By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“Their ethos of relentless determination and pursuit
of excellence provides the Defence Forces with a very
potent, niche Special Forces capability, which is
at the forefront of Ireland’s military capability.”
— Irish military spokesman, 2010.
Some portions of this story originally appeared in my earlier article, “Irish Elite Special Ops ‘Warriors’: The Army Ranger Wing,” which was the cover story for the November 2014 edition of Soldier of Fortune magazine; however, all information has been significantly updated since then, and the author has since made two trips to Ireland, with a third visit planned for next year.
The Republic of Ireland’s premier, special operations and counterterrorist force is the Sciathán Fianóglach an Airm (SFA) in Gaelic, the Irish language, which translates roughly in English to “The Army Ranger Wing” (ARW), which is based at the Curragh (“KURR-ah”) Camp in County Kildare, and is nicknamed “The Devils of Kildare.” Under the direct command of the Chief of Staff at Defence Forces Headquarters in nearby Newbridge, the Army Ranger Wing is comprised of military personnel from the Irish Army, Naval Service, and Air Corps, serving together on behalf of the Irish Defence Forces and the Government of Ireland. Qualified members of the unit wear the black-and-yellow Fianóglach shoulder flash insignia, which translates to “young soldier warriors,” or “volunteer warriors,” after the legendary, Fianna warriors in Irish mythology.
Selection for this elite Irish Ranger force is a grueling, annual process lasting 10 months (42 weeks) under the new Special Operations Force Qualification Course (SOFQ). The process is open to all serving members of the Irish Defence Forces, both male and female, with no age limit. The process begins with a preliminary, three-week Selection Course each October. On average, approximately 40 to 80 candidate soldiers enter this phase, which includes various physical fitness tests, assault courses, individual navigation testing, water confidence training, and a 40-mile, combat march with heavy gear. Only about 15 percent normally graduate, and only one women has ever applied for selection, but she did not clear this initial phase. After passing this first module, the remaining six to 12 candidates will advance to the rigorous, nine-month, SOFQ course.
In this second, probationary phase of Ranger selection, potential recruits learn requisite skills in survival training, weapons proficiency, mountaineering, special reconnaissance, combat diving, static-line and freefall parachuting, intelligence collection, search tactics, long-range penetration, ambush organization, urban warfare, advanced navigation, advanced driving, explosives intervention, close-quarters combat, fast-roping, counterterrorism, and other unique training that all culminates in a timed, 28-mile, group march.
Upon passing the second phase, candidates earn the coveted, Fianóglach shoulder flash with red border, the highly-prestigious, dark-green beret, and official entry into the Army Ranger Wing, either as acting corporals, at the lowest rank, or as captains, for officers. Their average age is 31, with the oldest being 44. Since the unit’s inception, less than 400 men have become fully-qualified, Irish Rangers, only two men passed the entire selection course in 2019, and none passed in 2008.
The ARW was formally established by government order on March 16, 1980, due to the dramatic increase in terrorism internationally and at home by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army terrorist group). Training was provided by Irish soldiers who had graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They initiated an Irish Ranger course in 1969, emphasizing small-unit tactics, physical endurance, combat survival, and precision marksmanship skills. Graduates returned to their home units and passed along these special skills for the next 11 years. They sought to attain the high, international training standards set by NATO countries, to give Ireland dedicated, special operations and counterterrorism (CT) capabilities.
The ARW should not be confused with the Royal Irish Rangers, now the Royal Irish Regiment, from Holywood (not Hollywood), just northeast of Belfast, Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The Royal Irish Regiment wears British Multi-Terrain Pattern (MTP, similar to MultiCam) uniforms and dark-green berets/caubeens, are officially assigned to the British Army, and are considered an elite, infantry unit, but they are not a special operations unit.
