Published on April 5th, 2015 | by Jim Lee


Air Corps won’t be tasked with hunting Bears anytime soon but surveillance may improve

The presence of Russian military aircraft in Irish controlled airspace on 28th January and 18th February 2015 was the cause of much heated discussion both in the Irish media and in Dáil Éireann with politicians and journalists, as well as various experts, all scrambling to comment on the Air Corps lack of an Air Defence capability.

Tupolev Tu-95 (RAF)In the first incident on 28th January, Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby were scrambled after two Russian aircraft were initially identified flying in international airspace close to UK airspace. Once airborne, the Typhoons were directed by RAF Aerospace Battle Managers of the Air Surveillance and Control System, based at the Control and Reporting Centre Boulmer, to intercept the aircraft. The Typhoons were positioned to visually identify and escort the Russian aircraft as they headed south and down the west coast of Ireland. They were confirmed as Tupolev Tu-95s (NATO reporting name: ‘Bear’), a large, four-engine turboprop-powered strategic bomber and missile platform, which first flew in 1952 and entered service in 1956. Through modernisation the type is expected to serve the Russian Air Force until at least 2040. It has four Kuznetsov NK-12 engines, each driving contra-rotating propellers and is the only propeller-powered strategic bomber still in operational use today. It has a maximum speed of 920 km/h (510 knots, 575 mph) and an unrefueled range of 15,000 km (8,100 nmi, 9,400 mi).

RAF Typhoon ZJ935 (N.Grant)

Photo: Niall Grant

The much shorter range Typhoons required air to air refuelling and this was provided by RAF Voyager (Airbus A330 MRTT) aircraft from RAF Brize Norton and radar and communications support was provided by the NATO and the Air Surveillance and Control System. Normally Russian aircraft would turn north and head back to their base, but instead the two bombers skirted down around the south coast, through the Celtic Sea, and then emerged again in the English Channel, which the RAF described as very unusual. The RAF confirmed that the aircraft did not cross into UK sovereign airspace but were escorted by the Typhoons until they were out of the UK Flight Information Region in a mission that lasted for over 12 hours.

The UK Foreign Office summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge a complaint about the flight of Russian military jets over the English Channel, which authorities claimed posed a danger to passenger aircraft. However no details were given as to how the bombers posed a danger. The two incepted Bears had been part of a larger formation of eight aircraft – including four Il-78 tanker aircraft – first tracked by Norwegian F-16 fighters in international airspace over the Norwegian Sea. Six of the aircraft headed back towards Russia leaving the two Bears on a longer solo mission. Russia’s Air Force spokesman said the air patrol flights were carried out according to an approved plan, and conducted in strict compliance with international regulations of the use of airspace above neutral waters, without violating other countries’ borders.

The second incident on the 18th February, followed a similar pattern, when Quick Reaction Alert Typhoon fighter aircraft were again launched after Russian aircraft were identified flying close to UK airspace and two Russian Bear bombers were subsequently intercepted by RAF Typhoons off the coast of Cornwall, but in international airspace.

RAF Typhoon ZJ802 (N.Grant)

Photo: Niall Grant

The two incidents have led to calls for Ireland to have the capability to intercept such incursions. It has been pointed out that Ireland is a relatively wealthy country, which has a GDP/per head of €42,547. By comparison, Finland, which is not in NATO, has a population slightly ahead of ours at 5.5 million and a GPD/per head of €35,742. It has a significant air deterrent. Austria, again not a NATO member, has a population of 8.6 million, a GDP of €33,900 per head, although the acquisition of their Typhoons was highly controversial.

Countries of comparable population and national income to Ireland have an average of 8.6 combat aircraft per million population, while NATO members such as Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Portugal have a strong air defence capability. Richer neutrals such as Switzerland have a capable fleet of modern air defence assets, although proposals to purchase 22 new Saab Gripen E fighter aircraft costing CHF3.126 billion (€2.973 billion), were turned down recently by voters in a poll.

