Ireland is ‘most vulnerable’ for defence, security conference told

Ireland is “probably the most vulnerable” in Europe from a defence point of view, a major security conference has been told.

Ireland is ‘most vulnerable’ for defence, security conference told

Ireland is “probably the most vulnerable” in Europe from a defence point of view, a major security conference has been told.

And if it wants a rapid reaction force to protect its air space then it will need to make a long term commitment and devote huge resources to build up all the necessary infrastructure.

The inaugural National Security Summit, Slándáil 2020, in Dublin, heard that the Air Corps does not have any fighter jets, nor a nationwide radar system, nor the trained pilots or technical backup to operate a 24/7 “quick reaction alert” (QRA) capability.

Renewed concern was expressed at the two-day conference, which began yesterday, at the largely secret arrangement successive governments have had with Britain for the RAF to respond to any threats to Irish air space.

Retired Major General Ralph James, who spent his career in the Air Corps, said the traditional position Ireland has taken was to “put out the big flag we are neutral”.

But he said military people would point out that neutrality places an “onus” on states in that they must deny airspace to “both” sides in any dispute, increasing the cost.

“We are a small island off the west coast of Europe,” he said, “and probably the most vulnerable state there is in Europe”.

To the question 'why have a military in the first place?' he said: “to defend the State.

He said to do that he said you needed “capability”, so that “when trouble comes, you are ready to to step up to the next level”.

He said this required an Air Corps that “stays in and understands the game”, that is a professional service and “give what capability you can”.

Defence expert Don Lavery said that while the Air Corps had 19 aircraft – with five more on order - with an additional three aircraft jointly with An Garda Siochana it “did not have one combat aircraft, no nationwide radar and no fast jets is a threat is detected”.

He said the only protection were surface to air missiles and a “secret arrangement” with the RAF to react to threats to our airspace.

Maj Gen James said investing in a squadron of aircraft would be of “no use” without the foundations, including a nationwide radar system, a reporting and intelligence analysis system and a command and control system.

“The single biggest problem is numbers,” he said. “If you decide to go 24/7 the numbers are going to go off the clock, with pilots, technicians, air traffic controllers and ground staff.”

He said the cost of training pilots to conduct quick response required up to 400 hours of training, saying the cost would be “off the Richter scale”.

He said that if governments wanted a proper air defence system they could not just be “half in” to that objective.

“You are either committed or not,” he said, adding that it would take time.

Keynote speaker Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute said any decision to purchase fast jets should be based on an “operational analysis” of what type of aircraft is wanted rather than on what countries can offer the best deal.

He said that if a country purchased 12-16 aircraft then they would have to devoted to QRA and not foreign missions with training of pilots done overseas, which he said neutral countries like Finland had done with their neighbours in Sweden and NATO-member Norway.

Ger Nash, Labour TD for Louth, admitted Ireland's position of neutrality was “full of contradictions”, but said he supported it, adding that the country must be “prepared to defend and enforce it”.

He said the arrangement with the RAF “did not sit well” with him and should be “subject to Oireachtas oversight”.

He called for a full Minister of Defence, rather than the current minister of state status. He said the full minister would sit on the Cabinet and “force” the issue of proper capital funding from the Department of Finance for the Defence Forces.

Assistant Professor at Centre for Conflict at the University of Nottingham, Edward Burke said he didn't like the “ad hoc” arrangement Ireland had with Britain regarding the RAF, as it suggested Ireland was “dependent” on Britain, rather than the two of them acting as “partners”.

He said consideration could be given as to what Ireland wants the UK to do and not to do and establish are there areas they could cooperate on, such as defending their air space from Russian aircraft.

Giving the opening address at the conference, Minister with responsibility for Defence Paul Kehoe cited work the Government had done in establishing the National Security Analysis Centre, which was now developing the country's first national security strategy.

He said the Government published last December its National Cyber Security Strategy and that, in the same month, he published an update on the 2015 White Paper on Defence.

“The threats in the cyber domain and from espionage have been assessed as increasing since 2015,” he told the conference.

He said the white paper included details on new armoured logistics and utility vehicles for the Army, the Naval Service ship replacement and renewal programme and the new fixed-wing and maritime patrol aircraft for the Air Corps.

On the contentious issue of pay, morale and retention in the Defence Forces, he said: “The Government’s High Level Plan to implement the recommendations made in the Public Service Pay Commission Report on recruitment and retention issues will continue to be a key focus for me in this regard.”

The summit had sessions throughout the day yesterday including ones on climate change and security, the global terrorism situation and responding to emergencies.

Today, there are sessions on cyber security, the Garda transformation programme, maritime security and intelligence.

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