Ireland lacks aircraft that can climb high enough or go fast enough to intercept Russian aircraft.
As a result, Ireland and the UK have an agreement to allow British combat aircraft to overfly the Republic.
The UK isn’t simply protecting Irish airspace as such, the agreement is mutually beneficial but more about that later.
Over the last decade Russian bombers have flown a series of provocative missions close to Ireland’s northern and western coasts – on occasion skirting extremely close to Irish airspace. A particularly noteworthy incident occurred in 2015. Two Tu-95 bombers flew with their transponders turned off, just 40km off the coast.
According to local media, they criss-crossed into major civilian airline traffic lanes and the IAA was forced to divert commercial jets in midair or else prevent them from taking off to avoid potential collisions.
Another similar incident occurred earlier this week.
Many are likely to ask why Russia would aim to provoke Ireland?
According to Dr Edward Burke, the director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism at the University of Nottingham:
“The principal reason is that, from a Russian perspective, Ireland is a significant piece on the geopolitical chessboard. Situated between two of Russia’s principal adversaries, the United States and the UK, Ireland lacks the air defence capabilities to deter or defend against such provocative sorties into its airspace. The Russian air force knows that it can approach or even enter Irish airspace with far less immediate and serious consequences than if it did the same to other north Atlantic countries such as Iceland where there is a Nato air policing mission – or Norway, which has a well-resourced air force capable of quickly intercepting suspected incursions.”
Why do the UK and Ireland have this agreement?
According to the Irish Examiner, “five well-placed sources in Ireland and one in Britain have pointed to the agreement being in place, with a number saying the Defence Forces was not involved in negotiating it, despite the RAF asking for its inclusion.”
It is understood that Civil servants from the Irish Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) entered into a bilateral agreement with British counterparts: the RAF, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Ministry of Defence, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The agreement reportedly permits the British military to conduct operations over Ireland in order to intercept aircraft in the Flight Information Region shared by both nations.
All airspace around the world is divided into Flight Information Regions (FIRs). Each FIR is managed by a controlling authority (in this case the UK) that has responsibility for ensuring that air traffic services are provided to the aircraft flying within it. UK Airspace is divided into three FIRs; London, Scottish and Shanwick Oceanic.
Ireland operates ‘The Air Corps’, the service provides military support to the Irish Army and Naval Service but lacks any jet combat aircraft capable of intercepting Russian aircraft.
Their only combat capable aircraft is the Pilatus PC-9M whih can be armed with a heavy machine gun or rocket pods. This aircraft is not capable of intercepting Russian bombers.
Make no mistake however, this agreement is mutually beneficial. The UK needs to be able to intercept aircraft even as far south west as Ireland. Why?
Andy Netherwood explains the reasons why here, but in summary:
“The first is flight safety. Whilst sovereign airspace only extends 12 miles from the coastline, countries are responsible for ensuring the safety of civil aviation, including the provision of ATC services, within areas known as Flight Information Regions or FIRs. These extend well beyond the 12-mile limit. Russian long range aviation often transits the London and Scottish FIRs without filing a flight plan, talking to ATC or ‘squawking’ (operating their transponders). This makes them effectively invisible to civilian ATC and is very dangerous as airliners are also flying through this airspace. By shadowing Russian aircraft, the intercepting aircraft can show ATC where they are, allowing controllers to move airliners safely out of the way.
The second reason is because of the speed at which aircraft travel. An aircraft flying at 600 knots will travel 12 miles in little over a minute. Waiting until an unknown or hostile aircraft has entered sovereign airspace before intercepting is too late. It leaves insufficient time to safely carry out the intercept, visually identify the aircraft, provide all the required information back to decision-makers, and carry out any necessary action. Russian aircraft will normally be intercepted by the Norwegian Air Force and then handed over to RAF aircraft ensuring they are continually shadowed.”
This isn’t as straightforward as it seems however, the agreement is somewhat controversial.
Senator Gerard Craughwell told the Seanad that allowing Royal Air Force fighter jets access to Irish airspace interferes with Ireland’s sovereignty.
“The Constitution is the most sacred document in the country. It drives everything we do and should control everything that takes place in this House. I refer to Article 15.6 on the right to raise and maintain military forces, which right rests exclusively with the Oireachtas. Imagine my shock at the weekend when I discovered that an agreement had been signed between this country and the United Kingdom granting permission to the United Kingdom to scramble fighter jets in Irish airspace.
The agreement was signed by the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Irish Aviation Authority, which is not even a body responsible to the Oireachtas but a semi-State body. The agreement was signed before either this or the last Government came to power. I can find no evidence anywhere of Oireachtas oversight of the agreement or of a ministerial signature on it.
It creates a merger or a partnership in respect of our sovereignty. We talk about our sovereignty all the time, yet we are allowing jets of the Royal Air Force, RAF, to fly over the country. The director of Irish military aviation and the general officer commanding, GOC, of the Air Corps has no knowledge whatsoever of the agreement. It is my understanding that when he learned of it, he was taken into a room, shown the agreement and promptly sent home without a copy of it. The person with responsibility for military aviation in this country was not a party to the agreement.”
Is this agreement likely to change?
According to Dr Burke, Ireland (at least in the short term) will continue to rely upon the RAF to deter and monitor Russian or other aircraft that enter Irish airspace without permission.
“In the short term, Ireland will continue to rely upon the RAF to deter and monitor Russian or other aircraft that enter Irish airspace without permission”, he said.
“In the medium to long term it is difficult to countenance the State developing the expensive air defence and training systems to police Irish airspace alone. Ireland’s natural security partner in terms of geography is of course the UK. Is it possible that historical and political sensitivities might be overcome to bring about an RAF-Irish Air Corps all-island joint air policing mission in the future? For now, as the Russian Air Force could tell you, there is very little prospect of anything of the kind.”