Until he retired in 2005, Chris Tuke served 25 years in the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). He spent much of that time hunting Russian submarines. He was a sonar operator aboard Nimrod marine patrol aircraft that scoured the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean beyond Ireland’s western coast.
“There’s a lot I am still not allowed to talk about,” he says.
Each of the sonobuoy listening devices they used to drop into the sea was worth £8,500 (€9,900), according to Tuke.
“We used to say it was like the cost of a Mini falling out of the plane each time,” he says.
He produces a map and highlights four locations. “Roughly we operated between here, here, here and here,” he says, pointing to northern Scotland where he was based; north towards Norway; west towards Greenland; and south to the mid-Atlantic. The ocean near Ireland lies firmly in the zone.
Ireland is militarily neutral and is not part of the Nato alliance that counts Britain, Norway and others in the region as members. When they were flying above the sea near the Republic “hunting” the locations of Russian submarines, did the Nimrods have to disclose their positions to Irish authorities?
“We told nobody our position. Often we would fly at night, silent on radar,” says Tuke.
The RAF replaced the Nimrod in recent years with Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon, which has a frame based on the 737 jets used by Ryanair. The Poseidon is no passenger plane, however. As well as tracking equipment, the submarine hunter can hold a huge payload of torpedoes and Harpoon missiles.
All nine of the RAF’s Poseidons are based near the Scottish coastal town of Lossiemouth, overlooking the Moray Firth, 90 minutes north of Aberdeen. The base is also home to four squadrons of Typhoon fighter jets. Along with RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, RAF Lossiemouth is one of the two quick reaction alert (QRA) bases from which Typhoons are scrambled if a plane from a potential belligerent, such as Russia, comes near British airspace.
RAF Lossiemouth, backed up by Coningsby, also gives the Republic military air cover under a secret deal between the Irish and British governments going back to the 1950s. The agreement – details of which were revealed by The Irish Times last month – allows British jets to transit through Irish airspace.
In February 2022, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Poseidons flew from Lossiemouth above Ireland’s western coast as Russian naval ships conducted live-fire exercises on the edge of the Republic’s waters. Typhoons were also scrambled from Lossiemouth at least twice in 2020 to escort Russian Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” planes away from civil airspace controlled by Ireland.
As Ireland has no fighter jets capable of intercepting Russian Bears, or even other aerial threats such as a hijacked airliner, RAF Lossiemouth is now the Republic’s only effective “top cover”.
The sprawling 1,400-acre base lies amid yellow gorse beside a golf course roughly a mile west of the pretty town, with its ordered streets of grey stone houses. The base and its two runways are secured behind a high green metal fence, although at either end of the main runway the fence is lower and made only of wood. The RAF says this is in case planes need to “land short or take off long”. In other words, in an emergency they might have to crash through the fence.
One end of the main runway sits beside a pig farm. Two fields behind the farm is Gordonstoun School, favoured by many of Britain’s royals but not its monarch. King Charles, who was sent there as a boy by his father, Prince Philip, reputedly hated his time at the school he called “Colditz in kilts”.
About 3,000 RAF and civilian personnel work in and around the Lossiemouth base, which, along with golf tourism, drives the town’s economy. People working on the base rent about 1,000 houses in the area, according to Moray Council. RAF families dominate nearby estates such as Bishops Court, Freeman Way and Hythe View. Base staff frequent local businesses such as the Steamboat pub on Lossiemouth’s marina and restaurants nearby. Even the local barbershop is called Hairforce.
“When I first came to Lossiemouth in 1984, some of the locals used to tell us, ‘go home you English crab bastards,’” smiles Tuke, who is from near Sheffield. “But years later, when the base was threatened with closure due to cuts, they were out marching for it on the streets.”
The campaign to save RAF Lossiemouth from cuts in 2011 attracted support from celebrities such as the Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor, whose brother flew Typhoons from the base.
It is no longer threatened with the axe, with close to £400 million having been invested in the base in recent years. Works have included repaving the runways and building the Atlantic building, a new facility to house Poseidons. In March, a further £83 million was promised by the British government for another new hangar, this time for new Wedgetail E-7 radar aircraft to provide early warning of incoming missiles.
