Dorcha Lee: Russian fleet presence exploits gap in Irish defence

The Russians are coming and there is little we can do about what is widely regarded as a demonstration of force designed to coincide with possible military action against Ukraine
Dorcha Lee: Russian fleet presence exploits gap in Irish defence

A photo taken from video distributed by the Russian Defense Ministry last year of a new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile launched by a submarine of the Russian navy in the Barents Sea. 

These days, as the low winter sun sets off the West and South-West coast, cloud formations paint the oddest shapes against the reddish-orange sky. White contrails from high flying commercial aircraft will catch the last light of day, while shadows slowly envelop the ground below. It is a time when nature can play tricks on the eyes, and UFOs are easily imagined.

One particular effect occurs if the angle of sight is very low, and the sun has just dipped under the horizon. This is when the contrails of eastbound aircraft can appear to rise directly from the sea, just like surface to air missiles streaking towards their invisible target. The imagery of a distant nuclear war comes to mind if cloud formations take on a mushroom-like shape.

Close observers these days may even detect a few extra contrails over the coming week as the US Airforce sends reinforcements to bolster its NATO allies in Europe. In the meantime, the Russian Atlantic Fleet will shortly enter the Irish EEZ (exclusive economic zone) less than 200 miles South- West of Cork, in total disregard of Irish political sensibilities.

Live firing exercises

True, the Russians are entitled to conduct such exercises in the Irish EEZ and have fulfilled the necessary requirement to notify the Irish Government. Nevertheless, concern has been expressed that the exercises will include live firing exercises and maybe missiles will be fired also. But this is what navies do. Our own Naval Service, which should be redesignated as a Navy to reflect its defence role, conducts at least one major exercise each year, test firing all of its weaponry.

Last week, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that its fleets would conduct exercises worldwide starting at the end of January and into February, listing the seas adjacent to Russia, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the North-East Atlantic and in the Sea of Okhotsk. Having just completed joint exercises with the Chinese and Iranian navies, the need for such ‘exercises’ is questionable. It is widely regarded as a demonstration of force designed to coincide with possible military action against Ukraine.

But why pick the Irish EEZ for its North Atlantic exercise? It is not because Ireland is the only neutral country along the Atlantic North-eastern seaboard. The simple reason is that, in defence terms, it the weakest link.

 Not only has the Naval service not got a single warship capable of naval combat, but it has too few patrol vessels to cover its EEZ. The Air Corps has no jet interceptors and not got enough surveillance aircraft. But the biggest issue is the inability to locate, identify and monitor the activities of ships and aircraft even in our own territorial area, never mind our much wider EEZ.

Surveillance is required at four levels — on the seafloor where communications cables are laid, sub-surface, surface, and in Irish controlled air space. On the sea floor there are multiple of transatlantic cables, including the Internet, that are vulnerable. Submarine activity is no longer just a military threat, drug gangs are now using homemade subs that can cross the Atlantic.

Off the radar

The single most important surveillance capability is to acquire primary radar. Primary radar is defined as a radar sensor that illuminates a large space with an electromagnetic wave and receives back the reflected waves from targets in that space. Secondary radar, used by Air Traffic Control systems, detects only emissions from the encroaching ship or aircraft, such as from transponders. If the transponder is switched off then the ship or aircraft can often get by, undetected, unless a primary radar backup is in place.

The implications of our decades-long underfunding of defence are fully understood by the Government. The arrival of Russia’s North Atlantic fleet to conduct exercises in our EEZ waters, is just another incident, highlighting what we already know. The Irish people, whose forbears fought to achieve independence, continually elect Governments that don’t address these issues.

We have been humiliatingly described as a ‘free-loading Celtic nation on the Northeast coast of the Atlantic’ expecting other neighbours to help in our time of need.

  • Defence analyst Dorcha Lee is a retired Irish army colonel.

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