Government reaction

Minister Simon CoveneyResponding to questions in the Dáil on 24th March, the Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney said it was important to note that the Russian aircraft did not at any time enter Irish sovereign airspace. The aircraft were in an area for which the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has responsibility for provision, operation and management of air navigation services for civil aviation. The IAA exercises Air Traffic Control responsibilities for an airspace of some 450,000 sq. kms, comprising of both sovereign airspace and also airspace over the high seas, largely off the western seaboard. These latter responsibilities for airspace over the high seas are exercised under assignment from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). All air traffic, both civil and military is monitored and controlled by the IAA in respect of this airspace in accordance with the ICAO’s safety objectives for civil aviation. Under the legislative requirements of the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952, all military aircraft require the permission of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade to overfly or land in the State while in line with ICAO rules it is normal practice for the IAA to be informed by the relevant State of any military flights operating in Irish controlled airspace.

Minister Coveney added that he understood that the IAA co-ordinated closely with its UK counterpart at all stages during the incident to avoid a risk to any civil aircraft. The two authorities are in discussions on how best to resolve this issue through the International Civil Aviation Organisation. He went on to say that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport consulted his Department and other Departments in relation to the incident and developed an agreed response to it.

In addition, a senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade met the Russian ambassador to convey the Government’s serious concerns about the unacceptable safety risk which could be posed by non-notified and uncontrolled flight activity. He understood that the ambassador undertook to bring these concerns to the attention of authorities in Moscow.

Minister Coveney has said it was “unacceptable for large aircraft to travel at high speed through international airspace that is the responsibility of the Irish Aviation Authority without informing it and with their transponders deliberately turned off”. “The only reason we knew they were there was the United Kingdom had informed us” he added.

In a direct response to the question which asked if he was satisfied that the Air Corps is capable of dealing with unauthorised incursions into Irish airspace by military aircraft from other countries, Minister Coveney made reference to the roles of the Air Corps as set out in the White Paper published in 2000 and which sets out the current defence policy framework. He noted that the Air Corps is not tasked with, or equipped for, monitoring or responding to unauthorised aircraft overflying Irish airspace. The White Paper found that providing such a capability would require a level of investment in Air Corps personnel, equipment and infrastructure which could not be justified.

It’s worth looking at what was said in the White Paper. Section 4.10.5 notes; “Aspirations to broaden the range of available air based capabilities are understandable but have to be balanced against real world constraints. The fact is that, given the enormous costs involved, few small countries possess the ability to provide a comprehensive air based defence capability. The choice must then lie between maintaining an essentially token force to address all dimensions of national defence or seeking to perform a selected range of tasks to a professional standard. The latter option has been the one chosen in Ireland. The Air Corps is deserving of credit for its professional performance in this role”. Essentially the role of the Air Corps has been limited to surveillance and some limited defence capacity and to provide a range of military (army and Naval support) and non-military air services. The Air Corps has also traditionally discharged a mix of functions based on a need to supply a range of services, such as air ambulance, fishery protection and support to An Garda Síochána.

Section 4.10.6 added “The challenge for the future is to ensure that, within the likely level of available resources, the State has available to it an Air Corps which is capable of meeting ongoing requirements and providing the basis for expansion should this be required. There is also the need to ensure that the Air Corps is kept on a sufficiently high professional footing by adequate investment in personnel, training and equipment”.

However as the Minister noted, even when there were not expenditure limits in terms of pressure on the Exchequer, there was no decision by previous Governments to build capacity in the Air Corps for air defence because it was perceived as not presenting a sufficiently significant risk to justify such expenditure.

