Protecting UK airspace is the RAF’s most important role and one of the reasons it was formed in 1918.

This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Andy Netherwood. Andy served 26 years in the Royal Air Force with operational tours flying the C-130 and C-17 as well as staff tours in Strategy, Policy & Plans, Capability Development and on the Directing Staff at the UK Defence Academy.

Every minute of every day, Typhoon fighters at RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth, along with a Voyager tanker at RAF Brize Norton are on Quick Reaction Alert ready to respond to any unknown aircraft headed for UK airspace.  They are controlled by Control and Reporting Centres at RAF Boulmer and RAF Scampton with the operation commanded from the National Air and Space Operations Centre at RAF High Wycombe.  RAF controllers also work alongside their civilian counterparts to build a ‘Recognised Air Picture’ and to thread intercepting aircraft through civilian traffic if required.

An RAF Typhoon meets a Russian Blackjack

The system is ready to respond to two threats: terrorism (such as the world saw on a 9/11) and military aircraft from potentially hostile foreign states.  Countering the latter is a collective NATO responsibility carried out by the NATO Air and Missile Defence System. This is controlled by two Combined Air Operations Centres, one in Uedem, Germany and the other in Torrejon, Spain.  NATO members contribute the necessary aircraft with those unable to do so being helped by other NATO members.  For example, the RAF deployed Typhoons to Estonia and Iceland last year and will deploy to Lithuania this year as part of its contribution to NATO air policing.

But why intercept outside sovereign airspace?

A country’s sovereign airspace extends 12 miles beyond its coastline, sitting above its territorial waters.  However, there are 3 main reasons why unknown or potentially hostile aircraft must be intercepted before they reach this point.

All airspace around the world is divided into Flight Information Regions (FIRs). Each FIR is managed by a controlling authority (in this case the UK) that has responsibility for ensuring that air traffic services are provided to the aircraft flying within it. UK Airspace is divided into three FIRs; London, Scottish and Shanwick Oceanic.

The first is flight safety. Whilst sovereign airspace only extends 12 miles from the coastline, countries are responsible for ensuring the safety of civil aviation, including the provision of ATC services, within areas known as Flight Information Regions or FIRs. These extend well beyond the 12-mile limit. Russian long range aviation often transits the London and Scottish FIRs without filing a flight plan, talking to ATC or ‘squawking’ (operating their transponders).  This makes them effectively invisible to civilian ATC and is very dangerous as airliners are also flying through this airspace.  By shadowing Russian aircraft, the intercepting aircraft can show ATC where they are, allowing controllers to move airliners safely out of the way.

The second reason is because of the speed at which aircraft travel.  An aircraft flying at 600 knots will travel 12 miles in little over a minute.  Waiting until an unknown or hostile aircraft has entered sovereign airspace before intercepting is too late. It leaves insufficient time to safely carry out the intercept, visually identify the aircraft, provide all the required information back to decision-makers, and carry out any necessary action. Russian aircraft will normally be intercepted by the Norwegian Air Force and then handed over to RAF aircraft ensuring they are continually shadowed.

A Typhoon is pictured intercepting a Russian aircraft in the UK FIR.

The final reason is to demonstrate capability and intent.  One of the reasons Russia carries out these exercises is to test NATO and the UK.  A failure to intercept would be interpreted as weakness and encourage further probing.

When would the UK intercept then?  When they crossed the 12-mile limit? When they crossed the coastline? When they were ranging at will across the UK?  Maintaining the integrity of its airspace is a fundamental requirement of any state, just as maintaining the integrity of its land and territorial waters.

This requires the RAF to intercept aircraft as far out as possible, identify them and shadow them, working closely with NATO partners to do so.


The author, Andy Netherwood, served 26 years in the Royal Air Force with operational tours flying the C-130 and C-17 as well as staff tours in Strategy, Policy & Plans, Capability Development and on the Directing Staff at the UK Defence Academy.

You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyNetherwood

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maurice10

I think this was the Russian airforce advertising the BBC for a future TV doc?

Daniele Mandelli

Good article, thank you.

martin flaxman

The US told them to.

davetrousers

heading

Rob

People should be clear that the Russian Air Force don’t need to do this to ensure their own security. It is an act of intimidation aimed at us and our allies. When will Putin grow up? The world could do without this type of tension, especially now. As for the RAF QRA. We obviously need high performance jets like Typhoon on QRA duties but I wonder if, when we know it is a Bear inbound (from the radar track and the massive noise they make), just save the airframe time on the Typhoons and scramble a couple of Hawks with… Read more »

Matt Harding

We do it too. Both sides have been doing this for years – aircraft and ships/boats. It plays an important part of training and intelligence gathering. Putin plays all sorts of dangerous games, but this is not something he invented.

