Russian ‘Bear’ bombers were recently involved in ‘very unusual’ activities over Irish skies, chased away by the British. Can’t we protect our own airspace, asks Sean O’Riordan
THE reality of the Cold War-era cat-and-mouse games played out in Irish-controlled airspace earlier this month between the Russian Bear and British Bulldog is that this country is like “a hurler on the ditch” which can’t defend its skies because of years of neglect by successive governments in properly equipping the air corps.
None of its planes have jet engines and can’t even keep up with archaic Soviet-era propeller-powered bombers, let alone modern aircraft. Even the Defence Forces radar capabilities are well below par, which leaves them incapable of reacting to terrorist hijacks or the regular incursions into our airspace by foreign military planes.
Despite the air corps being highly trained, it is equipped with planes only capable of tortoise speed compared to the British Typhoon “hares” which were deployed last week to harry the Russians away from their airspace.
In a 19-hour operation, the British were forced to intercept the Russians twice. They first scrambled their fighters when the Bear bombers were noticed between the Hebrides and Iceland. They escorted them south and the bombers headed down the west coast of Ireland.
The British thought they would turn to head back to their base, but instead the two bombers skirted down around the south coast, through the Celtic Sea, and then emerged again in the English Channel, which the RAF described as very unusual.
The Irish Government has often used the excuse that since we are such a small country we can’t afford to spend money equipping our air corps with jets. Yet figures show that other countries with similar or smaller GPD per head can afford them.
Ireland has a GDP/per head of €42,547. By comparison, Finland, which is not in Nato, has a population slightly ahead of ours at 5.5m and a GPD/per head of €35,742. It has 127 jet fighters. We have none. Austria, which is also not a Nato member, has a population of 8.6m, a GDP of €33,900 per head, and 15 jet fighters.
Countries which are Nato members have the following number of fighters: Belgium (57) Denmark (47), Norway (57), and Portugal (30).
Countries of comparable population and national income to Ireland have an average of 8.6 combat aircraft per million population.
The Department of Defence is spending €150m on three new naval vessels. The navy has already received delivery of the LÉ Samuel Beckett, is awaiting the arrival in the next few months of the LÉ James Joyce, and an order has been put in for a third, as yet unnamed vessel.
The naval service badly needed new ships, especially as it has to cover some 220m acres of sea.
Meanwhile, the air corps is left wondering when its pilots might get some more advanced aircraft.
The Government doesn’t have to buy Typhoons like the ones scrambled by the British to intercept the Russian bombers to be effective, especially as they cost over €70m each. Jets are available much cheaper.
If the Government wants to penny-pinch, it could buy the Czech-made Aero L159 or ex-Korean AF BAE Hawks.
The L159 is a subsonic aircraft with similar speed to an airliner, but, critically, it can go much higher than commercial aircraft, is faster than the Russian TU95, and has an integrated radar.
If we wanted something a bit more prestigious, the KAIT50-Golden Eagle fighters could be picked up for €20m each.
However, it’s estimated in some military circles that an €80m investment in the air corps would be sufficient to provide the force with proper jets and radar defence capabilities.
For this, it could get six jets, all auxiliary equipment, support services, armaments, and proper ground radar capabilities.
Generally an air defence aircraft (interceptor fighter) should be capable of operating at high speeds and altitudes, and be equipped with suitable air-to-air weapons and sensors (radar, etc) to guide the interceptor onto its target.
Apart from the navy, Defence Forces currently rely on an archaic military radar system which has a range of 74km, while Irish Aviation Authority radar for tracking commercial aircraft has a range of 130km.
Sources within the aviation industry say it’s common for military aircraft to enter Irish-controlled airspace.
When such situations occur, aircraft usually switch off their transponders, as the Russian Bear bombers did as they tried to evade the British fighters.
They are unidentifiable on the radar screens, just emitting squawks, which show their direction and flight level.
Security expert Dr Tom Clonan, a former Irish army officer, said that this is particularly dangerous in the crowded skies above Ireland and could lead to a mid-air collision between a military aircraft and a packed commercial jet.
He said the air corps needs proper capabilities to be able to deter unwelcome visitors into our airspace, and in these days of international terrorism and hijackings the need is even greater.
“We should be looking at operational aircraft, because if we don’t we will be completely dependable on the British and Nato for air defence. We have very much out-of-date equipment because governments have eroded the Defence Forces,” Dr Clonan said.
“It’s very strange that we have no proper combat aircraft and the lack of them represents a training deficit for air corps pilots as well,” he said.
The chief of staff, Lt Gen Conor O’Boyle, has said new aircraft are needed, especially to replace the Cessnas which were brought into service by the air corps in 1972.
But his wishlist will depend on the exchequer.
At a the last Representative Association of Commissioned Officers conference, Lt Gen O’Boyle told delegates that the Defence Forces capital works budget is seriously underfunded and he was working with the Department of Defence to get it increased.
The Department of Defence is preparing a white Paper on the future of the Defence Forces and its funding.
This will determine, along with the economy, if one day soon we will see Irish fighter jets operating over our own airspace.
ON A MISSION TO HELP THOSE IN NEED
Air corps pilots may not fly supersonic Top Gun missions, but they get through a huge workload and a lot of it involves helping sick people.
Last year, pilots flew more than 10,000 hours on over 5,500 missions, and conducted missions throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the US.
They completed 107 air ambulance missions, including 64 national and 47 international transfers of patients.
The increase in demand for air ambulances has given rise to the air corps maintaining dedicated crews on standby 24/7.
Missions such as the rapid transfers to London are especially important to Irish children requiring transplants. These time-critical patients are included in the UK’s donor pool and so rely on the speedy transport of the air corps when they get a call to the UK for a transplant.
Air corps helicopter crews can also utilise specialist night vision goggles for night time missions and are the only pilots in the State with the capability to fly using these.
In addition to these inter-hospital transfers, the air corps is continuing to support the HSE National Ambulance Service in the pilot project to provide dedicated aeromedical support to the West of Ireland.
The air corps conducted 12 search and rescure missions last year.
Meanwhile, the CASA aircraft completed 253 regular maritime patrols, with 19 high level patrols and 15 night time patrols in 2014.
These patrols monitor fishing activities and general marine traffic and last September were involved in surveillance of the drugs yacht Makayaabella, which was later seized by the navy.
The same month, the air corps began an operation with Ordnance Survey Ireland to take the exact measurements of the country’s territorial waters from 50 specially selected points around the coast.
Air corps personnel also played a vital role in international peace and security in several overseas missions with 40 troops serving between the Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Mali.
The Air corps even managed to capture on film one of the rarest and remarkable spectacles in the natural world on a maritime patrol — a massive fin whale leaping from the water, and in majestic missile-like form three times.
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