Thursday, 6 October 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
72. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will outline the concerns he as, if any, in relation to whether Ireland has the capacity to ensure that undersea data cables passing through Irish waters are secure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49412/22]
What, if any, concerns does the Minister have about Ireland's vulnerability with regard to data cables that pass through Irish waters? Given the difficulties with retention of members of the Naval Service, which we discussed, are those vulnerabilities of serious concern to Government?
The Naval Service, as the State's principal sea-going agency, is tasked with a variety of defence and other roles. While the main daily task of the Naval Service is to provide a fishery protection service in accordance with our obligations as an EU member state, it also carries out a number of other non-fishery related tasks in tandem with maritime surveillance. The Air Corps maritime patrol squadron also supports this role, providing aerial assistance to the Naval Service in patrolling the Irish exclusive economic zone, using the two CASA CN 235 maritime patrol aircraft which are equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and communications equipment.
Following an extraordinary EU energy council meeting, which took place last week to discuss the EU’s energy security in response to the attacks on Nord Stream 1 and 2, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications sought support from my Department in relation to additional measures that could be put in place by the Defence Forces to ensure that critical offshore infrastructure, including data cables, is protected. My officials and the Defence Forces have been engaged with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and while the Defence Forces have limited subsea capabilities, particularly in this specialist area, additional patrols and targeted surveillance of offshore infrastructure, including data cables, are being examined.
On the future development of subsea capabilities, the Commission on the Defence Forces report considers that the step up to level of ambition 2, LOA 2, should seek to deliver enhancement of subsurface capabilities to monitor subsea cables. The report states that to achieve this would mean the naval fleet should have enhanced air, surface and subsurface search capabilities, with the latter allowing the Naval Service to monitor activity in the vicinity of subsea cables. In order to achieve these desired capability effects associated with a move to LOA 2, specific recommendations made by the commission were accepted in principle by the Government when it published its high-level action plan.
We have also had meetings, not just between the two Departments but also involving Gas Networks Ireland and EirGrid. EirGrid already has a private company providing surveillance and monitoring capability for its undersea network and cables via global positioning system, GPS, tracking. There are some systems in place and we will increase patrolling, both by the Air Corps and the Naval Service, to improve that. We will continue to consult the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on the matter.
The recent attack on the Nord Stream pipeline has clearly shown the vulnerabilities of strategically important cables that run through Irish waters. Some three quarters of all cables in the northern hemisphere pass through Irish waters and 97% of global communications, including business operations, financial transactions and Internet traffic, are carried through these cables. They are critically important and it has been suggested that we are the Achilles' heel in the security of these critical data cables. I hear what the Minister is saying about our current position when it comes to providing security. I would say it is wholly inadequate, particularly when we are unable to put our ships to sea due to the current understaffing. Our ships are also currently unable to see what is happening below the surface of the water. If we get to LOA 2, we will have greatly enhanced capabilities to deliver our security needs but there is a deficit at present. What immediate actions are being taken? Are we in discussions with any other EU countries to provide the security that is needed? It is not a case of handing this over to the private sector, as was suggested. We have a serious obligation.
I did not suggest anything was handed over to the private sector; I just gave the Deputy a statement of fact on what EirGrid is doing. One of the reasons we established the Commission on the Defence Forces in the first place was that I and others in Government felt there were capacity issues that needed to be addressed. That is why we have committed to spending significantly increased amounts of money next year and in the years thereafter, right up until 2028, to get to LOA 2 and beyond. Part of reaching LOA 2 will give us more subsea capability but we will not get there if we are spending an extra €10 million on capital investment, which is what the Deputy was suggesting for the recent budget. Let us have an honest conversation; we need to spend a lot more money on defence equipment. That was not a jab at the Deputy by the way because we are all trying to get to the same place. Regardless of who is in government up to 2028, we need to make sure we have a consistent policy on increased investment in our Defence Forces in order that we have more capabilities and a greater capacity to do more in spaces like this and elsewhere. We will have a huge amount of offshore wind infrastructure that we will also have to protect over the next decade. The Naval Service and the Air Corps need significant investment and they will get it.
I fully support level of ambition 2 and increasing the capacity of the navy and its ability to put ships to sea, which is something that is currently tying our hands in providing the security that is needed for these essential data cables. There is a serious anomaly in that the responsibility in legislation falls to An Garda Síochána to provide security for such cables. There is a significant anomaly there given the Garda has no ability whatsoever to go to sea and provide security in circumstances such as this. Will the legislation be changed to ensure the necessary and appropriate body, which is the Defence Forces in this case, will take sole responsibility for the provision of security for these essential data cables?
There is ongoing work between An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces to ensure that when the latter need to provide an aid to civil power or support for the Garda, it happens in as seamless a way as we can make it. Ireland needs to look at its broader defence and security policy, including the relationship between An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces, whether in regard to intelligence or broader security challenges like this one. That is something the Government is considering at the moment.