It was the second week in March last year and the world was focused on the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, as it raged around the globe. Off the northwest coast of Ireland, however, another drama was taking place.
Three pairs of British Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters raced to intercept Russian long-range aircraft heading south down the Atlantic, the third time that week the same Cold War-style, airborne cat-and-mouse encounters had played out.
The RAF aircraft had scrambled hurriedly from bases in Scotland and eastern England. First, they sought to find the Russians. Secondly, they tried to shepherd them away.
The Russian aircraft never, it is understood, entered Irish sovereign territory, but they were flying in airspace controlled by Irish authorities, but which the Irish military has no ability to police.
'We had essentially zero capacity to monitor or police our airspace'
In reality, the State is unable to even detect, let alone police who or what is flying in the region unless the aircraft concerned actively alert authorities to their presence. And often, extraordinarily, they are visible to no one.
The habits that have grown among Russian military aircraft pose safety questions for commercial aircraft transiting busy air lanes, since often they fly “dark” with location transponders switched off.
Over the decades, Irish governments have consciously opted not to spend often-scarce resources on air defence, instead relying on a highly-confidential agreement with the UK government to deal with worst-case crises.
Now, however, apparently for the first time, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has weighed into this issue publicly in a submission it has made to the Government-appointed Commission on Defence.
In it, the authority, the agency that promotes and regulates the safety of aviation in Ireland, has urged that the military “should have full capability to detect potential aircraft infringements into our national airspace”.
A significant amount of the IAA submission has been blacked out, apparently on national security grounds. However, the redacted portions focus heavily on aircraft flying with transponders off.
It is not the first time that such warnings about the lack of air defence has been given. However, in the past these have been glossed over, usually on the grounds that it would cost too much to do anything about it.
When military officials and civil servants were putting together a draft of the White Paper on Defence a few years ago, they concluded that the Defence Forces had capabilities across all spectrums.
It could put ships to sea and could deploy ground troops in Ireland and to far-flung locations. “Some of these capabilities were not up to international standards but they were there. In theory, the military was capable of responding to any reasonable threat to the security of the State,” one former officer involved in the process said.
Except one. “The gaping gap was air. We had essentially zero capacity to monitor or police our airspace.”
However, when the 143-page White Paper appeared in August 2015, mention of this “gaping gap” was confined to a single sentence, promising to examine the issue at a later stage.
When the White Paper was updated in 2019 the matter was again confined to the single line on the to-do list: “Consider the development of a more capable air combat/intercept capability as part of the White Paper update.” Status: “Not yet commenced.”
The spike in Russian air activity over the northeastern Atlantic sparked attention in March last year. However, there had been other such incidents previously.
Defence figures believe Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers routinely skirt the edges of Irish sovereign airspace as they probe for gaps in the UK’s air defence sphere and test the RAF’s response times.
"It's done very strategically. The flights come in waves but we've no idea how often," said one Irish Air Corps officer.
"There is no doubt in my mind that they are doing reconnaissance there," former US army commander in Europe Lieut Gen Ben Hodges told this newspaper in March last year.
However, Irish authorities believe many of these flights take place entirely without the State’s knowledge. As well as lacking any aircraft capable of intercepting the bombers, Ireland is the only country on Europe’s west coast which lacks a primary radar system.
This means air traffic control can only see aircraft that want to be seen, ie those who have their transponders turned on. The Russian military aircraft almost always have theirs off. “The truth is we don’t know how often this happens,” a retired Air Corps officer said. “And people say, ‘Well, they’re not entering our actual airspace.’ We don’t know if they are entering our airspace because we’ve no way of tracking them!”
For those whose job it is to care about such things, the worry is not that Russia will attack Ireland, it is that the bombers are essentially invisible to the many other aircraft operating off the west coast; about 80 per cent of all transatlantic flights pass through Irish-controlled airspace. Mid-air collisions are rare but they are not unheard of, said one officer, pointing to a 2014 incident where a Swedish commercial airliner narrowly avoided colliding with a Russian military aircraft flying with its transponders switched off.
Another potential problem is that some military communications aircraft can trail antennae behind them for miles, which could also damage any other aircraft that encountered it.
Russian aircraft are perhaps the obvious dangers, but there are others. The lack of primary radar which prevents the authorities from seeing TU-95s also prevents them from spotting a hijacked airliner with its transponder turned off.
And even if it was spotted, the Air Corps’ fleet of eight PC-9s – small, lightly-armed propeller aircraft – would not be capable of getting near the speed or altitude required to deal with such threats.
