy and armed robbery on the sea.
According to figures from the American One Earth Future foundation last year, Somali pirates operating in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the northwestern Indian Ocean netted $160m (€120m). The cost to the world economy was $7bn (€5.3bn).
But the robust international response from NATO and the EU has begun to cut the number of incidents. In the first half of 2012 there were just 69 incidents involving Somali pirates, compared with 163 in the same period last year, according to data supplied by the International Maritime Bureau.
International navies have stepped up pre-emptive action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast, and shipping firms are increasingly hiring private security companies to provide armed guards.
This will be the fourth high-profile international mission given to the ARW, which is classified as being one of the top special forces units in the world.
In 1999 they were deployed to the rainforests of East Timor in the vanguard of a UN-backed operation to save the slaughter of the local population at the hands of Indonesian-backed militias.
One of the commandos, Sgt Derek Mooney (33), from Blackrock, Co Dublin, was killed when his Landrover vehicle went off the road and plunged down an embankment, south of the capital, Monrovia.
A second Ranger, Sgt Sean Baldwin, was seriously injured and lost a leg in the accident. Sgt Baldwin continues in active service and recently competed in the rifle shooting event at the London Paralympics.
In 2008, the ARW was also sent to Chad as the advance team for another Irish battalion. Members of the unit also provide close protection teams for the commanders of a number of ongoing EU/UN missions.