The Air Corps must be given a role in the country’s search and rescue (SAR) operations, rather than relying on private contractors, the Government has been urged.
The Department of Transport is developing a new marine SAR aviation contract for future service provision.
The current contract for the SAR helicopter service is between the Department of Transport and a civil helicopter operator, CHC Ireland Dac.
The contract commenced on July 1, 2012, for a period of 10 years, with an option to extend for a further three. The existing contract was extended earlier this year for one year to 2023 to facilitate the lengthy procurement process and ensure compliance with the public spending code.
However, a group of aviation, safety and defence experts and a senator are urging for an increased role for the Air Corps in the operation of the next multi-million euro contract.
The group, Secure Ireland’s Search and Rescue (SISAR), says the Government should seriously examine value for money before it rules out a role for the Air Corps in the next 10-year contract, which is expected to cost the exchequer almost €700m.
SISAR chairman, independent senator Gerard Craughwell, has appealed to the Government not to rule out any involvement in the provision of frontline SAR services by the Air Corps.
"The latest figures for Ireland’s SAR aviation contract points to an annual cost of €62.5m. There is no reason to believe that any new 10-year contract would not be significantly above that figure."
The Air Corps is in the process of significantly strengthening its fixed-wing aircraft fleet, having committed to over €260m on four new PC-12s, which have been delivered, and two new C295s which will be delivered in early 2023. Add this to its complement of helicopters, which are suitable for SAR, its facilities in Baldonnell, trained crew and back-up, then the rationale for awarding the next 10-year contract exclusively to one of a number of large, international private sector entities without consideration of our Air Corps does not stand up, he said.
“And unlike private sector entities who retain ownership of its helicopters, Air Corps aircraft remain in State ownership for the benefit of our citizens,” he added.
In response, Defence Minister Simon Coveney said no decision has yet been taken to change any aspect of the current delivery model of search and rescue, SAR, aviation services in Ireland's SAR domain.
For taxpayers, the community and service providers, it is important that a full and realistic consideration is made of all the viable options available to the State, he said.
“I am happy that this is the approach currently being taken,” Mr Coveney added.
The minister said this has nothing to do with wages. “It is to do with ensuring we have the capacity to save lives at sea when people get into trouble. I have had the benefit of the experience and the expertise of the current SAR contract. I would like to see the Air Corps and the Defence Forces playing as significant a role as they can in any future SAR arrangement or contract,” he added.
Mr Coveney said the department is not going to be the ones assessing those who tender for this contract. A group of experts will do that, he said.
“My interest, as minister for defence, is to ensure we are building capacity in the Air Corps, as well as responding to the service demands of a search and rescue contract that we have some time now to prepare for after 2022 and 2023,” he said.
“We are not going to be supporting any service provision that does not have the capacity for quick response times. We certainly will not be compromising any intelligence data. With respect, I do not think the issues the Deputy raised are of real concern,” he concluded.