Robert Blay

Hawks are subsonic, they aren’t fitted with a radar or advanced communications, and have relatively low endurance compared to a Typhoon. Nobody else in the world uses a jet trainer for QRA.

Rob

Nobody else, apart from the Russians, attempts to intimidate us with turbo propped flying junk. Just thought we could save some of the airframe time on our Typhoons.

Robert Blay

Hawks also can’t carry out air to air refuelling, the bears often stay on station for over 2 hours, and are a long way from Coningsby and Lossie.

Rob

Yeah they can:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Aerospace_Hawk_200

And that is 20 years old. We could do MUCH better now.

Robert Blay

But the hawks we have in service can’t, and we don’t build the hawk 200 anymore, and if we had more money to spend on fast jets, we would just buy a few more Typhoons or F35’s.

Rob

Get your point but you know we can do anything we want to. A new Hawk Light Strike fighter would rejuvenate the production line, create export sales and lessen the load on our highly expensive Typhoons and Lightnings. It isn’t economic or necessary to expend expensive airframes on low yield targets. I believe in the 80’s Hawks were reserve fighters and it can be done again with a new version given the will.

Dave

Designing a new variant of hawk would not be cheep. Nor would operating what is essentially a whole extra fleet / type of aircraft, needing bespoke training, maintenance and spares, bespoke upgrade activity etc. Even if it was cheaper per plane to buy than the typhoon, it doesnt mean it would be cheeper overall once through life support costs are included.

Robert Blay

Yes, well said Dave.👍

Robert Blay

That’s all true Rob, but why waste precious money on somthing we don’t need. The Americans use F22’s for QRA, they could use 20 year old F16’s, but they don’t. Typhoons where designed and bought for air defence, we might as well get our moneys worth. And when Typhoons are sat on QRA, they don’t always fly every day, so they are using less airframe hours sat on alert, then being used for day to day sqn flying, or on Op Shader out of Akrotiri.

SoleSurvivor

“People should be clear that the Russian Air Force don’t need to do this to ensure their own security. It is an act of intimidation aimed at us and our allies. When will Putin grow up? The world could do without this type of tension, especially now.“

What are your thoughts on the US 800 overseas military bases around the world Rob? And all the B-52, B2 & B1 strategic bomber patrols that happen all the time, Same feeling?

Rob

Disagree. Yes the Americans (the West really) have overseas bases but do not test, annoy and harras Russia the way it does us. Mr Putin is rattling sabres. His record in Syria tells us all we need to know about him. I can’t remember when the US, or UK for that matter, intentionally used chemical weapons against civilians or intentionally bombed marked civilian hospitals. Your defence is indefensible.

SoleSurvivor

Do you know where the US bombers patrol? It’s exactly the same as what Russia is doing. Do you think if Ireland and Mexico joined a military pact with Russia and Russia built bases their, stationing thousands of troops and missiles there, that would fall into the categories of annoy and harass, that’s exactly what we have done with NATO expansion to their border Do you know why the US is desperate for Julian Assange? Because of a certain thing called WikiLeaks “have exposed the fact that key evidence along with dissent by investigators who were on the ground in… Read more »

Meirion X

No One force the former Easten Block countries to join NATO. they joined Because they felt threatened by Russia!

SoleSurvivor

That was a small part, the major reason was the civilian population wanted greater European integration through membership of the EU and NATO

EU would of been fine but NATO expansion should of stopped at the Baltic states, those three countries offer virtually nothing to the alliance anyway

Meirion X

Baltic states do offer access for Intel flights over their airspace, that is why Russia tries to intimidate them!

Meirion X

You have allowed Putin & co to Pull the wool over your eyes, haven’t you?

SoleSurvivor

What is it I have said that’s not true?

Meirion X

@Sole
You narrative on Syria is totally distorted, plenty of independent media reporting from Idlib of the criminal actions of the Assad crime family.
You come across as a professional propagandist, part of the so called ‘western buffer network’, am I right here?