Armed PC-9sThere is also the issue as noted in section 4.10.7 that “more resources for the Air Corps would necessarily mean less resources for other defence purposes”. It should be noted that since the White Paper was produced in 2000 there has been extensive investment in both Air Corps aircraft and infrastructure with the only areas of the fleet not to have been modernised were the Cessna 172s primarily operated in the surveillance, liaison and army co-operation roles. With the significant downturn in aid to the civil power role and in particular the discontinuation of cash escorts, the role of such aircraft would have to be revaluated before any decisions on new types could be made. The future needs in relation to any possible Gulfstream IV replacement or the acquisition of tactical transport aircraft are further examples of where priorities for future investment in the Air Corps should lie.

Current threats

Work is continuing apace on the development of a new White Paper on Defence. A key part of the development of the new White Paper is consideration of the current security environment and challenges that may emerge into the future. Security threats are issues that needs to be dealt with before anything major happens. It is required not only in defence but also, to protect homes and such other properties. Wired Smart has information related to security systems, one that will help you choose the best for your property. Check the site to know more. Working groups comprising civil and military representatives from the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces are considering likely future operational demands and the defence capabilities required to meet them. This work will inform recommendations on defence provision. In the meantime let’s look at how the 2000 White Paper assessed the threats.

Section 2.2.1 noted that “Ireland enjoys a very benign external security environment”. It added “since the end of the Cold War and the general relaxation of East-West tensions, there has been a positive transformation in Ireland’s external security environment in common with that of our neighbours in Western Europe. Ireland faces virtually no risk of external military attack on its territory from another State and there is at present virtually no risk of externally instigated conflict in our immediate region. Any change in this position is likely to be preceded by a significant warning time of some years”. While many would argue that events in the Ukraine developed rapidly, as did the crisis in the Middle East (Syria and Libya), neither significantly increased the risk of an external military attack on Ireland.

Section 2.2.2 went on to say that “the Cold War era was marked by high risk and, paradoxically, high stability. The risks of a ruinous land battle between East and West, fought largely on the territory of the EU and, what many saw as its inevitable consequence, global nuclear war, have receded dramatically. The new security environment in greater Europe, however, is marked by a lower degree of risk of large scale military conflict, but also by new challenges and uncertainties”. Few could disagree with that analysis even in spite of a resurgent and increasing belligerent Russia.

Section 2.2.2 also noted that “ethnic, economic and religious strains rooted in history, and the pursuit of self-determination, have now become a focus of security tensions in Europe and around the world. To an extent not seen in Europe since the Second World War, civilians have been caught up in these conflicts, leading to humanitarian crises and refugee flows which have affected every country in the EU. Moreover, these conflicts have resulted in substantial zones of instability on or close to the borders of the EU. The risk of spill over and escalation, as well as humanitarian concerns, have resulted, in some instances, in the intervention of the wider international community”. This indeed has become a real and emerging threat. The events of 9-11 and subsequent high profile terrorism have also highlighted new threats and new risks but these continue to evolve and so far the best counter measure has been preventive intelligence.

Comments as reported in the media by former army officer Tom Clonan, author, commentator and Irish Times Security analyst that the recent incursion by two Russian bombers highlights a potentially dangerous situation might be correct but suggestions that we need the capability to intercept them is well wide of the mark. His comments that Ireland’s airspace defences represent “Europe’s weakest link” needs to be seen in the context that, while as he notes the possibility of mid-air collisions between ‘transponder-less military aircraft’ (such as the Russian Bears) and passenger aircraft was “quite high”, deliberate hostile action seems particularly remote. Hostile Russian military action is more likely to be against the UK rather that Ireland and ballistic missiles seem more likely that lumbering Bears.

Tupolev Tu-95s

Having a capability to intercept hijacked aircraft is also dubious. Dr. Clonan makes the point that “if terrorists take over an aircraft in Irish space, it’s game over,” we could not agree more but how would having a jet intercept capability help. The answer is it would not. Even if we invested a quick reaction jet response, and the necessary tracking capability to direct an intercept, the small size of the country makes the chances of a successful and timely intervention unlikely and that even before we consider the inevitable delay in trying to get a quick political decision on such a drastic course of action as shooting down a hijacked aircraft, particularly if it is not an Irish one. In most hijack scenarios the aircraft would have had to originate in Ireland, so intelligence and/or good ground security measures represent a better response. If the aircraft originate in Europe or the UK then a European air force or the RAF might be a better option.

