Fifty years of defending NATO’s skies

  • 22 Jul. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 29 Jul. 2011 12:30

It’s easy to take the peaceful skies over our heads for granted, but this security doesn’t come for free. For the last five decades, NATO’s Integrated Air Defence has protected Allied populations from a range of possible air threats, adapting all the while to face new challenges.

This year, NATO’s Integrated Air Defence (NATINAD) and the supporting NATO Integrated Air Defence System (NATINADS) mark 50 years of safeguarding NATO's skies.

Protecting populations

The mission of NATO Air Defence – to achieve and maintain air superiority to protect NATO territory in peace, crisis and conflict – remains as relevant today as when it was established in 1961 during the Cold War. To defend our air space, the men and women working behind NATINADS cover us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They enable the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) to conduct his primary mission of defending NATO European territory, populations and forces.

A large part of air defence is air policing, which involves radar surveillance and identifying objects in the air. When needed, fighter aircraft are used to help identify or escort aircraft. Another important area is missile defence. NATO is currently working to expand its missile defence capability to cover not only its deployed troops, but the populations on European Allied territory as well.

NATINADS is a system of systems under the operational command of SACEUR that combines NATO-owned command and control assets with sensors and weapon systems provided by nations.

A model of solidarity and partnership

For five decades, NATINADS has contributed, in a very effective and efficient manner, to the security of the Alliance as the cornerstone of NATO’s defence against airborne threats,” explains Major General Michael Bille, current Vice-Chairman of NATO’s Air Defence Committee.

Moreover it has also been and in many ways still is a ‘role model’ for NATO. Politically it is a clear sign of Alliance cohesion, solidarity and burden sharing. Militarily it was one of, if not the first system of systems, integrating forces from different nations (‘combined forces’) and services (‘joint forces’) into a single effort and coherent whole.”

Common techniques, procedures, training and terminology across all Allies has enabled NATO to safeguard airspace effectively both at home and on missions outside Allied territory.

NATINADS plays a key role in cooperation with partners, says Major General Bille. For those aspiring to join NATO, integrating into NATINADS has been a priority, but even those not seeking membership are interested in closer cooperation. The Air Situation Data Exchange programme is one initiative that helps NATO and its partner monitor airspace, particularly along shared borders.

Facing new threats

Although NATINADS’ role has remained constant, it has evolved to face new security challenges. One of its key tasks in peacetime has been and remains the continuous surveillance of the skies over NATO territory in Europe. During the Cold War, surveillance was backed by fighter aircraft on high alert and belts of surface-to-air missile (SAM) units arrayed to counter any acts of aggression from Warsaw Pact nations. This first line defence ensured that NATO would never be caught unprepared and defenceless against a surprise attack.

Today, the SAM belts have disappeared, as has the threat of a large scale attack, and the readiness states for interceptor aircraft have been relaxed. But as the events of 9/11 so tragically revealed, the requirement for vigilance remains. NATINADS helps to defend against airborne terrorism, ensuring that events like the attack on the Twin Towers are not repeated.

But terrorism is not the only new threat that NATINADS faces. Challenges now range from unmanned aircraft to long range, highly manoeuvrable aerodynamic (cruise) and ballistic missiles. Integrated air defence systems have been adapting to meet these new threats. Mobility has become more important to meet challenges where they emerge – within or beyond NATO’s borders.

More mobile, more scalable

And while NATINADS’ initial decades were a period where disparate national systems were joined into a coherent whole, where the sum is greater than the parts, a new more modern, standardized and interoperable NATO Air Command and Control System (ACCS) is about to be fielded. The ACCS will comprise more mobile and scalable systems that can be configured to meet the specific command and control needs of a mission or task.

In addition, capabilities are being added to meet the potential threat from longer range offensive missile systems and address the requirements of the new ballistic missile defence capability. NATO has therefore decided to develop an integrated air and missile defence system using NATINADS as the baseline, explains Major General Bille. The ACCS will be the core of the new system, incorporating all aspects of air power planning and tasking.

NATINADS may be 50 years old, but it is about to be re-born into a more modern and capable defender of NATO's nations.