Douglas Ross, a local Tory MP and leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told The Irish Times last week that the new investment at RAF Lossiemouth is strategically important for Britain but “also for other countries”.
He says RAF Lossiemouth plays a “vital role” in protecting “UK airspace and also that of our partner nations”. He says its role in relation to Ireland “would be fairly well known”.
Dave Clark, who along with Tuke runs a military heritage centre on the grounds of the nearby Covesea Lighthouse, says the deal with Ireland is “just one of those open secrets”.
“I’m not sure how many ordinary people know about it. Armed forces people certainly do,” he says.
Back in the town, people in RAF uniforms were prominent among those eating lunch in the Harbour Lights restaurant on the waterfront last Thursday. Dining alongside them were staff wearing T-shirts bearing the logos of Atlantic Aviation Group, a Shannon-based company owned by Irish businessman Patrick Jordan. Their presence in the town made more sense later that evening, when an Airbus A400 troop and equipment carrier landed at Lossiemouth. The Irish company’s defence services division has the engineering contract to maintain the RAF’s A400s.
When the Typhoons take off down the runway with their afterburners glowing red, it’s just something else to witness
The RAF told The Irish Times last week it could not facilitate access to the base, which provides the Republic’s air cover, without British ministerial approval. It is not open to the public.
RAF Lossiemouth is still a magnet for plane-spotters who lurk along its perimeter fences with scanners and cameras hoping to catch a close-up glimpse of planes taking off or landing.
“When the Typhoons take off down the runway with their afterburners glowing red, it’s just something else to witness,” says one man, a local spotter from the nearby town of Insch who is out with his son trying to catch a glimpse of the fighters. While he is waiting, the A400 comes in to land.
Two hours later, the Insch spotter gets what he really came for. RAF Lossiemouth had warned locals last week that it would be conducting training exercises later in the evening in darkening conditions. As the light fades, two Typhoons taxi to the bottom of the runway next to the pig farm. Seconds later, amid a deafening roar, the fighters streak off with a hint of afterburn, and up into the evening sky.
Up at the other end of the main runway, close to Moray golf course, another group of spotters are gathered. Yet they face away from the runway and out across the gorse towards the firth.
One among them, local resident Denis Collins, originally from West Cork, says they usually try to spot planes. Tonight, however, they are on the lookout for a short-eared owl that comes out at dusk.
“It’s something different,” he says.
Next morning, two more spotters are gathered at the top of the runway. Davey and William are friendly, but don’t want to be identified. “You just missed a Norwegian Hercules taking off,” says William. Lossiemouth is often used for exercises by Britain’s Nato allies.
Later in the morning, the A400 that landed the night before takes off. Davey, who is listening in on a scanner, thinks it could be bringing ammunition to Ukraine. Then two Poseidons take off on training flights around the inlet. Other planes often head from the base to Estonia or Cyprus, says Davey. Not long after the Poseidons leave, two Typhoon fighter jets come in to land.
“Boys and their toys,” smiles William.
Over at the Covesea Lighthouse, overlooking the town’s West Beach and the Silver Sands holiday park over which aircraft fly in and out, Tuke points out another Irish connection to Lossiemouth. The area’s “patron saint”, he says, is St Gerardine, an Irish hermit who arrived in the area over 1,000 years ago. A local school and church are named after him.
Tuke says he knows of the existence of a British air cover deal with Ireland, although one gets the impression that he probably knows far more than he lets on.
William had reckoned it takes less than five minutes for a Typhoon to scramble from the time they’d hear the call on scanners. Tuke says that probably isn’t far off accurate. In his day Nimrods could get in the air in 15 minutes, he says. But jets are quicker “because there are less people to herd”.
On occasion, he says, he was on board when the British submarine hunters were the ones being intercepted by Russians. Where would this happen? Near Iceland? Near Ireland? Tuke only laughs in response. Some military secrets are more open than others.