Tom Clonan, a former senior officer with the Irish Army and a security expert, said the public had the right to know the risk posed by military aircraft flying into the airspace controlled by the IAA. Such aircraft turn off their transponders and make themselves virtually invisible to air traffic controllers and passing civilian aircraft.
Mr Clonan made his comments after the IAA refused a request from the Irish Examiner to provide details of the number of warplanes which have strayed into IAA-controlled airspace this year.
While declining the request, the IAA admitted that a Russian ‘Bear’ bomber (a Tupolev Tu-95) skirted Irish-controlled airspace on November 20 as it was being shadowed by an RAF Typhoon fighter.
Earlier this year, there were two incursions by the Soviet-era craft into Irish-controlled airspace, one of which caused air traffic controllers to ground or divert commercial flights because of the risk of a mid-air collision with one of the Russian planes, which are known to carry nuclear bombs.
Aviation industry and military sources have told the Irish Examiner that incursions by ‘transponder-off’ aircraft have become more common in recent years and they do not believe it is just the Russians who are to blame. They also believe other superpowers are straying into our skies.
One source said there were a number of incursions last year, but fewer in 2015.
“There is an absolute necessity for full transparency and information on this,” said Mr Clonan.
“There is a concern on behalf of the travelling public about air safety following incidents in other countries where planes have gone missing or being downed.”
Mr Clonan said that, when travelling with their transponders off, these military planes are invisible to airline carriers.
“Around 75% of transatlantic traffic travels through our area of airspace control,” he said.
“We [the public] have an absolute right to know about these incidents. Having their transponders off poses an absolute hazard.
“It’s like somebody travelling the wrong way up the M50 with their headlights switched off.”
The IAA said that, on November 20, a Bear bomber did not actually enter Irish-controlled airspace at any time, but at their nearest point were 16 nautical miles away.
On February 18, two ‘cloaked’ Bear bombers flew into Irish-controlled airspace and came within 40km of the coast. They criss-crossed into major civilian airline traffic lanes, including incoming flights from North America.
This led to the IAA grounding and diverting commercial flights.
Just two weeks previously, two Russian bombers also made an incursion. That resulted in the Government speaking to the Russian ambassador.