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We secure the skies


The airspace over Europe sees an average of about 35,000 air movements per day, making it one of the busiest airspaces in the world. Any aircraft flying inside or approaching European NATO airspace that are unidentified, either through loss or intentional omission of communication with Air Traffic Control creates an unsafe environment, which could lead to an air incident.

NATO ensures the integrity, safety and security of its airspace by maintaining a 24/7/365 Air Policing mission, overseen by Allied Air Command.

How does Air Policing work?

1. Detection

Allied radars pick up an aircraft of interest out of the 30,000 air movements daily inside the European airspace. If the corresponding aircraft is not using its transponder or is not in radio contact with civilian air traffic control or has not filed a flight plan, the track is reported to one of NATO's two Combined Air Operations Centres.

2. Decision

The Commander of the respective Combined Air Operations Centre decides whether or not to launch Quick Reaction Alert Interceptor aircraft to intercept and visually identify the Aircraft.

3. Launch

Dedicated allied air bases hold pilots and NATO-assigned aircraft on 24/7/365 stand-by for Air Policing operations. If tasked, they launch within minutes, heading towards the unidentified aircraft. Once launched the Quick Reaction Alert aircraft is directed by a Control and Reporting Centre and brought up close to the unidentified aircraft.

4. Intercept

The Quick Reaction Alert Interceptor aircraft approach the intercepted aircraft from astern. The lead intercepting aircraft takes up a position on the left (port) side, slightly above and ahead of the intercepted aircraft.

5. Identify

Intercepting pilots must conduct their mission in accordance with recommended rules approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Whilst regulations hold no restrictions for the positioning of intercepting aircraft, they should not fly closer than required to establish visual contact with the pilot-in-command of the intercepted aircraft.

6. Escort

If required, Quick Reaction Alert Interceptor aircraft can escort the intercepted aircraft to a nearby airfield to land or back out of NATO airspace. In case of a proven hijacking situation, authority over the Quick Reaction Alert Interceptor aircraft is transferred from NATO back to the respective member nation.

7. Return

Once the situation is confirmed, the Quick Reaction Alert Interceptor aircraft break gently away from the intercepted aircraft in a shallow dive.

8. Report

The Combined Air Operations Centre monitors the operation and reports to Headquarters Allied Air Command where all information about intercepts is registered.

NATO Air Policing explained

Learn more about NATO's special Air Policing missions:

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