State would need 16 fighter jets for full air defence capability, expert says

Former Air Corps head calls for ‘realism’ in discussion on State’s ability to defend airspace

An Air Corps helicopter in Co Wicklow. The State would need about 16 jet fighters  to implement a full air defence capability, an expert has said. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

An Air Corps helicopter in Co Wicklow. The State would need about 16 jet fighters to implement a full air defence capability, an expert has said. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

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The State would need about 16 jet fighters with three crews each to implement a full air defence capability, the former head of the Air Corps has said.

Maj Gen Ralph James, who retired from the Defence Forces in 2015, said there has to be a degree of “realism” when discussing the State’s ability to defend its own airspace.

Currently the Air Corps operates 16 aircraft. However, unlike almost every other EU country, it has no fighter jet aircraft, meaning the State is unable to intercept planes at high altitude, such as the numerous Russian bombers which have buzzed Irish airspace in recent years. Similarly there is no capability to intercept a hijacked airliner.

Mr James, was formerly the director of safety with the Irish Aviation Authority, said aircraft are just the “sharp, sexy end” of the issue. *

“But aircraft systems are no good without the supporting systems. So you have the radar system, the reporting systems and intelligence systems to evaluate threats,” he said.

“Then also backing up the airplane you have things like air traffic control, fire crews and so on.

“People say we should have a 24/7 response. I’m just trying to bring reality to it. Once you escalate to a 24/7 service the numbers of personnel and resources go off the Richter scale.”

He pointed to the approaches adopted by other small countries, such as New Zealand, which abandoned their fighter jet programme and diverted the money to the army.

Speaking to The Irish Times at the Slándáil National Security Summit, Mr James said about 16 fighter jets would be required, with each serviced by three crews, to provide a 24/7 fast response capability.

Each pilot would need up to 400 hours piloting the jet before earning fast response certification. Such a jet programme would likely cost well in excess of €1 billion.

Asked if we need a jet programme, Mr James said he is in favour of “some capability” and said neutrality comes with costs and responsibilities.

“But you can’t have half a capability. So therefore it’s something everyone has to buy into.”

It must also be questioned whether the money involved might be better spent in other areas of defence such as additional ships, he said.

Mediterranean mission

Separately, Mr James said the Air Corps would be capable of contributing to the successor operation to Operation Sophia, the EU’s maritime mission in the Mediterranean.

EU foreign ministers agreed this month that member states will contribute air and naval assets to a new operation in the region to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, following the official wind-up of Operation Sophia.

In 2017 and 2018 the Irish Naval Service contributed ships to Operation Sophia, which focused on rescuing migrants and disrupting the activities of people smugglers. The new mission will focus much more on preventing arms smuggling and will have a significant aerial component. However, ships will rescue migrants if they come across them.

“The Air Corps has a wealth of experience in terms of maritime patrols and monitoring of large sea areas,” Mr James said, adding that he flew the first Irish maritime patrol back in 1978.

The State could contribute using one of its Casa maritime patrol aircraft or their forthcoming replacement, the Airbus C295, he said.

The military nature of the new operation means any Irish participation will require the approval of the Dáil and the Cabinet as well as a UN Security Council resolution, as mandated by the “triple lock” mechanism, the Department of Defence said.

A spokeswoman said that “pending the finalisation of the mandate for this new mission and the operational details”, it is not possible to state how or if the Republic will participate.

*This article has been amended to correct an error