The Russian Navy has announced plan gunnery and missile firing 160 nautical miles off Mizen Head. The exercises, from February 3rd to 8th, are just on the edge of the drop-off into deep water. It is also within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Coming at a time of heightened tension between Russia and the West, this highlights Ireland’s strategic position.
Of all the world’s ocean, it is interesting that Russia selected this small area in the Irish EEZ. It is far from Russia’s operating bases and regular training areas. So the location seems chosen for strategic or political reasons.
The warning notice was shared on social media and has been confirmed via other sources by Naval News. It blocks the area from 04:00 to 14:00 local time daily.
While Russia is within its rights to conduct the exercise in this location, it is unusual. The EEZ is not to be confused with a country’s sovereign waters, but it is the area Ireland has special rights to. Yet the Russian Navy could easily have picked an area slightly further west which was not in anyone’s EEZ.
The Irish Aviation Authority has raised concerns about the exercises with the Russian Government. The live firing will disrupt civilian air traffic over the area. It is also in the shipping lanes connecting Europe and North America. And, interestingly, likely to be in the general area of a myriad of submarine communication cables (SCC). These connect Europe and America, mostly routing through Ireland or the United Kingdom. They are vital for internet and military communications.
Gunnery and missile firing is not the same as operations on undersea cables. But the vulnerability of the cables in the area have been highlighted before. In August last year the Russian Navy special mission ship (read ‘spy ship’) Yantar was noted loitering near cables off northwest Ireland. This vessel is equipped for seabed surveys and can deploy a range of crewed and uncrewed submersibles.
On the latest information we have Yantar is not in the area. So she is unlikely to be involved this time. But the cables angle remains. Russia has a lot of assets, and strategic focus, on undersea cables.
The cordoned off area is relatively small. Analysts believe that it is likely to involve short range gunnery and / or missiles. It is unlikely to relate to long range missiles launches. Additionally, long ranged patrol aircraft operating from Russia may be involved.
It is not reported whether it will involve submarines or surface ships. The latter seems more plausible at this point but we should keep and open mind.
Despite Ireland occupying a strategic position on Europe’s’ western flank, it is comparatively less defended. The Irish Naval service (tSeirbhís Chabhlaigh) has a some offshore patrol vessels which could try to monitor the situation. And the air arm has two CASA CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft. However it is not part of NATO and its organic defense capabilities are very limited compared to Russia.
Ireland’s Strategic Position
Ireland may have been chosen because it is not part of NATO, yet is within the EU and strategically important to both the US and UK. Russia’s motives can only be speculated at, but it is hard to separate this from the NATO reaction to Russia’s threats on Ukraine.
The area is the opposite side of Europe to potential flashpoints in Ukraine, the Baltics and Eastern Europe. It is also far enough away, in both distance and time, to not be directly associated with the amphibious ships Russia is sending from the Baltic towards Ukraine. Those are passing through the English Channel and currently heading south towards the Strait of Gibraltar.
The Russian Navy now has land-attack cruise missiles aboard many submarines and ships. This has created a new dimension to the North Atlantic arena. Missiles launched from the vicinity of the warning area could hit European capitals within minutes. And flying across Irish airspace for some of their journey may be advantageous.
Of course there is always the possibility that whatever is planned will not be carried out. Or that is was never intended to be. Issuing notices in other people’s back yards (and in a sense this means US, UK), is itself a way to send messages. Or to cause a distraction, or diversion, for actions elsewhere.