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Ireland Is Europe’s Weakest Link

Dublin’s lack of an effective military could have a wider geopolitical fallout.

By , a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.
Members of the Irish navy.
Members of the Irish navy.
Members of the Irish navy take part in a ceremony marking National Day of Commemoration in Dublin on July 14, 2019. Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

Beginning on Feb. 3, only three weeks before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian navy held military exercises on the edge of Ireland’s territorial waters. The Russian maneuvers took place above the densest concentration of undersea communications cables linking North America and Europe. Six months later, more Russian warships, including the cruiser Marshal Ustinov, were spotted acting unusually in the waters of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.

There is a lot of nervousness in Western capitals about possible Russian sabotage of critical energy and communications infrastructure following a series of mysterious incidents—explosions destroying several Russo-German gas pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, Norway’s declaration of a military alert after drone sightings over strategic sites, and the disruption of key internet cables near the Shetland Islands. Russian President Vladimir Putin, that much is certain, is seeking additional ways to raise the discomfort level for the West to undermine its support for Ukraine.

Don’t count on Ireland to have any part in countering or deterring real and potential Russian threats. With a token navy of six active patrol vessels, not a single submarine to cover its vast marine zone, and annual defense spending of barely more than 1 billion euros (about 0.3 percent of GDP), Ireland stands out as the worst-prepared European country to meet any meaningful threat—or even anything less than a meaningful threat.

Beginning on Feb. 3, only three weeks before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian navy held military exercises on the edge of Ireland’s territorial waters. The Russian maneuvers took place above the densest concentration of undersea communications cables linking North America and Europe. Six months later, more Russian warships, including the cruiser Marshal Ustinov, were spotted acting unusually in the waters of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.

There is a lot of nervousness in Western capitals about possible Russian sabotage of critical energy and communications infrastructure following a series of mysterious incidents—explosions destroying several Russo-German gas pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, Norway’s declaration of a military alert after drone sightings over strategic sites, and the disruption of key internet cables near the Shetland Islands. Russian President Vladimir Putin, that much is certain, is seeking additional ways to raise the discomfort level for the West to undermine its support for Ukraine.

Don’t count on Ireland to have any part in countering or deterring real and potential Russian threats. With a token navy of six active patrol vessels, not a single submarine to cover its vast marine zone, and annual defense spending of barely more than 1 billion euros (about 0.3 percent of GDP), Ireland stands out as the worst-prepared European country to meet any meaningful threat—or even anything less than a meaningful threat.

While Europe is not short of nations that have shirked their military responsibilities and lack a credible security policy, the war in Ukraine has exposed Ireland as perhaps the biggest shirker of them all. Dublin’s blatant disregard for its own security and defense is bad enough for Ireland—which is entirely dependent on open trade routes and has major offshore gas fields. Ireland’s lack of an effective military also has a wider potential fallout. Given Ireland’s strategic location at Europe’s edge in the North Atlantic Ocean, few countries are as important in securing Europe’s vast Western borderlands.

Ireland’s mini-navy of six active vessels is supposed to be responsible for policing 16 percent of the European Union’s territorial waters.

Forget Germany and Europe’s other defense laggards—we need to have a serious conversation about Ireland, Europe’s worst security policy free rider.

Ireland lacks the basic abilities to defend its sovereignty. In a February report, the government-appointed Commission on the Defence Forces starkly exposed Ireland’s military shortcomings. The absence or near-absence of crucial capabilities—including intelligence, cyberdefense, radar, intercept jets, and heavy airlift planes—render the Irish forces “unable to conduct a meaningful defence of the State against a sustained act of aggression from a conventional military force.” That makes Ireland—and the 75 percent of trans-Atlantic undersea cables passing through or near Irish waters—totally defenseless.

Ireland’s mini-navy—six active vessels with roughly 800 total personnel and no subsea capabilities—is supposed to be responsible for policing 16 percent of the European Union’s territorial waters. Yet its staffing shortage is so serious that not even all six ships are available for deployment at any one time. Routine maritime operations are regularly canceled. Additional specialists are being hired from the private sector just to keep the ships afloat.

Pay and conditions are so bad that entire classes of naval service graduates are being bought out of their contracts by private employers seeking their technical skills. Even the cruise ship industry, hardly known as a workers’ paradise, has been able to poach Irish navy staff with better pay and conditions.

