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.
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.
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.
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