Response to Freedom of Information Request Raises More Questions

In February of this year Shannonwatch lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for correspondence and records relating to a sample 12 US military contracted flights that landed at Shannon or flew through Irish airspace in October 2016. The flights were classified as civilian rather than military but they had US military charter call signs, and were operated by airlines that have "indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity" contracts to provide international airlift services to the US military (a full list of companies with contracts to provide international airlift services to the US military is available here). Four of the flights in the FOI request were Atlas Air flights; four were by MN Airlines LLC, operating as Sun Country Airlines; two were operated by Omni Air International; one by National Air Cargo; and one was a UPS Airlines flight.

A list of all 12 flights is provided at the end of this article.

In order to carry guns and/or ammunition these flights would have to seek and be granted an exemption under the Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order. This is, in effect, a request to take munitions of war through Irish territory.

Our FOI request was made to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport since all civilian flights come under their jurisdiction. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport must approve the request to carry munitions of war through Ireland.

In the case of the Atlas Air flights, the documentation provided by the Department included a munitions request for 8 flights, including the 4 listed by Shannonwatch in the FOI request. The exemption requests all stated that the flights would have "Personal weapons of Troops / No ammunition" on board. [Click here for the munitions request]

The Omni Air International flights also sought permission to take munitions of war through Ireland. The FOI request revealed that they were part of a series of flights (one or two a day) through Shannon, ferrying troops between the USA and Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar (Al Udeid Airbase). Like the Atlas Air flights the Omni Air documents stated they were carrying personal weapons of troops, and no ammunition. [Click here and here for requests]

One of the aircraft included in the FOI request - Omni Air International N477AX at Shannon on 17th October

The documents showed that in the case of all munitions of war requests, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport consulted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Justice and Equality. The Department of Defence was also informed. The Atlas Air and Omni requests were stamped as seen by the Minster (Shane Ross TD) in advance of the flights taking place.

All requests were granted.

However the most surprising aspect of the FOI response was the claim that "in relation to flights by Sun Country Alliance, UPS Airlines and National Air Cargo the Department has no record of receiving any notification in relation to these flights". This is surprising since they all had US military charter call signs and were flying to and from military bases.

All four Sun Country flights covered in the FOI related to one aircraft, a Boeing 737-8FH registration N821SY. Prior to it landing at Shannon on Oct 20th Shannonwatch recorded the plane on its way from Spagdahlem Air Base, Germany, having been to Al Udeid and Al Dhafra Air Bases in Qatar in the preceding days.  We also tracked a flight by N821SY with a US military call sign (CMB543) from Shannon directly to Incirlik air base in Turkey on Oct 13th.

Screenshot from FlightRadar24.com showing Sun Country Airlines flight path from Shannon to Incirlik Air Base on Oct 13th

The response of the Department of Transport to our FOI request about this flight is that "the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken".

Incirlik is near the city of Adana in Southern Turkey, close to the border with Syria. It operates as a NATO air base, with the US Air Force and Turkish Air Force the primary users. It is also used by the British RAF and by the Saudi Air Force. The US stored many of their nuclear weapons there until just after the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016, when they were moved to the Deveselu air base in Romania.

We have also tracked Atlas Air and Miami Air flights from the US, through Shannon or Irish airspace, and on to Incirlik on several occasions. For example a Miami Air Boeing 737-8K5, registration N748MA took off from Shannon at about 14.45 on 30th December 2016, landed at Incirlik at 19.52, and took off again at about 21.30. It too had a US military call sign (CMB514).

Aircraft operated by the likes of Sun Country Airlines and Miami Air tend to change their call signs as they come and go from Shannon. For example, a Miami Air flight landed at Shannon on 24th January (2017) broadcasting the civilian flight code for flight LL171 (BSK171) and the crew identified the aircraft to Air Traffic Control via radio using the call sign  "Biscayne 171". As it departed it used the military charter call sign CMB528 but was still displaying the civilian code for Miami Air until just East of Corsica when it began appearing on the flight trackers as CMB528. The plane landed in Chania, (a joint civilian and military airport in Crete) where it stayed overnight, made a pre-dawn departure to Muwaffaq Salti Airbase, near Al Azraq, Jordan (which is involved in launching bombing raids in Syria), and departed again 2hrs later. It made a return trip, also via Chania (about 80 minutes on the ground) and then landed at Shannon as CMB528. On departure from Shannon it used a civilian call sign again, heading over the North Atlantic.