But as bad as things are in the barely patrolled Irish Sea, they may be even worse in Irish airspace. With barely 700 staff, the Irish Air Force (known as the Aer Corps) lacks the capability even to track aircraft across Irish skies. Irish parliamentarian Tom Clonan, a former Army officer, noted that Ireland is “the only country in the EU that cannot monitor its own airspace by primary radar. Nor can Ireland patrol its own airspace with even the most basic jet interceptor.”

The last Irish combat jets, decrepit French Fouga CM170 Magisters first built in 1952, were retired in 1998. Since then, the Aer Corps has comprised a motley collection of just over 20 helicopters and planes. Only two maritime patrol aircraft (the Spanish-Indonesian Casa CN 235, which doubles as a regional airliner) guard Ireland’s exclusive economic zone in the North Atlantic, an area of approximately 132,000 square miles.

The absence of combat or heavy airlift planes has left the Irish begging other European air forces for help in emergencies, most recently during the evacuation of Western personnel from Afghanistan. The Aer Corps’ lack of expertise means it has to send junior pilots to the United States and Australia to complete their basic training. Often, they train in modern aircraft models that the Aer Corps will likely never fly.

The effectiveness of the Irish Army—around 7,000 soldiers and staff and falling—is constrained by both its tiny size and lack of equipment. It has no heavy tank and no long-range artillery—just two batteries of medium-range guns. Ireland’s inability to transport any of its army quickly via air or sea renders it a largely static force.

So what exactly have the Irish been thinking all these years?

The war in Ukraine hasn’t jolted the Irish from their security-policy slumber.

At the core of the problem lies a generational political neglect, which has led to a continuous deterioration in the effectiveness and morale of serving troops. Ireland—which is not a NATO member—has long been unwilling to develop its military forces as part of a credible security policy, including deterrence. In absolute terms, Ireland spends more on defense than each Baltic country, but the latter have a keen sense of their security needs, conduct regular exercises, and, as NATO members, host additional troops and equipment from allies.

Ireland also appears to feel little security obligation to its European Union partners. This partially reflects Dublin’s view of the obligations of EU membership in purely transactional economic terms. Finally, Ireland has long clung to a policy of military neutrality—a perfect political cover for neglect and a major reason why few Irish would countenance any direct role in military conflict.

Instead, Ireland has outsourced its security to Britain. The two countries have an agreement that effectively cedes control over Irish air space to the British Royal Air Force, including for tracking and intercepting aircraft. The benefit to Ireland is obvious: It keeps its airspace safe and secure without having to pay a single cent.

The war in Ukraine hasn’t jolted the Irish from their security-policy slumber. Unlike Sweden and Finland—also traditionally unaligned—Ireland has not reassessed its neutrality. Unlike Germany, Ireland has not had a sudden epiphany that a new era with increased security requirements has dawned.

Recent polls suggest the Irish are fine with this state of affairs. Two-thirds of Irish voters do not want to see any change to Ireland’s policy of military neutrality, a position that political leaders are loathe to seriously challenge. Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin and Defence Minister Simon Coveney have snuffed out any timely discussion by pledging to reflect on and redefine Irish neutrality at some unspecified future date. Prevarication continues to overrule all else in the Irish neutrality debate. If anything, Irish public discourse suggests that the political project of enshrining neutrality in the Irish constitution is anything but dead.

Even the Russian navy’s military exercises on the edge of Ireland’s territorial waters haven’t prompted a rethink. In fact, Irish defense spending will continue its long decline in 2023, at least in real terms: The planned increase of 5.6 percent—or just 67 million euros—is far below the current Irish inflation rate of 9 percent. The only discernible upgrade until 2028 is the acquisition of a basic primary radar system. All other weaknesses remain willfully ignored.

The reality is that neither Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine nor heightened worries about protecting Europe’s undersea communications and energy infrastructure will lead to any reordering of Ireland’s security and defense priorities in the medium term. Only direct experience of military conflict, possibly in the form of a Russian attack on Ireland’s undersea infrastructure, would have any chance of pushing Ireland into action.

In the words of Irish parliamentarian and former Army ranger Cathal Berry, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed Ireland as Europe’s weakest link.

Eoin Drea is a political analyst, writer, and senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Twitter: @EoinDrea

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