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May 1 2021

60 YEARS OF NATO INTEGRATED AIR DEFENCE: A UK PERSPECTIVE

RAMSTEIN, Germany - May 1, 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of NATO’s Integrated Air Defence system that started when the UK’s national Integrated Air Defence system came online as the first NATO Air Defence region. The Central region went live on July 1, 1961 and the Southern region followed on July 10, 1962; the final region to be established was the Northern Region on the January 15, 1964. 

This new NATO integrated air defence system was originally agreed at a NATO Atlantic Council meeting and was announced on 10 September 1960. It would soon grow and evolve to the system that is recognised today that covers the entire air space of the European NATO allies with the air defence being controlled from the Combined Air Operations Centres at Uedem, Germany and Torrejón, Spain.

In 1961, however what was a new system for NATO, was for the UK a long-established concept. The British system had its origins during the First World War where it was quickly recognised a system to effectively defend against the air attacks conducted against the UK was needed. Following the end of the war the question of national air defence continued to be worked on and by the 1930s a system that is now the ‘Dowding System’ named after Sir Hugh Dowding the then RAF Fighter Command commander was created.

This system was the world's first wide-area ground-controlled interception network and covered the entire UK airspace. Initially, the system was based on a widespread dedicated land-line telephone network that could be used to pass information that was collected from newly developed radar stations and the Royal Observer Corps. This information was used to build a single image of the entire UK airspace and direct defensive interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery against enemy targets. 
This picture from 1966 is one of the earliest images known of an intercept; the RAF Lightning F.3 from 74 Sqn RAF is escorting a Russian bomber as it flies over the North Atlantic. Photo copyright UK MOD.
RAF Electric Lightning fighter jet and a Victor K2 air to air refuelling version escorting a Russian bomber. Photo copyright UK MOD.
An RAF Javelin, armed on a QRA training mission slightly before NATO QRA started. In 1961 this is what anybody being intercepted by the RAF would have seen. Photo copyright UK MOD.
A present-day RAF Typhoon intercepting a Russian bomber of the North Atlantic. Photo copyright UK MOD.

By the July 1 ,1956 the UK’s Air Defence Operations Centre provided 24-hour coverage as part of the then SACEUR’s integrated early warning plan. NATO allocated to the Royal Air Force a geographical area that  covered the UK, much of the North Sea and then west out over the Atlantic.

Today the UK remains a leading member of NATO. In addition to maintaining its own national Quick Reaction Alert capability which remains integrated into the NATO Air Policing system, the Royal Air Force also regularly contributes to NATO Air Policing missions abroad for example in the Baltic States or Iceland. Currently RAF Typhoon fighters from IX (B) Squadron are deployed to Romania to conduct the NATO enhanced Air Policing mission alongside the Romanian Air Force in the Black Sea Region.

Reflecting on 60 years of Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty executing the collective NATO Air Policing mission, the station commander at RAF Lossiemouth, one of two RAF stations in the UK that conduct QRA said: “QRA remains a core activity for the Royal Air Force, be that nationally based from here at RAF Lossiemouth, or deployed as IX (B) Squadron currently are in Romania."

“We are all very aware of the long tradition that the RAF has in conducting this air defence mission and are proud to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors," the station commander added. "And we continue to build on their legacy by conducting such operations as a leading NATO member of the Alliance,” he concluded.

Story by SqnLdr Peter Singlehurst, Royal Air Force Media Operations and exercises 

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