THE Navy is to get two new ships - one of which is likely to be the largest ever operated by the service.
In a radical departure, a new multi-role vessel (MRV) will be able to carry troops and armoured vehicles on UN or EU Battlegroup missions and deliver them to the latest hot spot worldwide. It will also be the most expensive and capable ship ever built for the Naval Service if, as expected, the Government gives the go-ahead later this year.
Two new larger ships are needed within the next three years because 'LE Emer' and 'LE Aoife' will both have reached the end of their 30-year lives.
Two new ships built in the UK for the Naval Service in the last few years cost ?50m, but the new ships are expected to be much more costly.
Naval experts are now studying exactly what type of new ships will be needed to support the Defence Forces up to 2040. A report will then be submitted to Defence Minister Willie O'Dea.
Military experts were greatly impressed by the Royal Netherlands Navy ship 'Rotterdam' which was used in Liberia for amphibious landings of Irish troops and armoured vehicles.
Equipped with a hospital and helicopter, it was able to provide excellent accommodation, hot meals and showers for weary Irish troops coming off patrol.
But at 14,000 tons it is too big for Ireland's needs and experts are looking at the much smaller Meko 200 MRV built by Blohm and Voss in Germany which could carry Irish armoured personnel carriers on deck as well as troops.
Another MRV has been bought by the Royal New Zealand Navy and is able to carry 250 troops, 16 Mowag armoured vehicles and trucks as well as helicopters and landing craft.
Ireland has committed a 200-strong company of troops in armoured personnel carriers to the EU Battlegroup concept.
But it has no means of transporting them apart from using commercial carriers or by asking for help from other Battlegroup members, such as Sweden.
The Government is setting up a new humanitarian disaster corps to respond to natural disasters like the tsunami, but there is no means of transporting volunteers or aid independently.
Another argument being made in favour of a larger ship is that Ireland could submit a claim to the UN for sovereign rights over our continental shelf extending far beyond the 200-mile limit which would also have to be patrolled by the Navy.
Mr O'Dea has confirmed the two ships are due for replacement between 2007 and 2009 and expects a submission will be made to him for decision later this year.