Buying drones from Israel will damage Army role, say critics
Defence Forces argue new unmanned craft will protect the lives of Irish soldiers, writes Mark O'Regan
A fleet of high-powered 'spy drones' have been bought by the Irish Army from an Israeli defence company for €1.9m - despite claims the deal may damage Ireland's 'honest broker' role in Middle East peacekeeping duties.
The Defence Forces have defended the purchase on the grounds of cost.
They also stress the primary objective is to provide the "greatest possible force protection" to Irish troops.
They also emphasise that they tendered internationally to get the best possible deal.
In the past there has been criticism of the military authorities here purchasing military equipment from Israeli companies.
Israel plays a pivotal political and military role in a number of key locations where Irish soldiers operate as UN peacekeepers.
Now, new figures obtained by the Sunday Independent, show the Irish Army's overall arms package sourced from Israel has soared to €5.8m since 2012.
Four Orbiter I and Orbiter II drones were purchased from the same company between 2007 and 2009.
And last year each model was upgraded to the highly sophisticated 'next generation' Orbiter 2B.
Military analysts state this technology provide 'eyes in the sky', enabling units to monitor activity deep in enemy terrain.
The drones are made by Aeronautics Defence Systems Limited, an Israeli company, and have been used in conflict zones ranging from Africa and Iraq to Afghanistan.
Internal records also show a ground surveillance radar programme, which provides 'real-time situational awareness' in particular environments, was bought for €2.3m.
A 'fire control computer system' and 'surveillance and target acquisition suite' cost a further €710,000.
Israel is seen as a key player in the provision of military hardware in this sector. Its armed forces extensively resort to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance and the targeted assassination of militants.
Drones have also been widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan for surveillance, and more recently, direct attack using missiles.
The Irish army's new fleet of covert technology is designed to provide close-range monitoring of a particular target. They will provide a valuable 'over the hill' surveillance asset for troops on peacekeeping missions.
Unmanned miniature spy planes can be directed over target areas by remote control
The new models are fitted with night-vision gear for 24-hour operations - but are light and small enough to be carried in a backpack. They can be assembled and ready for action in 10 minutes.
The Irish Army has been using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, since 2007.
In a statement, the Defence Forces said the drones significantly enhance "force protection".
"They are an information asset - they do not carry weapons. The UAV aids the commander's decision-making process. Their employment is an integral element of the Defence Forces capability mix in all theatres of operations."
The drones were bought to enhance the capability of the Army to carry out surveillance and "target acquisition", it added. "They provide a low-cost, low-risk means to increase capabilities and enhance force protection, by performing missions which do not demand the use of manned aircraft."
The Irish Army has been deployed to South Lebanon on three separate occasions. The first deployment was between 1978 and 2001, with another between 2006 and 2007. A third deployment took place in May 2011.
The 109th Infantry Battalion, consisting of 336 members of the Defence Forces, are currently serving a six-month tour of duty in South Lebanon.
Declan Power, a security analyst, who has served oversees in the Irish Army, says the type of drone currently used by the Defence Forces is primarily for intelligence and reconnaissance.
"It provides the ability to know what's happening in a much wider area. It also improves force protection and diminishes the level of threat.
"It means you can observe a hostile force, without that hostile force being aware of your presence.
"It provides a commander on the ground, in the likes of Chad or Liberia, greater choice as to how they utilise their forces."
He also described as "facetious nonsense" suggestions that the purchase of arms from Israeli companies undermines our peacekeeping role in the Middle East.
"The people who make those kind of statements demonstrate their lack of knowledge about such matters. They are hugely politicised and know nothing about operational reality.
"All international democratically accountable militaries purchase their equipment from a variety of different countries, in trying to get the best deal for the best quality equipment.
"Israel is not North Korea; it is a democratically accountable state, that is seen as a responsible vendor of these goods. We purchase equipment from the US. Are we supposed to down tools because some group of political extremists and malcontents have an issue with that? Where do you draw the line?"
Among those who have criticised the purchase of military equipment from Israeli companies, by the Irish Defence Forces, have been members of Sinn Fein.