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The LÉ Róisín at Roches Point in Cork Harbour. Alamy Stock Photo
Sabotage

Major operation launched in Irish Sea to protect subsea cables from attacks

It is understood that the mission was ordered after the attacks on the Nordsteam pipelines caused significant disquiet in Government.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 20th 2022, 8:35 PM

A MAJOR OPERATION has been launched in the Irish Sea by the Defence Forces to prevent and respond to attacks on undersea cables, The Journal has learned.

Sources have said that the mission has been ordered by the Department of Defence and began last week.

It involves the Irish Air Corps and Naval Service with assistance when required from specialist units such as the Army Ranger Wing, military intelligence officers and members of the Communication Information Services Corps. 

The aim of the operation is, according to security sources, to “increase presence” in the waters above the cables and pipelines. 

It is understood that the attacks on the Nord Steam pipelines in the Baltic has caused significant disquiet in Government and to counter any potential risk to the infrastructure they have deployed the Defence Forces on a dedicated operation. 

The Irish Sea pipelines and cables include two natural gas interconnectors which connect Ireland to a supply hub in Scotland. 

They come ashore in Loughshinny and Gormanstown on the coastline of Dublin and Co Meath. 

There is also an electricity cable running between the Welsh and Irish coastline which is considered under threat. 

The Defence Forces began in the last week to monitor the infrastructure with “targeted patrols” with prioritisation given to the gas lines but also the electricity supply. 

The patrols by the Naval Service involve at least two vessels and are focused on a so-called overt presence which is to monitor any suspicious ships or activity in the area. 

It is hoped that the presence of the Naval Service would deter any would-be attackers from sabotaging the pipeline infrastructure. Sources have said that the operations do not involve a subsea capability. 

They are augmented by the Air Corps who are using CASA maritime patrol aircraft and PC-12 surveillance planes covering the larger distances over the Irish Sea.   

One key reason for placing the vessels in the area, along with other assets such as the Irish Air Corps, is to respond quickly if an incident happens. 

It is also understood that specific orders have been made to have the Army Ranger Wing be used to respond but only if required by commanders. 

Intelligence

Sources have said that much of the work of the military teams involved will be focused on information gathered by state intelligence services including the Defence Force’s J2 unit.

Separately there are also orders to monitor activities more broadly in the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone.

Sources have expressed concern that the operation will stretch the Naval Service particularly as a number of ships are either uncrewed or undergoing maintenance at Verolme Dockyard in Cork. 

Those security sources have said that the Irish Sea operation may cause some difficulty to maintain a presence on the south western approaches in regard to illegal fishing and drug interdiction operations. 

A source said that as the fishing quotas are coming to an end for the year there is a potential that certain fishers may take the reduced naval presence as an opportunity to increase their hauls. 

The Naval Service is set to take delivery of two small patrol ships from New Zealand in the new year and it is anticipated that at least one of those vessels will be based in Dublin. 

At the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee on 6 October, Minister Simon Coveney said that dedicated patrols were being considered to protect the cables.

“The Naval Service, as the State’s principal sea-going agency, is tasked with a variety of defence and other roles.

“While the main daily task of the Naval Service is to provide a fishery protection service in accordance with our obligations as an EU member state, it also carries out a number of other non-fishery related tasks in tandem with maritime surveillance.

“The Air Corps maritime patrol squadron also supports this role, providing aerial assistance to the Naval Service in patrolling the Irish exclusive economic zone, using the two CASA CN 235 maritime patrol aircraft which are equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and communications equipment,” he said. 

European concerns

On 5 October, in Brussels the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that Ireland’s pipelines and undersea cables will be ‘stress tested’ and security stepped up.

She announced a programme of testing to check whether Europe’s critical infrastructure is really secure.

“We don’t have to wait for something to happen. But we need to make sure that we are prepared and therefore we need those stress tests.

“We need to identify whether we have weak points and where these weak points are. And of course, we have to prepare our reaction to sudden disruption,” she said. 

A Defence Forces spokesperson said: “Óglaigh na hÉireann does not comment on operational matters.”

A spokesperson for the Minister for Defence has said “The Department has no comment to make”.

Meanwhile the BBC are reporting that communications cables between the British mainland and the Shetland Islands have been cut.

Local police have declared a major incident and an investigation is underway however initial assessments have said it is believed to be accidental. 

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