The high cost of US military overflights

The use of Irish airspace by foreign military aircraft has cost the State €25 million in the last ten years. By Harry Browne.

The State has spent more than €25 million in the last 10 years to cover the costs of foreign military aircraft using Irish-administered airspace, most of which are US planes en route to Europe and war-zones in the Middle East and southwest Asia.

Last year alone the payments totalled €2.81 million, which was 10% more than was budgeted for in the government’s estimates for 2010. The estimate for this year is €2.56 million, the same figure that has been used in the estimates for the last several years. Payments at their peak in 2004 were more than €3.6 million. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the payments averaged €1 million per annum.

As analyst Tom Clonan explained in the Irish Times in 2005 (viewing the article may require payment), the costs arise because of Ireland’s participation in a “Eurocontrol” agreement, by which countries cover the air-traffic costs for each other’s military aircraft passing through their airspace. It’s a reciprocal agreement, but of course the Irish military doesn’t enjoy the fruits of much reciprocity, with only the “Government Jet” spending time in foreign airspace.

The United States is not, however, a member of Eurocontrol, and members do have the option not to exempt its military flights from payment. Ireland has chosen not to exercise that option.

The payments are buried deep in the Transport section of the Book of Estimates. Under “civil aviation”, item D3 reads: “Payments to the Irish Aviation Authority in respect of exempt services.”

The Irish Aviation Authority is a commercial semi-state company. It boasts on its website that its “en route” charges – the ones that the State pays in relation to foreign military aircraft in Irish airspace – are “the fourth lowest in Europe”.

The payments are not, of course, lost to the State, given the IAA’s status. They do, however, amount to a subsidy to the US military – currently actively engaged in three wars – for services provided by Irish air-traffic controllers. Billing the Americans, rather than exempting their military aircraft, would free up millions of euro to address Ireland’s pressing problems.

In a 2005 written answer to questions from Michael D. Higgins and Eamon Ryan, then-junior-minister Ivor Callely explained: “In common with most Eurocontrol member states, Ireland exempts all such flights, including military flights of member states of Eurocontrol, United States and Canada, from payment of the en route charge and this arrangement has applied since Ireland joined the Eurocontrol en route charging scheme in the early 1970s.”

Callely went on to explain, in reply to Ryan’s suggestion that some neutral European states do in fact charge the US for overflights, that the Americans simply don’t pay those charges either: “Information received from Eurocontrol indicates that Austria, Finland and Switzerland do not at present grant exempt status to US military flights. However, my Department understands that invoices issued by the above states to the US authorities in respect of military flights have not been paid.”

The latest information came to Politico’s attention after Mary McCarrick, a member of the executive of Irish CND, requested it from the Department of Transport. Officials there pointed out that it was freely available – if you knew where to look.


Image top: DJOtaku.