Even less discussed is the use of private aircraft by criminals to fly drugs and weapons into small airfields without detection – a concern that has been highlighted by Air Corps officers and gardaí over the years. “There’s some intelligence to suggest this is becoming more common,” a senior garda involved in combatting organised crime said this week.
While Defence Force chiefs have quietly highlighted the gaps to the Government, it is understood there have also been discreet calls from the British, through diplomatic and military channels, for Ireland to plug what one UK official called a “black hole” in Europe’s western air defence.
Ireland is not totally defenceless from air threats. Following the 9/11 attacks, the government entered into a secret memorandum of understanding with the UK which would allow it to deploy Quick Reaction Force combat aircraft over Irish airspace in the event of an emergency.
The government has consistently refused to discuss this agreement or even confirm its existence and it has never been approved by the Oireachtas.
However, it is understood its terms are extremely narrow. According to one source, UK aircraft could only deploy “in a 9/11-type scenario” where there is an immediate threat to life.
In making its case for additional capabilities, the Defence Forces has been careful not to scare civil servants and politicians by calling for “air defence”. Rather officers talk about “airspace policing”.
“Airspace policing is more peacetime-orientated, dealing with issues such as rogue aircraft and illegal importation of drugs,” a military source said. He said it is almost a civil function, which just happens to be performed by militaries.
Last year, former Air Corps chief Ralph James estimated Ireland may need 16 fighter jets, with each serviced by three crews, to provide a true 24/7 fast response capability to threats.
“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.”
Over the years various figures have been put forward for the cost of all this. By some estimates it would cost more than €1 billion in the short term, the same as the entire current annual defence budget.
However, others believe the cost could be much lower. According to one unpublished submission to the defence commission from a retired senior Air Corps officer, Ireland could build an air policing capacity for an initial outlay of less than €40 million a year.
Instead of purchasing top-of-the-range, fifth-generation fighters such as the American F-35 (€66 million each) or the fourth-generation F-15 (€35 million each), the Government could invest in eight “light combat aircraft” at a total cost of €20 million per year over a 25-year lifespan. These supersonic aircraft could provide 90 per cent of the capability of their far more expensive cousins, at a fraction of the cost, the former officer said, and would provide an adequate, if limited, air policing capability.
Such aircraft would cost about twice what it costs to operate the current PC-9 aircraft per year but would “provide considerable value for money by enhancing capabilities significantly”.
Any purchase would have to be combined with primary radar systems which would cost about €36 million, they said.
A light combat aircraft such as the Korean FA-50 could perform dual roles, taking over the pilot training function of the PC-9 (which is due to be retired in 2025) while also remaining on standby as air interceptors.
Cost could be further defrayed by charging airlines an extra fee to use Irish airspace, the former officer said, comparing it to the fees paid by banks to the military for armed cash escorts.
“Such a funding model, relying upon commercial revenue, could remove any debt accrued to fund an air policing capability from the State’s balance sheet. A capital structure of this nature would be highly efficient and could set an example for wider exchequer applications.”
Debate on the issue is ongoing, with some in Government and military circles arguing there are more urgent spending priorities, not least of which is the staffing and recruitment crisis affecting every branch of the Defence Forces.
Spending money on big ticket defence projects at a time when the Naval Service cannot find the personnel to operate some existing ships due to staff retention problems would be controversial, to say the least.
In a submission to the commission, MEP Clare Daly urged that that any additional funding for defence should be earmarked to improve pay and conditions over any plans to invest in new equipment.
There does appear to be some movement, however. The Irish Times has learned that three years ago, the Defence Forces received proposals from three air defence firms, Thales, Saab and Northrop Grumman, for between one and three military radar units. Each unit would cost between €15 million and €20 million, and would be able to detect all aircraft within a 450km range.
Any movement on this, however, would require extra Exchequer funding. But does the political will exist to invest in more higher-powered aircraft?
In an interview with The Irish Times, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said Ireland had to make choices within a "reasonable level of resource availability, as we have done in the past".
“We made a choice not to have fighter jets so Ireland does not have the capacity to defend itself in the air the same way that many other countries have. We instead chose to prioritise a naval fleet, an army that’s resourced primarily for peacekeeping and other essential services. That a choice we’ve made.”
However, he said he was willing to consider any ambitious recommendations which may come from the Commission on the Defence Forces.
“I’ve said to [the chairman Aidan O’Driscoll] if there are questions that need answers that require radical solutions, don’t be shy in putting them forward. The Government will have to deal with the consequences of that.”