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Modern russian military naval battleships warships, northern fleet and baltic sea fleet. Alamy Stock Photo

Tom Clonan Russia's decision to locate off Ireland gives the two-fingers to the US, EU & NATO

The security analyst says it also demonstrates Ireland’s failure to meet the minimum standards of our Neutral status.

LAST UPDATE | 25 Jan 2022

RUSSIA’S NAVAL EXERCISES off the southwest coast next month expose significant weaknesses in Ireland’s defence in the air, maritime and cyber domains.

Ireland spends a tiny 0.27% of its GDP on Defence. This is the lowest in Western Europe. Ireland’s defence spend is a fraction of the EU average at approximately 1.2% of GDP.

Consequently, Ireland is Europe’s weakest link when it comes to defence, security and intelligence. This is precisely the reason why the Russians have chosen to conduct their Atlantic exercise in Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Under the radar

In terms of Irish airspace, the Russians know that Ireland is the only country in the EU that does not possess primary radar. Ireland’s air traffic control systems use secondary radar, which relies on the use of transponders in civilian commercial aircraft.

Russian military aircraft do not use these transponders and are invisible in Irish controlled airspace. Irish controlled airspace is one of the busiest – and strategically important – air corridors in the world. Approximately 75% of all European transatlantic flights to the US pass through our controlled airspace.

In addition, since 2002, the US has used Shannon Airport as a forward airbase for their military with millions of US troops transiting through Ireland to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Russians plan to conduct ‘live firing’ exercises off the Irish coast in the coming weeks. This will include the firing of surface-to-surface naval gunnery systems and surface to air missiles. Because of the threat that this poses to air traffic overhead, the Irish authorities have had to close a sector of our transatlantic air corridor for the duration of the Russian manoeuvers.

Whilst the Russian exercise may be legal under international law – their decision to locate it in this vital air corridor between the EU and US is designed to disrupt international air traffic at a time of heightened tension over Ukraine. The Russians are signalling their capacity to project force far beyond their borders to Europe – and NATO’s – western approaches. The Russians could have chosen to conduct these exercises far out into the Atlantic or elsewhere. Their decision to locate off Ireland gives the two-fingers to the US, EU and NATO. And here’s why.

Russia rocks the boat

The Russians know that Ireland is the only country in the EU that does not have the technology to monitor their manoeuvers. By locating their activities off the Irish coast, they will be in a position to monitor and measure NATO and US response times.

In recent years, Russian military aircraft have repeatedly incurred into Irish controlled airspace – forcing the RAF to scramble, intercept and shadow these intruders out of EU airspace. Most recently, at the outset of Covid in March 2020, RAF Typhoons intercepted Russian ‘Bear’ Tupolev bombers off the west coast of Ireland.

These incursions are very provocative as the Russian aircraft are flying through our busy airspace with transponders turned off – they cannot be detected or monitored by our air traffic control systems and represent a grave risk to civilian aircraft from mid-air collision or other issues.

These incursions also demonstrate the pathetic state of Ireland’s capacity to meet the minimum standards of our Neutral status. Under an agreement between the UK MOD and Ireland’s Department of Defence, the RAF patrols Irish controlled airspace. This undermines our sovereignty and casts doubt on our Neutral status.

When the Russians deploy off our coast in February, the US and NATO will watch their activities very closely. The Russian Navy has equipped its corvettes, frigates and submarines with a new generation of ‘Kalibr’ missiles – most notably the 3M-14 and 3M-14T variants. These are cruise missiles – Sea Launched Land Attack Missiles – known by NATO as SS-N-30A weapons.

They have a range of up to 2,500 Km and were recently fired from Russian vessels in the Mediterranean at targets throughout Syria in support of the Assad regime’s forces.

Western intelligence analysts believe that the Russians may test-fire some of these missile types – perhaps shorter range 3M-54 or 3M542 missiles – to demonstrate to NATO and the EU that they have the ability to launch missile attacks on European targets from off the Irish coast. This would be alarming for NATO and the EU as such a hypothetical scenario would involve an attack from Europe’s blind spot – namely Ireland.

The Russians have repeatedly stated that they intend to conduct ‘live firing’ exercises off our coast. By doing so in Irish controlled airspace – knowing that Ireland has zero capacity to even monitor their activities – they will be actively measuring the US and NATO reaction times and monitoring assets in the coming weeks. These will range from US and NATO surface vessels – operating at a discreet distance – and ‘national technical means’ including satellite technology and high altitude aerial surveillance.

Ireland the data hub

In terms of the maritime domain, Ireland is responsible for patrolling 220 million maritime acres of ocean – 15% of the EU’s waters. The Russian exercises are taking place just 150 miles off our coast. Our Naval Service capacity to patrol, monitor and protect our maritime environment has fallen off a cliff in recent years.

Out of a fleet of nine small vessels, four have been recently tied up due to crew shortages. As a consequence, the Irish Sea Fisheries Authority had to ask the European Fisheries Control Agency to supply EU vessels to patrol Irish waters. In this appalling vista – through no fault of the Naval Service – the EU and the Russians know that Ireland cannot monitor its activities off our coasts.

This is particularly troubling. Ireland currently holds approximately 30% of the EU’s data in 54 data centres here. Ireland is also the digital connector between Europe and the US. There are 19 sub-sea fibre-optic oceanic cables – in Ireland’s coastal and inshore waters – that connect Europe to the United States.

The Russians have shown intense interest in this maritime critical infrastructure and have been monitoring it. In August of last year, the Russian spy ship ‘Yantar’ was spotted and monitored off the Irish coastline – surveilling our vital digital infrastructure. Our Defence Forces – Naval Service and Air Corps are unable to meaningfully surveil and protect our airspace or maritime environment. Nor can we mount a credible Cyber defence. Last year’s Wizard Spider attack on the HSE – which originated in Russia – demonstrated how vulnerable Ireland is to Cyber-attack.

Recognise our weaknesses

In short, Ireland is Europe’s weakest link in terms of our security and defence in the air, maritime, ground and cyber domains. This is a direct consequence of the lack of investment in our Defence Forces and the loss of critical skills in our forces due to recruitment and retention issues associated with abysmal pay and conditions.

Ireland sees itself as a global digital player and relies heavily on foreign direct investment from US multinationals in the digital, tech and pharmaceutical areas. The current gaps in our defence and security – which fall far below the minimum standard of a Neutral, self-sufficient state – are being exploited by the Russians in the context of the Ukraine crisis.

All eyes will be on Russia in the coming weeks. The focus will also fall on Ireland and our status as a Neutral state. Questions will be asked about Ireland’s de-facto status as Europe’s blind spot – the EU’s weakest link in terms of security, defence and intelligence.

Multinational firms may also ponder the wisdom of investing in a country with such weak security infrastructure – particularly in the cyber domain.

Ireland is powerless to intervene in or prevent the upcoming Russian manoeuvers – aside from diplomatic means. Ireland has become strategically important in the newly evolving geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

As we confront the uncertainties of growing security instability in Europe and worldwide – we need to invest in our Neutral Status. We need to invest in our Defence Forces to restore their ground, air, maritime and cyber capability. To do so is to invest in our economic future.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.


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