Thursday, 8 October 2020

Ceisteanna (1)

Sorca Clarke

Ceist:

1. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence his views on plans for the provision of primary radar. [28523/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Defence)

To the shock and horror of most of the country it was again reported last week that Ireland is the only EU country that does not have primary radar to monitor its airspace. More than 70% of EU traffic literally travels over our heads but we can only see those aircraft if they choose to allow us to do so by turning on their transponders. Why is this, and what is the Minister's view on the provision of primary radar?

I thank the Deputy. As this is the first time she and I have had formal questions, I congratulate her on her appointment. I look forward to working with her.

My priority as Minister for Defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service is maintained to the greatest extent possible so as to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by Government, both at home and overseas.  

The acquisition of new equipment for the Defence Forces remains a clear focus for me. Future equipment priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are considered in the context of the White Paper on Defence and as part of the capability development and equipment priorities planning process.  The principal aim over the period covered by the White Paper will be to replace and upgrade, as required, existing capabilities in order to retain a flexible response for a wide range of operational requirements, including response to security risks and other emergencies, both at home and overseas.  

Regarding primary radar, the 2015 White Paper on Defence states that should funding beyond that required to maintain existing Air Corps capabilities become available, the development of a radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps is a priority.  The 2019 White Paper update pointed out that the National Development Plan 2018-2027, which provides €541 million in capital funding for defence for the period up to 2022, does not make provision for a radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps.

 The Equipment Development Plan 2020-2024, which was published in June 2020, sets out the key priorities for equipment investment in the Defence Forces. The provision of a primary radar capability is included in the equipment development plan's pre-planning category.  Funding for the provision of radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps has not been provided in the current resource envelope under the equipment development plan.  Any future decisions in this regard will be in the context of Defence Forces priorities, having regard to the ongoing security environment and any associated developments.  However, the inclusion of a primary radar project on the equipment development plan will ensure that should funding become available, Department officials and Defence Forces colleagues will be in position to progress the matter through the equipment development plan's prioritisation and decision-making process.

Some years ago, an agreement was negotiated whereby the Royal Air Force, RAF, would patrol our airspace. I understand that agreement was signed by the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Irish Aviation Authority, a commercial State body not directly answerable to the Oireachtas. Is it true that the input of the General Officer Commanding of the Air Corps, who has statutory responsibility for military aviation, was not included in these negotiations? When was that agreement reached? What are its details? What impact will Brexit have on that agreement?

The lack of primary radar is the reason other state entities have been probing our airspace for years with high-altitude bombers and escorts. These foreign aircraft can see us but we cannot see them. They are not testing their capabilities, but those of the RAF.

It is important to be honest with people. The Air Corps is not equipped to monitor aircraft flying over the entirety of Irish airspace, nor is it tasked with that role. We have a relatively small Air Corps which does a really good job at what it is asked to do. We are not like many other countries that spend hundreds of millions or billions of euro on fighter aircraft that can monitor and defend airspace. For many years, we have chosen not to prioritise that equipment and funding. As Minister of Defence, a brief which I have held previously, I think it is important to be upfront about our capability and the role we ask the Air Corps to perform. We have just purchased three new Pilatus PC-12 aircraft which are very well equipped for surveillance. The Air Corps has a limited defence capacity, but it is important not to pretend to have a capacity we do not have.

Regarding relationships with our closest neighbour on defence issues, we have a memorandum of understanding with the UK on training and several other issues. Some arrangements for sharing capacity, which might be expected of two countries next door to each other, are in place.

I note the Minister did not actually answer the questions on when the agreement was reached or the impact Brexit will have on it. At the moment, our skies are patrolled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, an organisation we consistently refuse to align with, citing our neutrality. Our pilots are trained in America and Australia, one of NATO's largest troop contributors. These facts can be viewed as eroding our expressed neutrality, the cornerstone of our foreign policy. The international standing of Ireland can now be legitimately questioned in this regard. In my opinion, this is a serious loss of sovereignty. I will ask the Minister again. What are the details of the agreement with the RAF and what impact will Brexit have?

Along with many others, I am working very hard to minimise the impact of Brexit across all areas and ensure that Ireland and the UK continue to co-operate in partnership on a range of issues, as would be expected of two neighbouring countries.

The idea that the Deputy has a problem with military personnel training abroad to ensure we have the most advanced training capabilities available to us when we are training soldiers, Air Corps personnel and naval officers is bizarre, frankly. Ireland is not a member of NATO and is not going to join it. We are not compromised by our relationship with NATO. We are a neutral State that is militarily non-aligned and we behave as such. That does not mean that we do not speak to NATO or engage in overseas peacekeeping operations in a way that is linked to NATO, as we have done in the past. We currently work with NATO on operations in Kosovo, for example, and we previously worked with it on de-mining in Afghanistan. There is nothing wrong with that. It does not mean that we are compromised in any way. Rather, it means we focus on interoperability to ensure that when we have peacekeeping missions abroad, we can work with others to make sure we protect our troops and do a good job.