Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Irish Defence Forces Armed Irish Air Corps PC-9s.
# National Security
Ireland's air policing security failure and how the British system keeps their skies safe
There are 1.2 million flights passing over our heads on an annual basis which is 80% of all transatlantic traffic.

SPEAK TO IRISH national security sources for any length of time and the subject of a gaping hole in Ireland’s air defences will start to fill the grumbling discontent of the conversation. 

Not alone is the Irish Air Corps without an aircraft to respond to almost all incoming suspicious and threatening aircraft, but the State is also completely blind to know what is out there because of a complete lack of primary military radar.

Commercial aircraft use transponders which transmit their altitude, identity and other information to Air Traffic Control but without that signal from the individual aircraft there to track what is flying in Irish controlled airspace.

That gap, those sources have said for many years now, is filled by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and other countries which Ireland depends on to respond to flights.

Ireland’s airspace is vast – it is roughly six times the size of Ireland’s sovereign land mass, according to a briefing document on the subject.

There are 1.2 million flights passing over our heads on an annual basis which is 80% of all transatlantic traffic.  

Russians bombers have flown down the west coast disrupting civilian traffic – the most recent was in March 2020 when they were monitored by the RAF twice in a week. Malfunctioning aircraft as well as pilots who forgot to turn on a transponder have all caused a response but it wasn’t the Irish military responding.

Caused a ripple

That issue has caused a ripple through the political ranks this week. Opposition TDs have demanded an answer from Tánasite Micheál Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Those calls were not asking why Ireland does not have an air defence capability but why it has a supposed secret deal with the RAF to police Irish skies.

This week Martin, who is Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs, denied that Ireland relies on the agreement with the British and claimed reporting was inaccurate. He refused to explain further citing a policy to not comment on national security issues. 

Varadkar, said in the Dáil that Ireland does depend on international partners to assist in national security measures. 

Senator Gerard Craughwell has issued proceedings in the High Court to determine if the deal exists. That is yet to come to hearing.

Whether Ireland has a secret deal or not can only be determined by the search of a locked safe in a Government department, but here at The Journal we wanted to take a look at how the system works. 

It is not unusual for a suspicious aircraft to enter Irish airspace – sources within the civil aviation governance sector and in the military have said usually it is an aircraft with a malfunctioning or accidentally turned off transponder. 

An Air Traffic Control source said a radio call usually solves the problem and need for fighter aircraft to respond is stood down. However when there is no communication fighters are sent up to check on the crew. 

The other type is a military aircraft, usually Russian Bear bombers, come out of their bases in Russia and make a run down the Western seaboard of Europe. On a few occasions those aircraft have skirted close to Irish airspace. 

As one security source described the Russian strategy: “It is diplomacy through other means – it is a strategic message and that is similar to how the Russians used their naval vessels to intimidate Ireland and the EU shortly before war broke out in Ukraine by conducting naval exercises off the Irish coast.” 

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks the security needs around air travel changed dramatically – the threat to Britain from rogue hi-jacked civilian jet liners was a major concern. 

It saw nations such as the UK and the RAF bolster their air defences to deal with the new threat – Ireland stood still and spent nothing to ensure its air defences and instead, according to sources, doubled down on a deal it had with the British Government. 

raf-typhoon-eurofighter-low-level-in-mid-wales Alamy Stock Photo RAF Typhoon Eurofighter low level in Wales. Alamy Stock Photo

The Royal Air Force

The RAF, as recently as 2 May, responded to an alert off the coast of Scotland as Russian aircraft appeared. 

While there was no immediate risk of armed engagement the British pilots scrambled Typhoon fighter jets from a base in Scotland and backed them up with early warning radar aircraft and a tanker to keep them flying. 

A spokesperson for the RAF outlined how their system works.

“The primary role of the Royal Air Force is to defend the UK and when necessary, UK interests overseas.

“Quick Reaction Alert QRA is a routine part of the RAF’s air defence role to protect UK airspace.

“The RAF’s (QRA) aircraft are held at immediate readiness to protect the United Kingdom and can take off within minutes. QRA are launched to intercept unidentified aircraft because the aircraft cannot be identified by any other means. i.e. the aircraft is not talking to civilian or military Air Traffic Control, has not filed a flight plan and / or is not transmitting a recognisable secondary surveillance radar code.

“The paramount duty of the RAF is to control the air over the UK and, when necessary, UK interests overseas,” the spokesperson said. 

It is a complex system but the RAF spokesperson is keen to stress that it was developed during World War Two and the Battle of Britain. 

“In the UK, under the direction of our Air Battlespace Controllers at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland our fighters can be scrambled to intercept, identify and, if required, intervene aircraft approaching our shores,” he said.

Sources have said the word “intervene” is a euphemism for forcing the aircraft to leave airspace, land or in the worst case shoot it down if it poses an immediate threat to people on the ground and other aircraft. 

Those security sources have said that the initial sighting of military aircraft is normally informed to Irish authorities by British Air Traffic Control contacting their opposite number in the Irish Aviation Authority.

Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin, responding to a question from The Journal this week, denied there was a mechanism whereby he is informed of an incident. 

The concern among security sources is around how a shootdown order would be communicated to the RAF pilot. A number of senior military sources said this would likely be a decision left to London given that the pilot is British. 