All Irish ARW Rangers are jump-qualified, with ARW jumpmasters operating the military static-line (MSL) parachute training course for the entire Irish Defence Forces. Five successful jumps (day and night, over land and sea) are required for graduation. They earn silver, Irish jump wings (or subdued, black versions on camo cloth), for successfully using Spanish-made, Cimsa TP-2Z main canopies and Cimsa RTP-26Z reserve chutes in the jumps.
The Defence Forces Ireland Parachute Team and jump school operate from the Irish Air Corps’ Casement Aerodrome in County Dublin, about five miles southwest of the capital city. Some jumps also take place at the Curragh Camp, 19 miles farther to the southwest. Their “Black Knights” parachute team is stationed at Casement, manned primarily by ARW personnel. Rangers also become HALO and HAHO freefall-qualified, with most jumps taking place from two CASA (Spanish) CN-235MPA-100 Persuader, fixed-wing aircraft (to be replaced by two larger CASA C-295MPA Persuaders next year) or six AgustaWestland (Italian) AW139 helicopters, although a few other aircraft are also available. Five jumps per year are required to maintain parachutist proficiency. Although any member of the Irish Defence Forces may apply, attend, and graduate from jump school, earning their wings, the Rangers are the nation’s only airborne-qualified, combat force.
Why would such a relatively small, neutral nation as Ireland maintain an active, paratrooper force like the ARW? According to noted author and U.S. Special Forces veteran Gordon L. Rottman, “The concept of building esprit de corps by ‘rites of passage’…for the purpose of unit cohesion, instilling aggressiveness, and enhancing unit prestige, (is) lost on many conventionally-minded soldiers…But it is another matter to voluntarily and frequently throw oneself, with all sorts of paraphernalia strapped on, out of a perfectly good aircraft, in full knowledge of the risk of injury or even death…(and) riding in a helicopter into a potentially ‘hot’ landing zone on active service is little different emotionally from waiting to make that vigorous exit over a Fort Bragg drop zone.
“This pre-exposure to coping with combat stress and the control of fear makes parachute training well worth the effort in the interests of maintaining a peacetime, immediate-action force capable of swift transition…to the realities of combat half a world away, in a totally different climate…It is for these reasons that many nations maintain a parachute force, not because it is their principal means of delivery…They want troops who can face challenging odds with speed and flexibility, and sub-units capable of independent operations.”
Major General Aubrey S. “Red” Newman, former commander of the 34th Infantry Regiment in World War Two, and holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor, added that, “Parachute jumping tests and hardens a soldier under stress in a way that nothing short of battle can do. You never know about the others. But paratroopers will fight. You can bet on that.”
The Irish Army Ranger Wing has a number of missions and responsibilities, divided between conventional and unconventional warfare (“Green Role”) and specialized, counterterrorism duties (“Black Role”). Primary, “green” tasks include long-range reconnaissance patrols, intelligence gathering, capture of key, enemy personnel, raids, ambushes, sabotage, direct action, and diversionary operations, as well as defensive VIP protection, counterinsurgency, and specialist training. The ARW’s principal, “black” tasks include counterterrorism, hostage-rescue operations, airborne and seaborne intervention, search operations, and recapture of terrorist-held objectives. To facilitate ongoing training in this very specialized arena, the Rangers have their own tactical training facility, known as “Tac Town,” at the Curragh Camp, which contains shooting ranges and kill houses in various urban and rural scenario settings.
Since 2019, the ARW primarily wears MultiCam uniforms, with a distinctive, dark-green beret in garrison. A navy-blue or black uniform is worn for CT operations, and a light-gray, freefall parachuting ensemble is used during HALO/HAHO events. Since 1998, within the Curragh Camp itself is a Professional Tactical Equipment (“ProTac”) military retail store, which provides any additional, personal equipment that the assigned soldiers may desire to purchase, such as spare uniform items, Irish metal jump wings (€14, or $15 each), Irish subdued, cloth jump wings (€15, or $16 each), optional Magnum (American) boots, backpacks, holsters, tactical gloves, socks, and combat vests.
