‘When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait.’
Air policing (AP) is one of the main activities of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (NIAMD) in peacetime, since even during seemingly calm periods, security threats to nations still exist. The duty of AP is to enforce each Alliance nation’s sovereignty and provide security for its citizens by requiring compliance to national laws inside internationally recognized airspace.1 These tasks are carried out by Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) (QRA (I)) aircraft, the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) and the Air Command and Control (Air C2) structure.2
Lately, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) have introduced a new challenge to AP missions. With improving technology, reduced costs and widespread availability, there is a ‘boom’ in the use of these flying devices. In addition to the establishment of rules and regulations regarding personal and commercial use, there is a need for preventive and defensive measures against violation of territorial airspace by non-cooperative civilian and military unmanned aircraft. The mission of AP in NATO must now adapt to respond to this new and challenging technology.
NATO Air Policing Today
The execution of AP involves QRA(I) fighter aircraft from NATO nations available on a 24 / 7 basis. At the same time, NATO AP requires an ASACS and an Air C2Â structure executed by two Combined Air Operation Centres (CAOCs) located in Torrejon, Spain, and Uedem, Germany, under the direction and guidance of the Allied Air Command Headquarters, located at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
AP procedures are actively implemented daily in response to a variety of peacetime threats. If an aircraft intentionally or unintentionally approaches national airspace without prior permission, or if schedule disruptions take place without any prior notification, a nation has a right to defend its sovereign airspace against all aircraft using AP assets tasked by the NATO Air C2 structure to intercept, identify, and if needed, escort the threat aircraft. Only in the most extreme cases would an engagement take place. An obvious example of when AP assets would be used is when military aircraft from non-friendly nations fly towards a NATO nation’s border.
Air Policing Against RPAS Threats Today
AP procedures are used to handle interceptions of non-NATO military aircraft, civilian lost communication events, and the engagements of unidentified RPAS. Once an RPAS is detected, but not necessarily identified, the Air C2 structure must answer difficult questions to determine if it is a threat. Threat determination uses established Rules of Engagement (ROE) and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that were originally written to deal with manned threats. In a situation involving RPAS, the Air C2 structure must quickly and accurately answer these types of questions: Is the RPAS acting like a renegade aircraft thus making it the responsibility of the national authorities? Can it be determined to be strictly military in nature allowing NATO authorities to launch assets against it? Once the alert QRA(I) is launched, how should the situation be handled? Can the fighter aircraft manoeuvre for a visual identification, or is the RPAS flying too low and slow? Is the RPAS even large enough for the pilot in the fighter aircraft to see? Then, if the decision to shoot down an RPAS is made, is the fighter always able to make the kill? While looking for its target, what if the million dollar fighter aircraft collides with and is damaged by an RPAS (that most likely costs less than 1 / 100 of the fighter aircraft), like the 2011 mid-air collision between a C-130 and an RPAS in Afghanistan?3 Can ground-based anti-air systems be used instead? Answers to these questions are challenging to determine with the ROE and SOPs in place.
Just as civilian authorities are struggling to come up with a consensus on how to regulate thousands of RPAS flying today, nations are also realizing the enormous issues and potential threats this evolving technology brings to their security. ROE and SOPs focusing on manned aircraft are a good place to start in dealing with RPAS, but they cannot answer all the questions posed by this game-changing technology. NATO must now consider its AP procedures outdated and begin to look at new approaches for dealing with this new generation of threats from RPAS.
The role of AP is to intercept, identify, escort, and if need be, destroy any airborne object violating a NATO member nation’s airspace. While significant challenges remain, new approaches for accomplishing each step when dealing with RPAS are within reach. First, AP assets must intercept an RPAS. Currently, NATO AP QRA(I) assets are limited to manned fighter aircraft from member nations. These include F-16s, F / A-18s, Eurofighters, as well as many other types. These aircraft were designed for counter-air missions involving other manned aircraft. The downing of two RPAS over Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War served as a ‘benchmark tactical event’ for counter-RPAS AP, which demonstrated fighters could potentially target medium- to large-sized RPAS like any other military target.4 As long as the RPAS is not flying too low or too slow for the QRA(I), there are no changes to the procedures already in place. However, even a seemingly unsophisticated RPAS can have a tactical advantage. QRA(I) fighters were not designed to fly slowly at high angles of attack while intercepting targets, and their radars are not designed for targets potentially as small as birds. In an incident over Israel, a primitive RPAS flew so slowly that Israeli F-16s received stall warnings while trying to reduce their speed to shoot down the intruder RPAS5. The issue of a low and slow flying RPAS can be dealt with by another low and slow flier, namely a helicopter. Armed helicopters are the best asset to counter RPAS that cannot be intercepted by fighter jets. Practically speaking though, no nation has enough airframes or bases to cover all of its airspace against RPAS by relying solely on helicopters. There will therefore need to be dialogue between national air defence commands and intelligence services to determine the most likely targets to protect and the most likely areas where RPAS could cross a nation’s borders. Then NATO and member nations could set up QRA(I) bases with helicopters to cover these regions. For the areas not covered by these bases, other options for QRA(I) assets could be armed slow movers like a light attack aircraft, which can cover more area than a helicopter, or even another RPAS. In the meantime, NATO could begin training its current QRA(I) assets to deal with low and slow aircraft by practicing intercepts against helicopters to hone the pilots’ skills on how to make these difficult intercepts.
