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The Cold War

Defence and deterrence

Air defence in a supersonic age

As modern aircraft reached their targets only minutes after being picked up on the radar screens, by the late 1950s, it became clear that manually operated air defence systems were no longer adequate to cope with the threat posed by these modern, fast-flying or supersonic aircraft.

It was in 1958 that a trilateral organisation known as International Planning Group was set up by Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands united in the need for air defences covering their territories. This was a preliminary to the NADGE project. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was tasked with initiating an overall plan to improve the performance of existing radar installations, reduce reaction time and achieve automation of data handling. The civilian side of the Alliance joined its military body in 1960 in working out a joint NATO project, which became known as the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE).

NADGE aimed to improve the Organization’s ability to detect, identify and intercept aircraft and, if it came to that, to destroy enemy aircraft.

NADGE was an electronic network of high-capability, high-speed computers, made possible by the introduction of new radars and the modernisation of existing facilities. All the loop-holes which had existed between the individual member countries had been closed and NADGE, with its unbroken chain of stations running from Norway to Turkey, provided a powerful barrier against the intrusion of enemy aircraft into the NATO European airspace.

A total of 84 stations located in Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey ranged from simple monitoring posts responsible for picking up enemy aircraft and reporting their presence to the control centre in charge of their interception, to the specially built operational stations. The United Kingdom had its own facilities that met NADGE standards.

The area of operations encompassed some 3,000 miles of sky and SHAPE supervised the entire NADGE system. Each NATO country was, nonetheless, responsible of its own geographical area and the NADGE installations and air defence weapons and forces remained under national control. Only under an emergency would NADGE come under the direct operational control of SHAPE.

For more on the birth of NADGE, read “Air defence in a supersonic age”, November 1972