On 19th January, Simon Coveney and UK Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to ensure greater defence collaboration in the future, between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The MoU provide both the UK and Ireland with a means for developing and furthering their already excellent defence and security relations and will help to enhance cooperation in exercises, training as well as peacekeeping and crisis management operations. There is no reason why it could not be extended into areas such as ‘early warning’ or even air cover. Such a move would not be without significant operational issues not to mention political risk.

Managing the threats into the future

The issue is as the Minister put it is “whether to change perspective from the 2000 White Paper on Defence, which limits our capacity in certain areas and to respond to what has happened since 2000 regarding international security concerns and issues”. Minister Coveney intends to bring the new Defence White Paper to Government before the summer recess in July. If the White Paper is approved by Government, “we will probably be able to publish it in September or October”. There is ongoing consultation on the White Paper and as part of the process of finalising it; the Minister said he hopes to arrange a full day of debate and statements in the Dáil. There will also be a full day of consultations with Defence Forces representative bodies and other stakeholders who will contribute to the finalisation of the process.

When the White Paper was put in place back in 2000, the assessed risk of “a fast-moving military plane coming into Irish airspace,” was deemed to be very low and therefore the Government could not justify the expenditure on putting together significant air defence capacity. “We now have to reassess that in the context of the new White Paper” he added.

He believes that the focus must be on our capacity to understand and know what is travelling through our airspace adding “we do not have long range radar capacity to do this along the west coast” although we have radar capacity along the west coast that covers the vast majority of our airspace.

ADR Giraffe in Action“It is one thing not being able to respond to an aircraft travelling through airspace under the control of the Irish Aviation Authority but it is quite another not knowing it is there. Surveillance is the first step and we are looking at that issue in some detail” he said. “This issue is being examined and costed and we are in discussions with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on the matter. This must be the first step towards more effective surveillance in order that we will know at any given point the number of aircraft in our airspace and, if possible, beyond this in international airspace” he added.

The Minister concluded “first and foremost, we need to improve our capacity to monitor what is happening in our airspace and in international airspace for which the Irish Aviation Authority has responsibility. That is why I mentioned that we are looking in some detail at the cost and equipment that would be required to improve long range radar capacity along the west coast in particular. That is the first step. We will have an opportunity in the context of the broader White Paper to discuss what we should or should not be doing in terms of the Air Corps and its future role. It is important to be realistic. The cost of putting together a fleet of fighter jets is probably similar to all the defence spending in Ireland put together. We are unlikely to be pursuing that course of action, although we have to have an open mind. Instead, we need to look at improved surveillance so that we understand and have a detailed knowledge of what is happening in our airspace”.


RBS-70 SAMFor once we seem to have a Minister that understands the situation and seems to have formed a pragmatic view on what to do about it. Whether the Government will agree with his assessment remains to be seen but for the moment we seem to be developing, an affordable and pragmatic approach to what we can do. We do have some capacity at the moment and it should not be accepted that we have no capacity, we should build on that both in long range radar equipment, 30 km to 50 km into the Atlantic and into international air space and in our ability to manage blocks of airspace up to 10,000 feet and a low level capability to protect it with radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns and RBS-70 SAMs. We have used this limited capacity during VIP visits and in addition used the PC-9s to provide a minimum defensive umbrella over point targets. We have also demonstrated a limited intercept capability for light aircraft and helicopters with a helicopter which strayed into an exclusion zone during the Queen’s visit being safely escorted it out of the area.

The situation is far from ideal, but in a country emerging from a financial crisis and a historical apathy towards defence matters we should concentrate on the practical, assess real threats and develop a capacity however limited to deal with them.

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About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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