08:58, 28 March 2012 – the claxon shrieks at Tampere Air Base in Finland. Four minutes later, two F-18 Hornet fighter jets from the Finnish Air Force take off. Their mission – to intercept an aircraft that is not complying with international air traffic regulations. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the surveillance of European airspace is a sensitive topic for the Alliance member States and their partners.
“An unidentified aircraft has just entered Finnish airspace. It does not communicate in line with international standards. That’s why I will go up and see what is happening,” says First Lieutenant Mikko K., pilot of a Finnish Air Force F-18 Hornet fighter jet.
His mission – to positively identify the aircraft behaving unusually and intercept it in compliance with the air safety measures as ordered by his national Air Operations Centre at Tampere, Finland. Today, this is a training scenario.
Since 2008, Headquarters Allied Air Command at Ramstein, Germany has organised these training events in the Baltic region to practice the air policing skills of Allied air and ground crews. Today, the training involves NATO air assets – two German F-4F interceptors and one Lithuanian C-27 transport plane – as well as two F-18 fighter jets from Finland, a member state of the Partnership for Peace programme established by the Alliance in 1994. This is the first time Finland has been involved in this event. On 27 March, the day before, the same training scenario involved a Swedish Air Force JAS Gripen fighter jet.
The aircraft’s suspicious behaviour is detected by the duty controller in the Finnish Air Operations Centre. Once the aircraft heads towards NATO airspace, it alerts its counterpart at NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany.
“The centre in Finland has informed me that the plane – a C-27 transport plane – has lost radio communications with the Civilian Aviation Authorities and has deviated from its flight plan and is now heading toward NATO airspace,” says the duty controller at Uedem, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank P.
A crucial role for the Air Operation Centres
The suspicious aircraft is flagged right from the beginning. The exchange of flight information and radar data is fast, precise and comprehensive. The operators communicate in English. The refined procedures are applied to the letter. The Air Operation Centres on the ground are all linked to a sophisticated radar system that allows them a 24/7 surveillance 365 days a year. They are an integral part of NATO’s Integrated Air Defence System – NATINADS– which has been in operation for over 50 years.
“It is our task to ensure safety and security in the skies. We have to keep violations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation rules to a minimum, provide assistance to aircraft in distress and identify, verify, monitor or intercept aircraft,” adds the duty controller at Uedem.
Air policing is a collective peacetime mission of the Alliance. It requires an air surveillance and control system and interceptor aircraft that must maintain a permanent readiness posture.
The Baltic Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) at Karmelava, Lithuania is jointly manned by staff from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. “In most cases we have to intervene because of lost radio communications. The training we are conducting here is aimed at further improving interoperability of NATO air forces and practicing special air policing procedures,” says First Lieutenant Tonis K., an air controller at Karmelava.
Fighter jets intercept suspicious aircraft
The training event proceeds as the Finnish fighter jets swiftly reach the aircraft that has lost radio communications. The interception of an aircraft is conducted in line with strict NATO procedures and in compliance with established International Civil Aviation Organisation rules.
The Finnish F-18 Hornets escort the Lithuanian transport aircraft back toward the Baltic airspace, where two German F-4F Phantom fighter jets take over. The Baltic CRC guides the F-4F fighters from NATO’s Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) contingent as they escort the transport aircraft and assist with a safe landing at Šiauliai, Lithuania.
Suddenly one of the NATO fighter jets signals a technical problem – part of the simulation scenario. The pilot has to eject from his aircraft after dropping his munitions in a safe place. Once on the ground, he uses flares to signal his location so that he can be recovered by an Estonian Search and Rescue helicopter. This scenario serves to run through the procedures involved in coordinating with various national agencies to ensure a safe and effective recovery of the downed aircrew.
The day’s training event draws to an end. The incident is closed. The training event went as envisaged and the operators were able to demonstrate their technical skills.
“This 11th Baltic Region Training Event was the second one with Partnership for Peace participation,” says Colonel Lone T., Branch Head in the Operations Division at HQ Allied Air Command Ramstein. “The Baltic Region Training Event is a great opportunity to train our pilots and controllers who have once more proven that they apply Smart Defence in daily routines. Furthermore, it is beneficial to all those involved that the likes of Finland and Sweden have been able to participate in the practice of air policing procedures to make these procedures even more reliable in the event of it happening for real.”
Air policing – collective security for the Baltic States and other NATO member States
Preserving the integrity of the Alliance airspace is a question of collective defence and solidarity. As the Baltic States lack appropriate assets to monitor their airspace, other NATO member States have conducted the air policing mission on a rotational basis since 2004. The Lithuanian Air Force base at Šiauliai is host to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing contingents.
Germany deployed their Phantoms to Šiauliai in early January 2012, when it took over from Denmark. The German Air Force will complete its deployment on 27 April, when the Polish Air Force will provide the new contingent.
On 8 February 2012, the North Atlantic Council decided that the Baltic Air Policing will continue and that requirements and activities would be reviewed regularly. In parallel, ways of improving the Baltic States’ contribution to the mission are being examined.
Besides the Baltic States, there are other NATO member States that require Alliance solidarity to ensure their air defence. The Belgian Air Force ensures the integrity of Luxembourg’s airspace. At the same time, several member states take turns deploying fighter jets to protect Iceland, while Albania and Slovenia rely on Italian air assets for their air defence on a permanent basis.
Air policing – a tangible example of Smart Defence
The air policing mission above the Baltic States illustrates the ability of the Alliance to share and pool existing capabilities. Moreover, some nations are experiencing an ageing of their air assets. Fighter jets in particular will have to be replaced. Multinational cooperation can be a solution to this problem, especially in these times of limited financial resources.
“There could be multinational arrangements at a regional level or cooperation in the acquisition, operation and maintenance of fighter jets or even the activation of multinational units for missions such as air policing,” concludes Ludwig Decamps, Team Leader for Smart Defence at NATO.