On Wednesday June 1st a US Air Force Dornier C-146A Wolfhound, 11-3075, sat on the tarmac at Shannon Airport being watched carefully by an Irish army patrol. It had come from Grand Canaria - Las Palmas in Spain, and on Thursday it travelled on to St John's Newfoundland. Its call sign was REACH1042.
The aircraft is operated by the US Air Force 524th Special Operations Squadron which is part of the 27th Special Operations Wing. This Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) unit flies a fleet of non-standard transport aircraft in support of special operations. Their missions, which are typically covert, include insertion, extraction and resupply of special operations forces.
In keeping with the covert nature of their missions, the squadron's aircraft are painted in civilian-style liveries. This makes it easier for them to avoid attention.
In addition, 11-3075 was previously registered as N953EF and still shows up as this on SBS Receivers.
Here's what the USAF Fact Sheet has to say about the 524th Special Ops squadron.
"The 524th Special Operations Squadron, located at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., is one of seven flying squadrons within the 27th Special Operations Wing. The squadron flies C-146A 'Wolfhound' specialized airlift aircraft. The unit utilizes these aircraft to accomplish global special operations taskings as an Air Force component member of USSOCOM. Crews plan, prepare and execute non-standard aviation (NSAv) missions in support of joint-special operations forces while directly supporting theater special operations commanders by conduction of night vision goggle (NVG) infiltration, exfiltration, resupply and other combat taskings on unimproved runways."
This information alone is enough to raise questions of a Minister for Foreign Affairs who on the previous day said the following in reply to a parliamentary question from Clare Daly TD:
"Permission must be sought in advance for landings by all foreign military aircraft, including US aircraft, and if granted, is subject to strict conditions. These include stipulations that the aircraft must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and must not engage in intelligence gathering, and that the flights in question must not form part of military exercises or operations."
It is unimaginable that a USAF aircraft that provides transportation for Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) personnel into theatres of war, and conducts what are referred to as "non-standard aviation missions", was unarmed. As for it not forming part of military operations - the Minister might want to think that it was technically between operations when transiting through Shannon. But under any interpretation of Irish neutrality, that is just not acceptable.
Looking deeper into the recent history of 11-3075 raises even more questions. In February of this year it was reported as conducting routine flights from Italy to Misrata Airbase in Libya. This is at a time when the Obama administration was reported as being "on the verge of taking action" against Daesh (ISIS) in Libya. Media reports also indicated that the US, UK and France were sending military advisers to Libya to locate reliable partners for the fight against ISIS.
The Special Ops aircraft was also recorded north of Misrata in March, with its transponder turned off. And on April 18th it was tracked over Egypt/Tunisia/Libya again.
What was a US Air Force plane that has been crossing regularly through the Tunisian and Libyan skies in recent months, possibly intent on organising another ill-judged invasion, doing at Shannon?
In 2013 11-3075 was seen flying in and out of airports around Asia. On March 15th it was photographed in Dhaka. Six days later, on May 21st the Indonesian Air Force (TNI AU) forced it down as it entered Indonesian airspace without proper clearances. It was flying from Maldives to Singapore via Sri Lanka.
The Jakarta Post reported at the time that TNI AU personnel checked the aircraft to ensure it was not carrying certain goods.
The fact that there are close relations between the US and Indonesia didn't stop the latter from investigating breaches of its sovereignty. Why will the Irish authorities not do the same?