A US naval ship operating off the south of Ireland in recent months was conducting “routine operations”, the US Navy has said.
On Friday, The Irish Times reported the presence of the ship, the Virginia Ann, which is equipped for subsea operations, in and around the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), since January, often with its transmitter turned off.
The activity of the Virginia Ann has caused confusion and concern in Irish defence circles and highlights the inability of the Irish Naval Service to monitor its own waters, said military sources.
Its presence follows repeated visits to Ireland’s EEZ by vessels linked to the Russian government and navy, leading to concerns they were involved in surveying Irish subsea cables or infrastructure.
The purpose of the Virginia Ann remains unclear, although there has been speculation it is involved in upgrading a US undersea surveillance system used to detect Russian submarines.
Responding to queries on Friday, a spokesman for the US Navy said the Virginia Ann is “a multipurpose Maritime Operations Ship” which is owned by the Department of the Navy.
The ship is capable of supporting “oceanographic surveys”, a practice which involves mapping the ocean floor and waters, the spokesman said.
“She is operating in the Commander, Sixth Fleet Area of Operational Responsibility conducting routine operations,” he said. No additional information on the nature of these operations was forthcoming.
The Virginia Ann is operated by the US Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Centre or Navfac-EXWC, a section of the US Navy responsible for maintenance and installation of subsurface infrastructure, including undersea surveillance systems.
Its website said the Navfac-EXWC oversees “sea-floor engineering, moorings, shore-based hyperbaric facilities, and underwater cable structures”.
Built in 2015, and bought by the US Navy in 2020, the ship it is officially classified as an offshore supply ship but it is understood to be capable of advanced subsurface operations, including the deployment of deep-sea divers.
Since January, the Virginia Ann has been sailing back and forward between the waters off Co Cork and the southern tip of the UK, mostly with its Automatic Identification System (AIS) turned off.
Vessels, particularly military vessels, often turn off their AIS when attempting to conceal their movements.
Maintaining an AIS signal is considered best practice from a safety point of view. However, it is not generally a legal requirement and there are several reasons ships may not display one.
The Irish Times asked a naval expert to examine a photo of the ship taken in Cork this week. They said the visible equipment indicates it is involved in manned diving operations and possibly subsea cable surveys or repairs.
Security sources said the ship may be involved in efforts to upgrade a Cold War-era underwater surveillance system used to detect Russian submarines.
This “Sound Surveillance System” (SOSUS) consisted of underwater hydrophones placed at strategic chokepoints alert the US any time a Russian sub enters the north Atlantic. The previously classified system is undergoing a replacement programme.
The recent activity of the Virginia Ann is also “a neat illustration of the extent to which Irish waters are a hotbed for these types of geopolitical games,” a military source said.
Separately this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland is open to EU or Nato co-operation to protect its critical undersea infrastructure.
The Virgina Ann left Cobh in Co Cork on Thursday following a brief visit. As of Saturday morning it was sailing off the coast of east Cork. The Department of Foreign Affairs said it visited Cobh “to change crew and receive supplies” and that permission had been sought from the US Embassy.
“Visits from foreign naval vessels are a long-standing and common practice in Ireland and worldwide and it is therefore normal and welcome for foreign naval vessels to visit Irish ports,” a spokesman said.
It said any vessel transiting the EEZ must do so “in compliance with international law.”
The presence the ship operating off Cork shows Irish waters are of interest to all of the world’s major military powers, said independent Senator Gerard Craughwell.
It also demonstrates Ireland’s inability to protect or monitor its own waters, said independent TD and former Defence Forces officer Cathal Berry.
“We are incapable of even seeing below the surface of the water, let alone doing anything to intervene,” said Mr Berry, a former Army Ranger.
“Incidentally, are not much better on the surface either. Ireland, a maritime island nation, pays its military sailors so poorly that we can’t even crew our own sovereign vessels properly. Why are we so surprised when other nations, for instance the Russian Federation, take full advantage of our complacency and recklessness?”
Mr Berry said Ireland should not be dependent on the US to protect “our waters and seabed infrastructure. We should be well capable of doing that ourselves.”
Mr Craughwell, who also served in the Defence Forces, said Ireland’s west coast and its undersea infrastructure “are now of interest to all of the major military & economic powers in the world.”
He accused the Government of failing to employ any joined up thinking when it comes to security.
Mr Craughwell pointed to previous Government states saying the coast guard and gardaí are responsible for the security of maritime infrastructure, rather than the Defence Forces.
“One could be forgiven for believing that there are forces at work to exclude the Defence Forces from any role in the security of vital State assets.”
“Our political class, who like to parade around the world as the nice guys from neutral Ireland, should hang their heads in shame for the way they have left our nation defenceless,” he said.
The Senator said no ship should be sailing in busy Irish waters with their transmitter turned off.