SoleSurvivor

Assad crime family? That was staying in the Queens spare bedroom not too long ago? What independent media? Name some So now it has gone to Idlib? Moving on from the now proven faked chemical attack and the other points I made So you are on the side of Erdogan and the Muslim brotherhood I take it? Are you ok backing terrorists and headchoppers? You do know that Russia is there at the request of the UN acknowledged head of state, and is the only foreign country that has a legal right to fight there don’t you, can you just… Read more »

Meirion X

So you are Assad’s chief propagandist in UK aren’t you?

I think I wasting my time in trying have debate with someone So brainwashed!

SoleSurvivor

I’m the one that’s brainwashed? You’re deluded mate, you can’t answer simple questions that I have put to you because you cannot answer them because you know you would be found out as wrong, and this certainly isn’t a debate, you’re not engaging with anything I am saying other than making silly accusations and repeating yourself without presenting any evidence I will ask again, why are you on the side of the terrorist groups Al Nusra front and Al Qaeda, with the same ideology as ISIS, who have been filmed chopping heads off in Syria, backed up by the mentally… Read more »

Meirion X

It is You are the one who makes False accusations about Me!

Where have I said I support terrorists??

This topical, out of propagandist play book!!

SoleSurvivor

If you don’t support Assad or are completely neutral (which you’re evidently not) then you’re on the side of the terrorists

If you don’t want Assad with the help of Russia to take back control of all of Syria then you’re on the side of the terrorists

Meirion X

You are A Nasty propagandist!

So just Foff you Kremlin Troll!!

SoleSurvivor

😂😂

Calm down mate

Meirion X

Ok then!

Meirion X

A topical black or white choice from A Propagandist!

Meirion X

Assad has shown his true colours over the past few years!

So please don’t try to Fool me!

Meirion X

Good bye!!

SoleSurvivor

I think the BBC and mainstream media in general has already fooled you

It’s what they do and they do it to most people

Remember the BBC are only allowed to have a pro EU bias, project fear etc, but the idea that they would have a pro western bias reporting the Middle East? Nooooooo how could they!! it’s unthinkable isn’t it, it’s outrageous to suggest the BBC would be bias

Do me a favour ffs

dave12

Comrade soleski as I said before why dont you go live in Russia and enjoy their low living standards and enjoy the lack of freedom of speech,,, stop fantasising on Russia and move there.

SoleSurvivor

Fantastic contribution to the discussion dave as always

I can always count on you to talk out your backside and ignore the facts

Remember when you were arguing for days that it was clear Assad gassed his own people in Douma with Russian support? What are your thought not dave after all the leaks and the widespread believe that they were planted there by the Syrian “opposition”

Are you ready to admit you were wrong?

dave12

Well sorry soleski you are so deluded I cant take your warped views on your friends seriously try taking that tin foil hat off first and you’re love for chemical weapon conspiracy theories.

SoleSurvivor

It’s not a conspiracy theory Dave the leaked wikileaks emails confirming it have been verified by Reuters

Absolute deluded dave

dave12

Ah yes wiikileaks Russias useful idiots. Reuters also were one of first to report on GRU’s attempting to hack the OPCW HQ when they were caught red handed.Now I wonder why Russia thought the need to do that? I remember you’re Novichoks conspiracy theories LMAO.

SoleSurvivor

Wikileaks has published cables embarrassing Russia as well dave, do some proper research mate

These are leaked diplomatic cables that are verified, why on earth do you think the US is hell bent on getting Assange

Be careful to check under your bed at night dave

Reds under the bed!!

dave12

You still didn’t answer My question ,why do you think Russia thought the need to hack the OPCW HQ?? Reds under the beds?? you are trying to trivialise serious acts by Russia, the uk has not dumped novichoks on Russias soil have they 😉

SoleSurvivor

You still haven’t answers my question that I asked first, bloody hell dave Russia hacked the OPCW because it has a global hacking network and it breaks the rules, they’re wrong on that, they’re also incompetent, although to be fair to say the GRU are the only service in the world that are hacking would be stupid, you do realise what the CIA and MI6 do don’t you dave? they don’t just do all that in the movies Yano So they were trying to hack the OPCW, maybe to find out what was going? Intel? a number of reasons, if… Read more »

dave12

Ye I dont think your perspective in balanced soleski get you’re visa and enjoy what Russia has to offer you ,not much I’m told.

Meirion X

As I have said in other posts, I don’t agree with 100% of every thing that America does!