The Irish Rangers regularly train and operate with other military and law enforcement, special operations units worldwide, including: the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment and 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (“Delta Force”), the Australian SAS Regiment and 2nd Commando Regiment, Belgian Special Forces Group, British SAS and SBS commandos, Canadian JTF 2 and CSOR, French GIGN force, German GSG-9 unit and KSK Special Forces Command, Italian GIS and COMSUBIN, Netherlands Marine Corps UIM, New Zealand NZSAS, Polish GROM unit, Swedish SOG, and U.S. Navy SEALs. This extensive cross-training ensures the highest-possible, international standards of proficiency, and earns Ireland the lasting respect and admiration of the global, special operations community.
ARW unit members are on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and must live within a prescribed radius of the Curragh Camp in order to maintain a high state of readiness and the very rapid reaction time of only two hours for emergency deployments within Ireland. On average, a Ranger spends five to 10 years serving with the unit, with officers serving about four years. Their true identities are highly classified. Only four ARW members are known to have died on active duty, including one fatality in a Land Rover Defender vehicle accident in Liberia in 2003. The circumstances of the three remaining deaths remain classified. Their names are reverently carved into the ARW memorial stone at Curragh Camp. The precise number of active Rangers is classified, but is generally accepted to average approximately 150, but may be as low as just 50 men recently. Since the Republic of Ireland is an officially neutral nation and not part of NATO, most ARW deployments have involved peacekeeping operations.
The Rangers first served overseas in Somalia in 1993 as part of UNOSOM II, during the infamous, “Black Hawk Down” incident, wearing U.S. Army uniforms to blend in with American peacekeeping troops. From 1999 to 2004, they served with the International Force for East Timor, in conjunction with Canadian and New Zealand special operations forces near the West Timor border. The ARW was also deployed to Liberia in 2003, following the Second Liberian Civil War, working jointly with Swedish troops. There, they executed a dramatic, hostage-rescue mission and captured rebel forces, including the rebel commander. In October 2005, Irish Rangers and intelligence officers deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, following the abduction of Irish journalist Rory Carroll by al-Qa’ida insurgents. Carroll was released unharmed, and was safely returned to Ireland.
In February 2008, an ARW force of 54 Rangers was deployed to Chad as part of the European Union Force. This was the largest-ever deployment of Irish Rangers. They completed several reconnaissance missions, identified key ground threats to EU forces, and secured certain parts of the Chad-Darfur border. From 2006 to the present day, ARW intelligence operatives have served on various missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, Sudan, Syria, and Western Sahara. Members of the Army Ranger Wing have also completed other missions, such as training foreign forces in Africa and the Balkans, U.N. protection missions in Lebanon, and security and intelligence duties along the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.
Meanwhile, at home in Ireland, ARW domestic missions have primarily been in security and intelligence capacities, often assisting the Garda police force and its Emergency Response Unit (ERU) special operations branch. Irish Rangers expertly protected Queen Elizabeth II during her historic visit from May 17th to 20th, 2011, preventing possible assassination attempts by the dissident, Provisional IRA terrorist faction. Only three days later, Rangers safeguarded U.S. President Barack Obama during his brief visit to Ireland. These two safe and successful events were the largest security operations ever undertaken on the island of Ireland, thanks to the expert skills of the ARW.
The ARW was also deployed to Malta and Libya in 2011, to evacuate 115 Irish citizens during the Libyan Civil War.
Then, on Saturday, September 21, 2013, a former Irish Ranger sergeant and a former British Special Air Service (SAS) commando officer, both serving as security consultants in Nairobi, Kenya, rapidly responded to the Westgate Mall terrorist massacre, a fierce, shooting rampage that ultimately killed 67 people and wounded 175 more, including 11 Kenyan soldiers, during a horrific, four-day siege.