It is next to impossible to get information about the military charter flights that pass through Shannon. We know that Sun Country Airlines list "U.S. Military - Troop transport" as one of their customers. But are we to believe that when they pass through Shannon, on their way to and from air bases around the world that they are not carrying troops, or are carrying troops with no weapons? If there are troops on board it is highly unlikely they have no weapons with them, as that would go against standard military practice. We must therefore question the fact that either they didn't inform the Department of Transport that there are weapons on their flights through Shannon or that the Department is not providing us with information to confirm this.

Finally it is important to highlight the technical distinction made between "civilian" planes chartered by the US military and "military" planes operated directly by the US Air Force and Navy. The former, which were the subject of the FOI request are overseen and regulated by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, whereas the latter are authorised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Foreign Affairs claim that the military flights are governed by "strict conditions, including that the aircraft must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and not engage in intelligence gathering and that the flights concerned do not form part of military exercises or operations". These restrictions should but are not applied to civilian aircraft that pass through Shannon while on contract to the US military.

The Hague Convention on Neutrality specifies that belligerents are forbidden to move troops or convoys of either munitions of war or supplies across the territory of a neutral power. It does not specify that these troops, or munitions of war or supplies, must be in military planes.

The military contracted planes that pass through Shannon or Irish airspace are in effect military aircraft, even if they are not technically classified as such.

So while the custom in international law is that a neutral state may not permit the movement of large numbers of troops or munitions of one belligerent State through its territory en route to a theatre of war with another, Ireland does not adhere to this custom. Irish neutrality is a matter of government policy, and this government, like the previous one, has abandoned it.

In a Dail debate on a proposed neutrality bill on 16th March 2015, an opposition TD said "We are not a neutral nation; we are a neutered nation. We are a nation that hides behind others, seeks consensus and then makes statements in line with it, whether it be the European Union, the United States or the United Kingdom. One thing is certain - because of this and the former Government's policy, we are now a satellite nation. We are a satellite nation one day of the United States, one day of the United Kingdom and another of the European Union, but we are certainly not an independent neutral nation the word of which is listened to around the world. That is something I regret." (Link to debate here)

The TD was Shane Ross. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport he now approves the requests to take US weapons through Ireland.

The FOI documents prove that he sees the requests before approving them. His actions are clear. And his regrets have all clearly disappeared with his Ministerial appointment.


List of flights included in the Freedom of Information request

[Flights through Shannon Airport]

1. Flight SY8911/(CMB543) by aircraft N821SY operated by Sun Country Airlines that landed at Shannon on 12th Oct 2016 and departed on 12th Oct 2016

2. Flight SY8912/(CMB543) by aircraft N821SY operated by Sun Country Airlines that landed at Shannon on 13th Oct 2016 and departed on 13th Oct 2016

3. Flight SY8918 by aircraft N821SY operated by Sun Country Airlines that landed at Shannon on 19th Oct 2016 and departed on 19th Oct 2016

4. Flight SY8919 by aircraft N821SY operated by Sun Country Airlines that landed at Shannon on 20th Oct 2016 and departed on 20th Oct 2016

5. Flight (CMB556) by aircraft registration N640GT operated by Atlas Air, that landed at Shannon on 20th Oct 2016 and departed on 21st Oct 2016

6. Flight (CMB556) by aircraft registration N640GT operated by Atlas Air that landed at Shannon on 22nd Oct 2016 and departed on 22nd Oct 2016

7. Flight OY403/OAE403 by aircraft registration N342AX operated by Omni Air International that landed at Shannon on 22st Oct 2016 and departed on 22nd Oct 2016

8. Flight OY559/OAE559 by aircraft N477AX operated by Omni Air International that landed at Shannon on 15th Oct 2016, took off again on 15th Oct 2016, returned again same day,  and departed on 16th Oct 2016. Landed in Shannon on 17th October, and departed again on October 18th.

[Flights through Irish Airspace]

9. Flight (CMB174) by aircraft N344UP operated by UPS Airlines that passed through Irish airspace on 19th Oct 2016

10. Flight 5Y8332 by aircraft registration N415MC operated by Atlas Air that passed through Irish airspace on 20th Oct 2016

11. Flight 5Y8008 by aircraft registration N496MC operated by Atlas Air that passed through Irish airspace on 21st October 2016

12. Flight (CMB143) by aircraft registration N919CA operated by National Air Cargo that passed through Irish airspace on 21st October 2016

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