Russians' plan for live-fire naval drills off Ireland: Can they really do that?
With the announcement that Russia plans to hold a live-fire naval exercise next month off the coast of Ireland – despite Ireland declaring their presence unwelcome, aspects of military maritime law have come under scrutiny as tensions continue to rise over the current Ukraine-Russia crisis.
The naval exercises are said to be taking place in parts of the Pacific, Mediterranean and an area about 130 nautical miles, or 240 kilometres, off the coast of County Cork, Ireland.
That location put the Russian navy within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends for 200 nautical miles and is patrolled by Irish naval ships and airplanes. It is also the location of several crucial transatlantic data cables.
This week the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in Brussels at an EU meeting about the Ukraine crisis that Russia’s live-fire naval exercise is “not welcome.”
But there is nothing the country can do to stop it. Ireland is not a NATO member and is considered a “neutral” country, militarily speaking.
“The reason they really can’t do anything about it is [because] the definition of an exclusive economic zone is that it constrains primarily exploration and exploitation of minerals, resources, fish, those kinds of things,” retired vice-admiral and former vice chief of the defence staff Mark Norman told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday. “It has nothing to do with your ability to transit, or move through an area of water.”
“As it relates to an exercise like this, there is no mechanism in maritime law that would prevent them [Russians] from doing [their exercises],” Norman said in a telephone interview.
There are some who plan to stage their own protest, with Patrick Murphy, the chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organization, telling Ireland’s national television and radio broadcaster RTE that fishing boats are planning to disrupt Russia’s plans.
“This is the livelihoods of fishermen and fishing families all around the coastline here,” Murphy said on RTE radio Tuesday. “It’s our waters. Can you imagine if the Russians were applying to go onto the mainland of Ireland to go launching rockets, how far would they get with that?”
As for the Russians choosing the location off the coast of Ireland, Norman said it was “interesting” that the Russians would venture that far south.
“Now, it is February, so there are good reasons why they would come that far, typically they tend to operate in the vicinity of the Norwegian Coast in what was referred to in the Cold War as the ‘G I U.K. gap,’” he said, describing a large area of open water between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom.
But most likely, Norman said the Russians are “posturing,” with their location choice.
“The location is as much about the symbolism of the location as it is about the practicality of the location, they could just as easily do that exercise in another location… it appears to me that they’re coming that far not just because the weather will be a little better, they’re also doing it because it will send a stronger message because they’re closer to the U.K., they’re closer to NATO, and there’s a lot of symbolism in doing that.”
HOW DO MILITARIES DECIDE HOW AND WHERE TO DO MARITIME EXERCISES?
Norman said there are a multitude of variables to consider in choosing when, where and how a naval exercise will be conducted.
“Ultimately you build an exercise based on training objectives, you design the exercise to achieve those objectives and that is one of the big drivers in terms of the size, scale and location,” he explained.
Questions that the navy has to ask themselves include; is the exercise basic or does it require more advanced instruments? Can you perform it anywhere or only in a specific location? Who is participating – is it a national or international exercise? What is the scope of participants?
In terms of scope, Norman cited the largest international maritime exercise RIMPAC, which occurs bi-annually off the coast of Hawaii and involves dozens of countries and thousands of personnel, as just how big joint exercises can get.
“You have to look at the three dimensions of naval warfare,” he said. “You’ve got surface ships, you’ve got sub-surface activity like submarines and drones, and things that go on underwater like mine warfare… and you’ve got air defence, which has to do with aircraft bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft.”
Norman said maritime exercises are also shaped by geography and weather, “all of these things factor in these very broad considerations.”
HOW ARE MARITIME EXERCISES NORMALLY CONDUCTED?
There are some designated and pre-determined naval exercise areas, Norman said, which are often defined by restrictions to airspace and sometimes restrictions to water space as well.
“I say restrictions, I don’t mean permanent denial of access or use,” he said. “You need to imagine that if you were to open a digital map, we call them charts in the Navy, and you would look at an area off of a specific country that might be hosting an exercise… you would see designated areas for potential exercises. It just means that those areas are ‘pre-cleared,’ if you will, for use in support of military exercises.”
Whichever country the pre-determined area belongs to, known as territorial waters, can declare them as being used in an active exercise, and then it is the responsibility of the host country or whomever is planning the exercise to send out notifications or notices to aviators and mariners, Norman said.
And if the exercises were to take place in international waters?
Norman used the two Canadian coastal defence vessels currently on their way to the west coast of Africa as an example in a hypothetical international waters situation.
“It may well be that on the way there, or in the vicinity of the countries they’re operating with in west Africa, they decide to do some training exercises or something like that in a controlled area off one of these countries,” he described. “Yes, it is entirely appropriate that they would contact that country and they could ask to use that exercise area – equally however, they’re not obligated to do that.”
Norman said there are “layers” of what he describes as collegiality involved in such situations, but if the ships are in international waters, they are following the correct safety protocols, and warn aviators and marines in advance, then it’s fine.
“If you want to access a specific pre-designated area, the protocol would mean you contact the host nation and ask… but you don’t need to be invited per se,” he said. “In theory it might be frowned upon, especially if the host nation found out about it.”
But in international waters, Norman said it comes down to the requirement to make sure anybody in the vicinity is aware of what’s about to happen.
“If you’re going to do a gunnery exercise in the middle of the ocean, you need to ensure there is no air traffic in the vicinity of where you’re operating, there’s no surface traffic and you need to call out on the pre-designated radio frequencies,” he said. “These are the commonly accepted protocols for these kinds of things.”
WHAT HAPPENS IF THE WATERS ARE DISPUTED?
Canada raised eyebrows on the international stage in mid-October last year, when it sailed the frigate HMCS Winnipeg through the Taiwan Strait with the American destroyer USS Dewey on the way to a UN security operation.
China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command said its forces monitored the ships and “stood guard” while they sailed through. The move prompted Beijing to issue public and back-channel condemnation for “threatening the peace and stability in the region.”
Norman said any decision to sail a ship through disputed or politically tense waters is not made independently.
“That is an executive decision of government based on consultation,” he said. “It could be based on a request or an invitation by a country directly implicated in the specific situation, or it could simply be a unilateral decision by the country sending the ship.”
The Taiwan Strait lies in international waters, but China claims the self-ruling Taiwan as its own territory, and keeps a large presence in the area, despite the Chinese Communist Party having never controlled it.
Norman was clear, however, on the maritime law at play.
“If it’s international waters, you can go through it,” he said. “You don't have to tell anybody you're going through it. You don't need anybody's permission to go through it.”
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