In 2017, two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear capable bombers were intercepted by fighter jets from four European countries as they flew from the direction of Norway to northern Spain, over Ireland and back, it has emerged.
Norway, the UK, France and Spain all scrambled jets as the TU-160 planes skirted the airspace of each country except Ireland. Irish watch while EU came to escorting the Blackjack out of EU airspace.
The British RAF then sent Typhoon aircraft from RAF Lossiemouth to intercept the planes as they flew to the west of Shetland.
Finally, Spain sent two F-18 fighters to intercept the Russian planes north of Bilbao. The bombers then turned around and made a return journey.
Ireland Needs Fighter Jets
Ireland needs fighter jets to implement a full air defence capability, the former head of the Air Corps has said.
Major General Ralph James, who retired from the Defence Forces in 2015, said there has to be a degree of “realism” when discussing the State’s ability to defend its own airspace.
He pointed to the approaches adopted by other small countries, such as New Zealand, which abandoned their fighter jet programme and diverted the money to the army.
Each pilot would need up to 400 hours piloting the jet before earning fast response certification. Such a jet programme would likely cost well in excess of €1 billion.
Asked if we need a jet programme, Mr James said he is in favour of “some capability” and said neutrality comes with costs and responsibilities.
Russia is Probing Irish Airspace
Currently the Ireland Air Corps operates 16 aircraft. However, unlike almost every other EU country, it has no fighter jet aircraft, meaning the State is unable to intercept planes at high altitude, such as the numerous Russian bombers which have buzzed Irish airspace in recent years. Similarly there is no capability to intercept a hijacked airliner.
Participation of EU Mission
Separately, Mr James said the Air Corps would be capable of contributing to the successor operation to Operation Sophia, the EU’s maritime mission in the Mediterranean.
EU foreign ministers agreed this month that member states will contribute air and naval assets to a new operation in the region to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, following the official wind-up of Operation Sophia.
In 2017 and 2018 the Irish Naval Service contributed ships to Operation Sophia, which focused on rescuing migrants and disrupting the activities of people smugglers. The new mission will focus much more on preventing arms smuggling and will have a significant aerial component. However, ships will rescue migrants if they come across them.
The State could contribute using one of its Casa maritime patrol aircraft or their forthcoming replacement, the Airbus C295, he said.
A spokeswoman said that “pending the finalisation of the mandate for this new mission and the operational details”, it is not possible to state how or if the Irish Republic will participate in any EU mission.
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