Together, the two men arrived amid total chaos, and acquired a borrowed, 9mm handgun from an Asian civilian. Within the brief span of only 49 minutes, the armed, ex-Ranger and his ex-SAS colleague heroically took full control of the horrific situation, led at least 500 dazed hostages to safety, rescued their two trapped clients, and killed four heavily-armed, al-Shabaab terrorists in the harrowing process. Then, they went back inside again to retrieve the wounded, and spent the next three hours using their military paramedic skills to treat at least 10 gunshot and shrapnel victims, mostly children.
In early 2015, the personnel strength of the ARW was supposed to be increased by 30 percent, if not doubled, to allow the Rangers to expand their domestic and overseas roles during a period of heightened, international tensions. A corresponding review of recruitment and selection methods accompanied this increase, in order to ensure that the highest training standards were maintained as the candidate pool increased. But doubling the size of the unit in 2015 never came to fruition.
In 2018, the ARW won the U.S. Army’s international sniper competition at Fort Benning, Georgia, making them “the best sniper team in the world,” according to one journalist, and “the first non-USA team to win an international sniper competition.”
In June 2019, 14 ARW operators deployed to the U.N. Mission in Mali on a two-year, rotational basis for intelligence and operational roles, including long-range, reconnaissance patrols (LRRP.) Also in 2019, the ARW spearheaded the special operations task group (SOTG) for the European Union Battlegroup, a rapid-reaction force in Germany. And in October of that year, Irish Rangers deployed in plainclothes to the Syrian border to extract Lisa Smith, a former Irish Army soldier who had converted to Islam and joined the ISIS terrorist group, and her two-year-old child. Smith was repatriated to Dublin, arrested there, and charged with terrorist offenses.
During the lengthy war in Afghanistan, ARW operators served in small numbers from 2006 to 2007, and from 2014 to 2015, primarily as trainers, medical staff, and explosives experts. Amid the chaotic, allied withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021, Irish Rangers deployed once again to evacuate Irish citizens.
Within Ireland, there is a general reluctance to use the ARW, because, as one former member stated, “There’s a lack of understanding of what they’re capable of, and a real reluctance to use them. It’s nearly like they are afraid of them, like they’re Frankenstein’s monster.” According to former Ranger Billy Hedderman, there was “massive reluctance” to employ the Rangers to protect Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, because, “People seemed to have the impression that we were some sort of rogue and lawless unit that daily came up with ways of trying to kill each other.”
Many serving and retired, Irish Rangers also believe that their government lacks vision on how to use the highly-trained unit, which is considered to be one of the best in the European Union. There is also a general acceptance and awareness across Irish society that the Defence Forces in general, and the ARW in particular, are underappreciated and undervalued.
Retired Army Commandant Cathal Berry, who was second-in-command of the ARW for six years, scathingly stated in a recent interview that, “I’m not leaving because I hate the army. I’m leaving because I love it. I can’t just sit back anymore and watch the Defence Forces being completely dismantled and demoralized before my eyes.” He added of Defence Minister Paul Kehoe that, “He’s an empty suit, completely out of his depth, simply not up to the job. Everyone knows it. To reduce a highly-effective and proud organization to an utterly-demoralized outfit over an eight-year period is some achievement.”
As a direct result, Irish defense spending is set to double within the next year, from €1.1 billion annually, to more than €2 billion. An Irish cabinet insider recently told The Irish Sun that, “The invasion of Ukraine and the recent threat by Russia to carry out military exercises in Irish international waters has opened the government’s eyes to how vulnerable we are.”
As expected for a highly-elite, special unit, the Irish Ranger warriors employ the finest of weapons and tactical equipment. Their service pistols include the SIG P226 and P228, FN Five-seveN (a rare, specialty weapon), suppressed H&K USP9 Tactical, and compact Walther PPK, with assault carbines including the newer HK416A5, with 11-inch or 14.5-inch barrels, in 5.56mm, often suppressed, and the older Steyr AUG A2 and A3 Mod. 14 (often with attached, M203A1 grenade launchers, and ACOG 4×32 optical sights.) Their favored submachine gun is the H&K MP5 in various configurations (A3, SD6, F, and K variants), as well as the exotic and futuristic FN P90TR.
