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Nov 16 2021

Germany as a special case in the history of NATO Air Policing

RAMSTEIN, Germany – NATO Air Policing over Germany – now a standard task carried out by German controllers and fighters in an Allied context – started as a special arrangement involving the Tripartite Powers. 

From the start, NATO's Air Policing has been an integral part of NATO's Integrated Air and Missile Defense.  It offers a range of graduated response options to flexibly react to violations of Alliance airspace avoiding unnecessary escalation - especially important during the cold war.  An unprecedented level of integration existed in the former Central Region comprising the airspace of Western Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, because Western Germany did not have full sovereignty in its own airspace.  The Treaty of Paris of 23 October 1954 stipulated that the responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the airspace over western Germany solely rested with the Tripartite Powers – the United States, the United Kingdom and France.  They also guaranteed the safe passage to Berlin through the three air corridors from Western Germany.

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The German Air Force operated radars as well as Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs), like Erndtenbrueck from where they would coordinate with Allied fighters. Photo courtesy of the German Air Force
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Map depicting the breakdown of the German Air Defence system. Photo courtesy of the German Air Force

While the German Air Force operated radars as well as Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs), decision making at the command centres was in the hands of the Tripartite Powers, who also dis-patched qualified aircraft controllers as liaison to the forward (= more eastern) German CRCs.  They had to control the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) or "Battle Flight" themselves or acted as communication link between the Tripartite Sector Controller and the German aircraft controller. 

All QRA aircraft and especially the British and American "battle flights" maintained high readiness on air bases spread throughout Germany and the Central Region. Due to the limitations in the Treaty of Paris, the QRA of the German Air Force fighter wings at Wittmund and Neuburg could not fly Air Policing missions against non-NATO military air movements in German airspace.  They could, how-ever, be scrambled to assist aircraft in distress or shadow suspicious aircraft in international airspace.  The constraint fell when Germany was united on October 3, 1990.  Germany regained her full sovereignty and took over the responsibility to secure the skies over western Germany, within the scheme of NATO Air Policing.  Once RUS forces had finally left the eastern part of Germany in 1994, this airspace became NATO Airspace as well.

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    USAF F-15 launching from Bitburg Airbase, Germany one of the many Allied aircraft that contributed to the defence of Western European airspace. Photo courtesy of the USAF.
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Royal Air Force F-4 Phantoms held Quick Reaction Alert from their bases in Germany ready to scramble against any threat to Alliance airspace. Photo courtesy of the Royal Air Force. 

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century saw a significant change in the security environment in Europe:  The Warsaw Pact collapsed and former WP member states be-came members of NATO.  In parallel, we witnessed a tendency towards renationalisation of air policing and air defence.  Command and Control, however, continued to be executed at integrated and multinational Combined Air Operations Centres, albeit more or less only for a single national airspace. In the former Central Region, the CAOCs continued to bear responsibility for the airspace of a group of NATO nations.  Thus, they served as a model for the current Air Policing command structure in which CAOC Uedem bears responsibility for all of NATO's airspace north and CAOC Torrejón for the airspace south of the Alps.

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the Air Policing mission has become more complex: The contingency of civilian aircraft being used as weapons had to be taken into account.  As "Renegade" situations must be dealt with by national Air Policing, adequate procedures were developed to guarantee the seamless transition from NATO to national Air Policing.  Cross Border Agreements that exist among some Allies in NATO Europe allow seamlessly pursuing suspected air movements beyond national air boundaries.

"NATO Air Policing has proven to be a constant in a rapidly changing security environment.  It provides NATO with a flexible capability to preserve the integrity of Alliance Airspace in peacetime," said retired Lieutenant General Friedrich W. Ploeger, a former Deputy Commander of Allied Air Command. "During the cold war, NATO Air Policing and NATO's Integrated Air Defense provided reassurance, especially for Germany, that NATO Allies were at its side as a "frontier state". Today, NATO Air Policing provides similar reassurance for our newer NATO members, in particular those directly bordering on Russia," he added. 

Story by Lieutenant General (ret) Friedrich W. Ploeger

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