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New radar project to track jets and drones across Irish airspace could cost €300 million

The radar systems would be able to detect jets and drones at a range of altitutes.

Military radar antenna for aerial reconnaissance on top of mount Pilatus in the Swiss alps.
Military radar antenna for aerial reconnaissance on top of mount Pilatus in the Swiss alps.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE PRIMARY RADAR project for the Irish Defence Forces to monitor suspicious aircraft on approach to Ireland could cost in the region of €300m and will likely see sites on at least three locations around the State.

Investment in modern radar systems was advised as part of the Commission on the Defence Forces (CODF) report issued earlier this year. 

The state-of-the art technology utilised by the radar would be able to detect jets and drones at a range of altitudes. It could also be used to detect low-flying craft being used by drug gangs. 

Michael McGrath, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, confirmed in the Dáil this week that part of the Defence budget will be allocated to radar. 

The budget will see €1.174 billion allocated to Defence Group funding – an increase of €67 million on the 2022 amount.

The radar project will involve multiple sites with units – likely based on top of mountains – monitoring the airspace. Information will be fed back to a dedicated command and control centre.

Critical consideration

A Government source said that the critical consideration in the purchase of such systems is to get a capability that will be able to be upgraded to the latest technology as it develops.

“There would be a basic requirement of a next generation of primary radar with a minimum of three actual radar units, possibly a fourth, and the command and control systems needed to integrate all the data.

“Spending anything less on legacy systems is a waste of money as it will need to be upgraded in the 2030s.

“A next generation system will be able to detect fast moving jets, high altitude bombers, the majority of drones including smaller ones.

“Importantly the next generation of radar system can deal with the interference caused by structures such as wind turbines that are obviously going to start popping up all across Ireland and off the coast.

“And they will be able to detect low-flying planes and helicopters user by drug traffickers,” the source said. 

The radar would require at least a 200 nautical mile range in what is known as a standard search function. 

During our research for this article a number of security sources told The Journal that the TPY-4 by Lockheed Martin is a typical unit. 

That current model from the American manufacturers can cover to 300 nautical miles (555kms) in standard operations but can focus on a specific target as far out as 540 nautical miles (1,000kms). 

A number of submissions to the Commission on the Defence Forces (CODF) said that key to the success of the new radar system would be a dedicated Air Defence Command system. 

One submission, written by an expert in the area, suggested this would likely be operated by the Irish Air Corps at a purpose built facility in Casement Aerodrome in South County Dublin.

“The new Air Defence Surveillance (AD) system requires three location facilities for the radars themselves but it is possible that these could be ‘piggy-backed’ on existing IAA facilities, leveraging their power supply and data transfer systems to the overall benefit of national defence,” the submission stated.

Recognised Air Picture

The key to all this is the military concept of the “Recognised Air Picture” – this is a capability that would allows Irish security officials know at any given moment what is in their airspace at any given time.

This is a capability that Ireland has never possessed – the Irish security system is completely blind to any aircraft that is not emitting a transponder signal.

In a shocking observation the CODF report said that there are aircraft transiting Irish airspace that cannot be seen by either civil or military air traffic controllers – this has included Russian warplanes.

The CODF said it was “an immediate and top priority” for radar to be acquired.

A source said that there will be a continued need for an agreement to continue to liaise with Britain as there is no funding for an air defence fighter squadron. 

“The problem here is that Ireland is at best defenceless and this is only the beginning of building the security apparatus to fix this – the reality is that this is a multi-year funded project and the developments will come over a period of time.

“Of course before all that there needs to be recruitment and retention of staff – we need the people to man these installations,” one Defence source said. 

Meanwhile it is understood that the Department of Defence has begun the process of seeking a Head of Transformation, which may be appointed as early as the end of October. 

This person, sources have said, may come from outside of Ireland a move which would be supported by many in the Defence Forces. 

There is also understood to be an appointment of a senior official in the DOD with significant experience in procurement. 

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