Identification of RPAS will always be difficult for fighter aircraft. However, the modern strike aircraft is equipped with brilliant targeting pods. It does not seem beyond the realm of possibility to develop or incrementally improve existing pods to be able to track and give a picture of an RPAS to a pilot orbiting overhead. With this in mind, a NATO-controlled RPAS could have a sensor installed that is able to track and identify another RPAS. These RPAS could be handled like traditional alert forces or could loiter along national borders to help identify threatening RPAS and other low and slow flying unidentified aircraft. Like most changes, these developments rely on adequate time and money, which require a firm commitment from NATO to guarantee success.
When a QRA(I) fighter intercepts and escorts another manned aircraft, certain types of visual communication occur. The pilots often exchange hand signals to communicate intentions, especially during a lost communication situation. The very presence of a fighter escorting a threatening bomber or reconnaissance aircraft sends a message of caution and deterrence. However, when an intercept of an RPAS by a NATO QRA(I) occurs, the pilot of the interceptor is unable to visually communicate with the unmanned aircraft toÂ tell it to turn around or indicate that there is a problem. An RPAS operator will therefore have no idea that they have been intercepted and are being escorted. For this reason, a method of communication back to the RPAS operators must be found. This could be through normal VHF communications if the RPAS has that ability and the operator is in contact with an Air Traffic Control (ATC) agency. However, the RPAS may not have this ability, so other means must be found. One solution is again centred around the use of a pod on QRA(I) aircraft. These pods could have the ability to hijack the command signals and give the QRA(I) pilot the ability to take control of the RPAS. This would hopefully let the original operator of the RPAS recognize that there is an issue, while giving the NATO Air C2 structure the ability to decide how to direct the RPAS away from a potential hazard. However, if no solution is found in order to communication with an RPAS operator, the only option remaining is to engage the unmanned aircraft.
The final task for AP is the one rarely used. The destruction of an aircraft using NATO assets is always the last resort during peacetime. If the decision to destroy an RPAS is made, then there are several options available. The easiest option is to use existing weapons on QRA(I) aircraft to shoot down the RPAS ifÂ possible. If an armed helicopter is available, this would be an even better option. In the future, the development of pods to be carried on QRA(I) aircraft that can directionally jam the signals to and from anÂ RPAS and make it crash might become a viable option. There is also the possibility that lasers can be developed that will be carried in pods and used to shoot down a target. Each of these strategies requires NATO leadership to recognize the need for these technologies and to push member nations toward their development.
NIAMD operates inside a political and legal framework, which evolves with new challenges and is supported by political will. The AP component of NIAMD is responsible for combating threats posed by military and civilian aircraft, to include RPAS, except for situations when an Alliance nation invokes national caveats in the procedural framework and takes back control of its assets assigned to the AP mission. TheÂ emergence of RPAS has opened a new era of technological innovation in aviation and presents new political, legal, and technological challenges to the current AP framework. With RPAS being used by more than just militaries, and terrorist organizations proving they will use technology in ways nations cannot always imagine or prepare for, the need for robust but cost-effective solutions against RPAS threats has never been greater. Though it is possible to apply current ROE to RPAS, the difficulty lies in adapting the ROE to the potential new situations that RPAS present. Air defence decision makers in NATO must realize the procedures, techniques, and hardware currently in place to handle events with manned aircraft are not adequate to handle future RPAS situations. New solutions must be identified, whether they are similar to those mentioned in this paper, or are a whole new way of thinking in regards to AP. The time to find these solutions is now and not after an RPAS swarm carrying makeshift explosives attack a tourist or military target in a NATO nation.
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within this paper are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of NATO, ESPAF, TURAF or USN.