Putin’s subs have exposed Ireland’s shameless hypocrisy

RAF aircrew board a Poseidon P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. British Poseidons have lately been in contact with a Russian submarine off the coast of Ireland, which has no defences of its own and is not a Nato member
RAF aircrew board a Poseidon P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. British Poseidons have lately been in contact with a Russian submarine off the coast of Ireland, which has no defences of its own and is not a Nato member - AS1 Aeris Finney/RAF

Recently there has been an increased level of maritime patrol aircraft activity off the west coast of Ireland with the UK, France and Norway all sending anti-submarine planes to the area over the last few days.

To seasoned aircraft spotters this can mean only one thing – there was a Russian submarine there. Given that some of the air sorties were off the coast of County Mayo, it’s reasonable to assume that at some point the submarine was in the vicinity of the Corrib gas project and undersea cables there.

Russian nuclear submarine activity in the vicinity of Critical Underwater Infrastructure (CUI) is nothing new. They have been doing it since the 1960s. They have an entire high-level directorate dedicated to seabed warfare – the infamous “Gugi” – and the submarines they do it with are highly capable. The inadequacies of the Russian surface fleet should not be read across to this.

Nevertheless, this particular incursion raises some interesting points.

First, the days of ‘we don’t comment on submarine operations’ are largely over. When I joined the Ministry of Defence communications team in 2016 we didn’t talk even about surface ship escorting operations through UK waters because they were deemed classified. This made no sense – everyone was going to speak about them as they passed Dover anyway: why weren’t we leading the conversation?

Communications is a battlespace like any other and we need to be smarter about exploiting it, not hide behind classification. The same is now true of submarine operations. Given that the whole point of intercepting a Russian submarine in this manner is to demonstrate that we are in control of the operating environment and not them, then communication has a key role. It’s also cheap, which is handy these days.

Second, this operation reaffirms the team nature of anti-submarine operations. The size of the network that would have enabled the aircraft of three different countries to locate this ‘out of area deployer’ is significant. It starts with intelligence assets of all differing types, on land and in space. The net tightens as the Russian sub passes over the lattice of sea bed sensors. All the while positional information is being shared between various countries and refined.

Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is rarely a precise science but at this stage, the position of the submarine is known to some degree. You then have three options to narrow it down further: from the air as seen here, from the surface by sending your on-duty ready frigate (for Britain, the Towed Array Patrol Ship – TAPS) to intercept, or from below using Nato nuclear-powered submarines. In this case, we know the aircraft were used. HMS Richmond (the current TAPS) also sailed from Iceland and British submarine HMS Triumph sailed from Faslane on Sunday.

You don’t have to be much of an expert to piece all this together.

Once you are tracking a Russian sub it will nearly always leave the area. This isn’t about actually hitting them with weapons, it’s about deterrence: making it clear you own the space they are operating in and could easily destroy them if that’s what you wanted to do. They for their part are hoping to learn how to carry out a mission like this without being rumbled. That could be a step-by-step effort: very well, we got caught this time – next time we try a different route and perhaps that will get us past the seabed sensors without being spotted.

In this context we should note that instances of underwater activity around Western CUI are going up. The Nord Stream and Balticonnector sabotages grabbed the headlines but sub-threshold interference around the world is increasing. Our dependence on CUI, whether a matter of data or energy, is similarly growing. The requirement to protect it – and the associated bill – can therefore only be going in one direction.

Here the UK is reasonably well placed with a decent, if thin, spread of platforms and experience. Our nuclear submarines remain among the best in the world as do our towed array frigates. The frigates are getting long in the tooth now but will be replaced by the Type 26s being built on the Clyde. The Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft is an excellent bit of kit and the RAF excel at using it in this role – thank goodness we eventually gave up on the disastrous Nimrod MRA4 project and just bought the Poseidon like all the sensible people.

Our new seabed warfare ship, RFA Proteus, will be useful as and when she starts to fulfil her potential. Our relationships, classified information sharing and leadership, including the recent opening of the Maritime Centre for Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure at Northwood fleet HQ, are all in place.

Were we to lose US support we are in a reasonable position here – as should always have been the case. The Americans are our friends but nobody likes a friend who can’t look after themselves and never lends a hand. We need more of everything, of course, but what we do have is good: and we lend a hand when we can, as in the case of British strikes alongside America against the Houthis.

This is far more than can be said for the Irish, who can’t do anything for themselves – or worse, can’t be bothered to and assume someone will do it for them.

Ireland’s Defence Minister is on record as saying:

“Ireland will never be in a position really to engage in [anti] submarine warfare”.

This backwards-leaning stance sits at odds with his Defence Force’s mission statement for the navy which states, “Defence roles include defending territorial seas, deterring intrusive or aggressive acts, conducting maritime surveillance, maintaining an armed naval presence, ensuring right of passage, protecting marine assets…”

He’s right though. Ireland has no frigates or submarines. It claims to have two “maritime patrol aircraft”, Airbus C295s, but these are not Poseidons: they are unarmed fishery patrol planes with no underwater capabilities.

Ireland uses fossil fuel for 86 per cent of all its energy. The Corrib field is Ireland’s only domestic source of fossil fuel: as such it is “critical infrastructure” indeed. Given the fact that Ireland is also totally, abjectly dependent on imports of oil and gas by ship, and that it gets around ten per cent of its electricity by undersea cable, it is clear that Ireland absolutely cannot survive for long if a hostile actor gets control of its undersea environment.

The Irish navy’s stated role is to provide that protection and control but the minister in charge says that he can’t do it. Ireland has a GDP larger than Norway’s – and yet here it is, reliant on Norway’s real maritime patrol aircraft to help defend it.

The difference is that the Norwegians are not freeloaders.

It’s not as though Ireland would have to instantly start buying Poseidons either: there are any number of readily available, affordable (often uncrewed) options – air, surface and subsurface – that could help with this long before you have to consider specialist ships and aircraft.

The response online to this latest incursion is instructive.

Ignoring those who said the Nato patrol aircraft should be shot down for being in Irish airspace – needless to say, Ireland is incapable of doing so – two themes emerge.

First “we don’t need to spend money on this as Russia will never attack Ireland” second, “we don’t need to spend money on this as the UK has it covered”. The word ‘freeloading’ features regularly.

To the first group I would say, what do you think Russian submarines are doing in the vicinity of your CUI – making it more resilient?

To the second group, some dependence on allies is fine and to a large degree is the bedrock of our security infrastructure. Overreliance, however, is not, especially as discussed earlier, when those allies are overstretched themselves.

Finally, there is a danger that later this year our strongest ally from whom we draw so much support and strength might say the same to us. In places like the Red Sea, given how much more dependent we are on the flow of trade through it than the USA is, coupled with the separatist behaviour of the EU forces down there, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened already.

The UK and the rest of non-American Nato needs to wargame what we can’t do without the US and focus our limited resources on that. There’s no great need to involve the EU: two of the three nations which went to work off County Mayo just now were non-EU, and the nation which couldn’t take care of itself was one of the keenest EU members of them all. And not a Nato member, of course, so why we should defend it is even less clear.

Hopefully Nato will remain the bedrock of Western security for decades to come but mapping out what it would look like if it doesn’t seems a sensible precaution to me – not so much because I believe America would let us down in the crunch, but because it is rude to simply plan for them to do our work for us. Ireland should step up from its – sorry – considerably lower level, and invest in the ability to protect the sea environment it needs simply to survive. It should at least consider being able to do so without UK or US support.

Not doing so is simply using freeloading as a strategy.

In the meantime the old rule is out of the window. We do talk about submarine operations, and we should do so more and more.