The RAF spokesperson said that this response service is on duty twenty four hours a day and through the week.

The air force maintain this in the UK and in the Falklands, which is also known as the Malvinas in Argentina.  

The system uses the multi-role Typhoon squadrons based at RAF Coningsby on the west coast of England and at RAF Lossiemouth in northern Scotland. They are then supported by Voyager Air-to-Air refuelling aircraft from RAF Brize Norton near London. 

The RAF do not just provide cover for their own territories but also in Cyprus, reaching across the Middle East in Operation Shader and in Estonia as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission.

Since 2019 the RAF has conducted a NATO Air policing deployment to Lithuania in 2020 and then in 2021 and last year to Romania.

The Irish Air Corps

Kevin Phipps is a retired Irish Air Corps captain and pilot – he said that Ireland does have a limited capability to respond to slow moving aircraft. 

The PC9 training aircraft is often seen over State events doing ceremonial fly pasts but it has also a capability to be armed. On one occasion, during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, it intercepted a wayward aircraft. 

“Regarding the capabilities of the Irish Air Corps in comparison based on my experience having spend my last 5 years in service as a flying instructor on the PC9 and as a qualified Pilot in Air Intercept tactics.

“The Air Corps are capable of conducting pre planned Air Patrol operations which are effective at intercepting slow moving aircraft such as a Cessna or a helicopter travelling at slow speed and at low altitude. This was seen during the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011.

“The Air Corps utilise the Pilatus Pc9 which is primarily a propellor driven training aircraft but has been fitted with Heavy machine guns and advanced heads up display to enable it to intercept and potentially shoot down a target in the air,” he said. 

Phipps said that the PC 9 is not comparable to the RAF Typhoon which is a supersonic full spectrum 4th generation war fighting aircraft.

51700654880_01ddc18cea_o Irish Defence Forces An Irish Air Corps PC-9 armed with machine guns and rocket pods. Irish Defence Forces

The former Air Corps pilot said a key issue for Irish Air Defence is the lack of a so-called “recognised air picture”. This is information gathered across a primary radar system and satellite that builds up a detailed read out of every aircraft in the airspace – including those without transponders.

This was a key recommendation in the Commission on the Defence Forces report which looked at Ireland’s below standard defence apparatus. 

“We have no visibility bar what we gather from the civilian surveillance radar system primarily based around aircraft transponders and satellite surveillance systems,” he said. 

Phipps said that even if Ireland gets that radar system there will still be a need to ask “partner nations” to respond because the Irish military do not have the aircraft to carry out the role.

“In my opinion it’s clearly a Government policy decision not to invest in an air policing capability which is not a war fighting capability but rather enhances air safety given the volume of overflight traffic that is controlled in Irish Airspace.

“This would be the norm in other Neutral European countries like Austria and Switzerland,” he said. 

‘Not a light switch capability’

Phipps said 2021 costings he has seen for such a fleet of aircraft, a squadron of between eight to ten fighter jets with the primary radar system, would be in the region of US$360 million, (€329.5m) with an annual running cost of US$20m (€18m).

“This capability investment is all consistent with the report of the commission on the defence forces.

“This is also not a light switch capability and will require many years to reach full operating capability. In the interim we will still need to cooperate with another partner to respond to any detected threat,” he added. 

Sources have mooted that Irish Air Corps top brash would consider the most likely aircraft model for Ireland to be the Swedish Saab Grippen aircraft. They would cost an estimated €58m each but that comes with a manufacturer maintenance programme.

two-swedish-saab-jas-39-gripen-fighter-jets-escort-a-b-52h-stratofortress-over-europe-during-a-bomber-task-force-europe-21-3-flight-en-route-to-a-maritime-training-scenario-june-09-2021-bomber-miss Alamy Stock Photo Two Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets escort a B-52H Stratofortress over Europe. Alamy Stock Photo

In briefing documents seen by The Journal, the cheapest running cost would be for eight aircraft at €18m while a full air policing system would be €166m annually. 

Ireland has had jet fighter capability in the past with the Fouga Magister CM-170 and before that the De Havilland Vampires but then Irish defence focus shifted to a training only air role and the most recent fighter style aircraft were the PC-9 propeller aircraft.

Those briefing documents outline a suggestion that any air policing role is an Aid to the Civil Power scenario, meaning the military budget could be supported by an allocation in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

The document also outlines that, as air policing benefits the airlines overflying Ireland, that the aviation regulator here could put a levy on those carriers to fund it.   

Military sources have said they are growing in frustration with the Department of Defence’s explanation that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is causing delays in progressing the Action Plan, which was developed to bring about the required resourcing for a primary radar system.

Regardless of those internal squabbles, the idea of equipping the Irish Air Corps with the fighter jets to do the air policing job has been put on the long finger. 

The Commission on the Defence Forces was structured around levels of ambition – the air policing role was pushed back to the most ambitious level, particularly because of the need for a radar system first. That was despite much discussions by members who wanted to move it forward. 

Regardless of those machinations and the gnashing of teeth over the supposed deal with the British, all that will become redundant fallacy if Ireland’s military security apparatus is found wanting when a critical incident arises.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel