Until the Next Time?

Ireland could spend up to $60 million on new radars and air defence systems to deter Russian Air Force activity near her airspace.

Irish neutrality has not stopped Russian Air Force (RUAF) aircraft from skirting Irish airspace during the first half of this year. In March Tupolev Tu-95MS strategic bombers skirted the west coast of Ireland, allegedly entering Irish controlled airspace.

The RUAF flights were detected by the Royal Air Force’s UKADGE (UK Air Defence Ground Environment). The UKADGE is the command and control, and surveillance element of the UK’s Integrated Air Defence System (IADS). The Russian aircraft were most likely detected by RAF Lockheed Martin AN/TPS-77 L-band (1.215 gigahertz/GHz to 1.4GHz) ground-based air surveillance radars. One AN/TPS-77 is based at the Saxa Vord Remote Radar Head (RRH) island of Urst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands off the northeast coast of Scotland. A Lockheed Martin AN/FPS-117/Type-92 L-band radar at RRH Benbecula on the eponymous Outer Hebrides island off the northwest coast of Scotland may have also detected the aircraft. Both these radars have an instrumented range of 250 nautical mile/nm (470 kilometres).

The Russian aircraft may have skirted the northern coasts of Scandinavia and headed southwest into the Atlantic towards the British Isles. Radar pictures would have been sent by the RRHs to the UKADGE headquarters at RAF Boulmer, northeast England. RAF commanders would then have scrambled Eurofighter Typhoon F/GR4A combat aircraft on Quick Reaction Alert to ensure the bombers did not violate UK airspace.

Russian Air Force Tu-95MS strategic bombers allegedly entered Irish airspace in March, prompting questions about Ireland’s air defence posture. (UK MOD)

Flight Information Regions

Did the RAF also perform this action on behalf of Ireland? The British Isles are surrounded by two FIRS. Along with Shanwick Oceanic Control Area (OCA) covering the approaches to the western coast of Ireland parts of the western coast of the United Kingdom. Shanwick OCA is managed bilaterally by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) and the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). London FIR covers approaches to the southern coast of Ireland, the southwest and southern coasts of England and Wales’ Irish Sea coast. Finally, Scottish IFR covers Scotland and Northern Ireland. In March, the UK Defence Journal reported that a bilateral agreement involving Ireland and the UK allows RAF aircraft to intercept suspicious aircraft flying in the Shanwick OCA. It was this region through which Russian aircraft allegedly flew in March.

Shanwick OCA covers the outer western air approaches to the British Isles. It is managed bilaterally by the British and Irish air traffic control authorities. (NATS)

An RAF spokesperson told chainhomehigh that the air force is only responsible for providing air defence coverage over the UK FIRs and “a portion of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Air Policing Area (APA).” This encompasses RAF support of NATO’s Baltic and Icelandic APAs. The RAF said cryptically that UK air defence coverage “does not include the Irish Flight Information Region.” As shown by the maps accompanying this article, the Irish FIR is distinct from the Shanwick OCA. The spokesperson continued that the RAF does perform Air Traffic Control (ATC) coordination with the Irish ATC authority, and will “respond to any instance of an unidentified aircraft entering or approaching the UK FIR to ensure the integrity of UK airspace.” Does the bilateral agreement referred to above have a provision for the RAF to intercept suspicious aircraft in the Shanwick OCA for the mutual benefit of Ireland and the UK? 

This map illustrates the coverage provided across the British Isles by the RAF’s ground-based air surveillance radars.

Ireland’s Air Defence

This would make sense for both countries. Ireland lacks the fast jets needed to intercept RUAF aircraft and the IADS needed to manage these interceptions. Another problem is that RUAF aircraft routinely fly in the vicinity of Ireland without having filed flight plans with their transponders switched off. This means the unidentified aircraft appear without warning to Irish ATC.

As the UK’s IADS can detect and track uncooperative targets it makes sense to have an agreement by which the RAF can handle such situations even if this is restricted to Shanwick OCA. The RAF must be able to detect RUAF aircraft potentially threatening UK airspace approaching from the West. Intercepting RUAF aircraft flying in, or near the Shanwick OCA provides defence in depth. It allows the RAF to shadow the offending planes ensuring that they do not become a threat to the UK. Having the RAF respond to these Russian challenges also helps to protect Irish airspace. In short this benefits both countries.

From an operational perspective, the An tAerchór (Irish Air Corps/IAC) does not perform air policing of Irish airspace per se. A statement supplied to chainhomehigh by the Ireland’s Department of Defence (DOD) said that the IAC is “not tasked or equipped to monitor and communicate with aircraft (military or otherwise) overflying Irish airspace.” The exception to this being the IAC’s provision of ATC services to aircraft overflying Casement Aerodrome southwest of Dublin, the sole airfield and headquarters of the IAC. 

Integrated Air Defence System

Over the long term, the IAC may invest in an IADS. The Republic of Ireland’s 2015 Defence White Paper stated that “should additional funding, beyond that required to maintain existing capabilities become available, the development of a radar surveillance capability is a priority for the Air Corps.”

Big money could be needed for such a purchase. Sufficient ground-based air surveillance radars would be required to provide coverage over all 70,273 square kilometres (27,133 square miles) of Irish territory. Using the AN/TPS-77 as a yardstick, a single radar would be sufficient as one can monitor 693,977 square kilometres (267,946 square miles). This would require at outlay of $19.7 million for a single radar based on average AN/TPS-77 prices.

It may be prudent to procure two systems to provide redundancy. One could be positioned on the west coast and one on the east coast. This would provide coverage of eastern and western air approaches, along with Irish airspace. Alongside the radar the IAC would need the required command, control and communications equipment to connect these radars to an Air Operations Centre, and to fuse the radar pictures into a single Recognised Air Picture (RAP) of Irish airspace and air approaches. Additional links from the IAC’s ATC system may be required to ensure that any future Irish IADS has the most detailed RAP possible.

The DOD statement added that while the department demurs from commenting on operational and security matters strict conditions must be met before a military aircraft can overfly Irish territory. Any future RUAF violations of Irish airspace, deliberate or otherwise, could trigger a diplomatic crisis between Dublin and Moscow. Although expensive to procure a robust IADS might help to deter any future violations.

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