Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Priority Questions

Defence Forces Equipment.

3:00 pm

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Defence the radar capability of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3317/07]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The Defence Forces has a radar capability used for national security and aid to the civil power operations.

The main radar capability of the Defence Forces is the Flycatcher radar system. This equipment was procured in 2002 from the Dutch armed forces. It is used to carry out the target acquisition and fire control of the Bofors EL70 40 mm air defence guns. Each radar unit is capable of controlling three guns and its purpose is to provide an effective defence against airborne threats flying at low and very low level. The system has an operational range of up to 20 km. A crew of two or three operates the system. The complete radar weighs about 6,000 kg and is carried on a two axle trailer. There are eight of these radars in service with the Defence Forces. The system is normally deployed for VIP visits, transits and summits.

The other main radar capability is the Giraffe G40 radar. The Defence Forces have one system in service. This equipment was procured new from Ericssons of Sweden in 1986. It is used to exercise command and control over RBS 70 surface to air missile firing units when deployed. It has an operational surveillance range of up to 40 km and an altitude ceiling of 15 km. It can be used to exercise command and control on up to nine RBS 70 missile firing units. The equipment has a crew of four — commander, radar operator and two operators — and is mounted on a 6X6 MAN truck. It is deployed regularly for VIP visits-transits and summits.

The Defence Forces also operate the AMSTAR ground surveillance radar. This is a man portable system used mainly by artillery observers for target acquisition and tracking. It is capable of detecting vehicles, depending on type, at ranges of 12 km to 35 km, helicopters at ranges of 10 km to 18 km and infantry at 7 km to 12 km. It has been deployed on peace support operations in UNMIL. There are eight of these radars in service with the Defence Forces.

The radar assets available to the Defence Forces are related to the level of threat and are considered by the military authorities to be appropriate and adequate in this regard.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. It appears from his response that the radar capability of the Defence Forces is limited and mainly involves the anti-aircraft section of the artillery corps. It appears to me that the radar capability of detecting a terrorist threat, the importation of illegal drugs or any illegal activity is limited.

I accept that some of these matters may come within the remit of the Minister for Transport rather than the Minister for Defence and I do not seek to elicit information from the Minister which he does not have. However, in his capacity as chairman of the national emergency planning group, can he confirm that we have a secondary radar system which can, on occasion, revert to being a primary radar system? This secondary radar system can only identify an aircraft which has a transponder on board. If the pilot of an aircraft entering Ireland deactivates the transponder the aircraft cannot be detected. Furthermore, some small aircraft may not be required to have such a transponder. In his capacity as chairman of the national emergency planning group, will the Minister examine the possibility of acquiring a primary radar system for the Defence Forces?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Like all small countries and many large ones, we have limited air defence capability. It has been the experience of large military powers, such as the United States which spends billions of dollars on air space protection systems, that these systems do not give an absolute guarantee of security. Israel is also incurring huge expenditure on air defence but, as was shown during the recent conflict in Lebanon, the Israeli system does not provide perfect security either.

The best defence against a terrorist attack of the sort mentioned by Deputy Timmins is intelligence and information. Airport security is vital and that is where the focus of attention has been in countries which know they cannot afford a perfect air defence system along the lines of Star Wars, which was favoured by the late President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to provide an absolute defence. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on the research phase of that programme it was found that 100% air defence was not possible, at least in the present state of technology.

According to the intelligence available to us, the threat of a terrorist attack on Ireland, whether airborne or otherwise, is limited. The measures we are taking are related to the level of threat, assessed by people who should know. As a small country we are faced with a choice. We can try to cover every possibility in a token way or gear up to perform a limited range of tasks to a professional level. We have taken the second option, as have most small countries. Air defence systems cost enormous amounts of money and most are, thankfully, redundant because we are not in a threat situation. If I were given the required amount of money by the Department of Finance I could think of other areas of defence expenditure where it could be used with much more gain to the Defence Forces.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It is my understanding that a primary radar system might not cost very much. Does the Minister agree that the hundreds of small airfields throughout the country are vulnerable? We are making it easier for people to bring illegal drugs into the country and we should have a primary radar system. Will the Minister examine this issue?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The primary responsibility in this matter is with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda Síochána. The Defence Forces merely act as a backup. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has not said such a system is needed to provide proper backup for its work. If such a suggestion were made I would examine it in my Department.