I very much believe Britain should have it’s own foreign policy, but also having good allies as well!

dave12

You are wasting your time with Sole he fantasies of a better life in Russia or china.

Meirion X

I agree with you Dave 100%!

Meirion X

I would say, You naivety is indefensible!

Meirion X

Russia has Also thousands of nuclear warpons aimed against western countries as Well!

Rob

That’s why we can’t give an inch, in case they take a mile. Same page I think.

Meirion X

I agree!

Meirion X

Please Don’t fall for the Kremlin Trolls lies!

SoleSurvivor

Everyone who has a different opinion from you is not a “kremlin troll” get your head out of James Bond start looking at the facts

Meirion X

About time the Republic of Ireland acquired a Airforce, to protect their air space.

The best option for them would be to procure some SAAB Gripen E/F’s, they be cheaper enough for them to run.

Rob

Unless we had some light fighters of our own to flog them. See Hawk 200 above. Call the new one Hawk 2000. Oh and Dave above is wrong; a new combat role Hawk would fit in nicely as all pilots and ground crew do their entry training on them already.

Meirion X

The Hawk 200 is still only subsonic, 1037km/h=622mph.
Not fast enough to intercept.

SAAB Gripen E/F over 1500mph

Mark

We have an Air Corps, what we don’t have is any fighters and the chances of the budget being increased to support such airframes isn’t worth the time to type.

At best we might acquire some long range radar capability for the West Coast but that’s pretty much it on the list, and god knows what if SF and the Left get into power.

Meirion X

I am sure that Ireland could afford an air defence corps of 12 SAAB + 4 OCU for about 1 billion euro?

Mark

Not really, not without cutting spending from something else and that’s not politically viable.

DaveyB

There is an easy fix and one that probably isn’t palatable with the Republic. Which is to enter a joint military agreement/contract with the UK to provide official protection for its airspace, much like the US has for Iceland. An airbase would not be required as the transit time and air to air refuelling of a Typhoon would negate it. What would be required though is a ground based long range primary radar station on the West coast, as we don’t have enough AWACS aircraft to permanently patrol the west coast. The radar station would be an Irish owned asset,… Read more »

Meirion X

I agree, that would be a good idea DaveyB.

Meirion X

I am surprise that the MoD didn’t set up a rader on west coast of Northern Ireland?

Jon

I don’t think Northern Ireland has a west coast.

Meirion X

@Jon
There is an area to the west of Lough Erne, that nearly reaches the coast, but you are right, it doesn’t quite make it!

Mark

The closest NI has to a West Coast is in Derry… Yeah sticking a UK military facility there would be “complicated” to put it mildly.

Jon

I was thinking more of the high ground in Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, and whether you could “see” over it. If not, you’d be better off sticking your radar on drone patrols.
Something like this: https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/israeli-surveillance-drones-in-trial-to-monitor-uk-waters/

Daniele Mandelli

There used to be an RAF Radar Station in NI, at Bishops Court I believe.

Mark

That was on the East coast in County Down, a predominately Unionist area, much different than sticking one out in Derry.

Daniele Mandelli

Thanks Mark.

I take your word on it as I know little on that, I was only observing there were RAF Radar sites in the North.

Is Derry another version of South Armagh during the troubles?

Mark

Pretty much more, Derry is overwhelmingly Nationalist (battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday for just two examples) and even today is still a hotspot for dissident activities. Putting a RAF base there would need significant security protection.

There’s also the “unspoken” position of the Unionists when they were in power to not invest in the area because of this.

Daniele Mandelli

Thanks.

Mark

As I said before the White Paper discussed Primary Radar sets for the West Coast but like I said in other threads it’s on the “if we could”, right now there’s only about 500 million in the Capital fund to 2025 and that’s pretty much taken up by the CASA 295 buy and the upcoming Eithne replacement.

Gareth

Another reason to intercept way out at sea is because in a real warfighting situation the bombers would be unlikely to fly very close to the coast anyway. Instead they would sit out at sea and launch cruise missiles (e.g. conventional/nuclear tipped Kh-35 Kent) at the UK or against trans-atlantic shipping. We’ve seen recently how cruise missiles, including those fired by Iran at Saudi Arabia, are quite capable of penetrating even a reasonably tight air defence netword. Far better to knock out the launch platforms in advance and from a safe distance.

Bob Powell

Andy, I really enjoyed reading this. Eloquently put as ever, I’d expect nothing less from a man I learned so much from.