Recently, in the Dail, the Minister for Defence said that the cost of adding high performance jets would be prohibitive and frankly, he has a point - if he's talking about brand new Typhoons, Rafales etc, but we don't actually need something like that. However, rather than just pick on that point, let's look at the wider issue of defence policy and what it should achieve. With an election coming up next year, it's an opportune time to discuss this.
Firstly, it seems to be a common perception that defence spending is "deadweight" spending, in the sense that there is very little return on it; that, added to the fact that the defence minister is usually relatively junior means that the Dept of Finance finds it relatively easy to kill defence spending plans. A further problem is that it's often seen in isolation, rather than in the context of other areas and policy goals.
We are actually one of the wealthiest EU nation states and yet, our defence spending is among the smallest, particularly as a proportion of GNP. We expect to have a voice heard at the highest level, particularly in areas of security and foreign policy, yet we punch way below our weight in terms of the contribution we make; we lay claim to a huge coastal limit, yet in the event of any serious catastrophe, we have to call in the RAF and RN. We won't participate in any EU defence pact (although in fairness, that is changing slightly, with possible participation in the proposed Rapid Reaction Force); it's not based on principle, like Sweden's or Switzerland's neutrality; it's just an unwillingness to take defence seriously. The problem is, of course, that by the time a serious threat presents itself, it's often too late.
Of course, I want to focus on the IAC here, but I'd also like to look at the possibility of a naval aviation detachment, which could be charged with crewing ship based helicopters; Sweden, among other countries, has high speed vessels with helicopters; this would be very useful in a variety of roles.
One possibility I'd like to look at in particular is having an air force of a neutral foreign country set up a training base here; Singapore is one that jumps to mind: tiny country, limited space for training (current done in Oz), but very good and growing air force. Here's where the association with other govt policies comes in as well; the govt, in its Asia Strategy Report, wants to develop trade links with Asia - a military alliance with a country like Singapore is a very good way to build that; the RSiAF could base trainers, even fast jets here (on rotations, so to speak) and in the event of a serious terror threat, they could also be deployed to take protective action. Irish crews could also be trained in the maintenance of the aircraft and possibly even pilot training.
In a European context, I would strongly advocate participation in the WEU and stronger links with other military arms; the IAC's transport contingent could be improved - perhaps EU assistance to buy C-295 or C-27 troop carriers? Then there is surveillance acft to look at and although these could be provided by a WEU partner country, it's important that home grown competence in these areas is developed.
I think one of the key challenges will be to take on the perception that Defence is somehow a "dirty word" - seedy, even morally questionable; there'll be all these comments about how we should be putting money into hunger and fighting AIDS etc (all of which I'm in favour of, don't get me wrong), BUT a government has a primary duty to defend its country and people. Defence in Ireland has always taken a back seat, with the results that we now see - our air defences being in the hands of the PC9s. Nice aircraft, but hardly a front line fighter. If we get a time warp that takes us back to the '40s, they'll be great against the Me-209s.
Let's share some ideas; we have a well trained and highly professional Air Corps and as a modern, developed country, we should have a modern, well equipped air force, capable to serving our interests over a wide variety of skill-sets and competences. Time to take defence seriously ...