Approximately half of the ARW operators are also sniper-qualified, having completed a specialized, seven-week course. Their weapons range from designated-marksman rifles, such as scoped, HK417 Recce (16-inch barrel) and Sniper (20-inch barrel, often suppressed) rifles, to bolt-action, longer-range choices. Their top-quality, high-precision, sniper rifles include the Accuracy International L96A1 in .308-caliber, the L115A3 in .338 Lapua Magnum, and the mighty AW50 in .50 Browning.
Irish Ranger combat shotguns encompass the Benelli M3T Tactical, Benelli M4 Super 90, Franchi SPAS-12, and Remington 870P, and their preferred, light machine gun is the short-barrel FN Minimi Para, with Elcan SpecterDR optical sight.
Moving on to heavier weapons, the Rangers use the M1 60mm Commando mortar, Carl Gustav M2/M3 84mm recoilless rifle, and AT4 and FGM-148D Javelin anti-tank missiles. Vehicle-mounted armaments include the FN 7.62mm MAG, Browning M2HB heavy machine gun, and two different 40mm grenade launcher models. Among the motorized transportation in use are 12 Special Recon Vehicle (SRV) versions of the Ford F350, the Nissan Navarra Tactical Assault Vehicle, the armored Nissan Patrol, modified Range Rover SUVs (with special ladders and ramps for CT operations), Mowag (Swiss) Eagle light armored vehicle, Yamaha 660 all-terrain vehicles, Austrian KTM off-road motorcycles, and Suzuki DR350 and DR-Z40 motorcycles.
Special watercraft of the Rangers include the Combat Rubber Raiding Craft, rigid-hulled, inflatable boats (RIBs), and Klepper Mk. 13 folding, “stealth” kayaks, while combat divers use the Dräger LAV-7 closed-circuit, rebreather gear to eliminate telltale, surface bubbles.
The ARW is also equipped with state-of-the-art, communication systems, such as the SINCGAR ITT, Harris and Racal (British) encrypted radios with burst-transmission and frequency-hopping capabilities, as well as satellite communication (SATCOM) systems for communicating with their headquarters from anywhere in the world. The ARW Intelligence Section also has the ability to conduct remote signals communications and electronic espionage in conjunction with G2 Intelligence at Irish Defence Forces headquarters.
The Defence Forces web site states the ARW ethos as follows: “From its foundation, it was necessary for the ARW to ensure that the highest standards pertained at all levels of the Unit. Motivation, training, and operational flexibility are paramount to success. This is achieved by ensuring the highest level of proficiency allied to the command, control, and communications (C3) functions, all of which knit together to form cohesive, military teamwork.”
So, the fiery, Irish warrior spirit has evolved over time, from the rough, ancient, Celtic warriors of a bygone era — to the “Wild Geese” mercenaries fighting Europe’s wars of the 16th through 18th centuries (primarily aiding the French against the English) — to adventurous, fighting Irishmen like Captain Myles Keogh who served in both the Papal Army and the U.S. 7th Cavalry. — to the hardy Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army of the 1916 Easter Rising the eventually led to hard-won, Irish independence from the United Kingdom in 1922.
Today, the Irish Army Ranger Wing embodies the modern culmination of that wild, aggressive spirit. Despite an official government policy of armed neutrality, the Rangers train to the very highest of international standards. They and hone their combat skills and expertise during repeated, operational deployments to some of the world’s most-volatile hotspots, including Israel, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, Somalia, and Syria, where they are constantly put to the test. They are the Emerald Isle’s consummate, quiet professionals in the special operations and counterterrorism arenas. They are shadow warriors who emerge whenever needed to preserve and protect the proud freedoms of the Republic of Ireland.
* * *
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (traveled twice to Ireland) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.