NATO Air Policing: securing Allied airspace
NATO Air Policing is a peacetime mission that aims to preserve the security of Alliance airspace. It is a collective task and involves the continuous presence – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – of fighter aircraft and crews, which are ready to react quickly to possible airspace violations.
An Italian Eurofighter flies next to a Montenegrin Learjet 45 during a simulated interception exercise over Montenegro, part of the NATO Air Policing mission in the country.
- NATO Air Policing is a permanent peacetime mission of the Alliance, conducted within the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) framework.
- NATO Air Policing is a strong demonstration of solidarity among Allies, as countries with fighter aircraft capabilities help to ensure the integrity of the airspace of the countries that do not possess them.
- The enhancement of NATO Air Policing in response to the war in Ukraine serves as an additional proof of Allies’ solidarity, as well as the importance of this tool for deterrence and reassurance.
- The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is responsible for the conduct of the NATO Air Policing mission.
The NATO Air Policing mission
Safeguarding the integrity of Alliance members’ sovereign airspace is a permanent peacetime task contributing to NATO’s collective defence. It is a clear sign of cohesion, shared responsibility and solidarity across the Alliance. Moreover, NATO Air Policing forces also provide support to civilian aircraft in distress – for example, when they have lost communication with air traffic control.
The NATO Air Policing mission is carried out using the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS). The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) has the overall responsibility for the conduct of the mission.
Allied Air Command (AIRCOM), headquartered in Ramstein, Germany, oversees the NATO Air Policing mission with 24/7 command and control from two Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs): one in Torrejón, Spain, which covers European NATO airspace south of the Alps, and one in Uedem, Germany covering the north. When an interception is required – in the case of airspace violations, suspicious air activity close to the Alliance’s borders or other kinds of unsafe air traffic that does not adhere to international air safety norms – the relevant CAOC decides which Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) interceptor aircraft will be scrambled (i.e. tasked to react within minutes) according to the location of the incident.
Established in 1961 during the Cold War, NATO Air Policing has been an integral part of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) for 60 years. On duty 24/7/365, NATO Air Policing is a constant in a rapidly changing security environment, giving NATO the capability to preserve the integrity of Alliance airspace in peacetime.
NATO member countries provide the necessary aircraft and assets for the air policing of their own airspace, under SACEUR direction. Those countries without the necessary means to do so are assisted by other NATO members to preserve the integrity of their sovereign airspace. NATO currently oversees five regional air policing missions.
NATO has been protecting the Baltic skies since 2004, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the Alliance. NATO member countries that possess an air policing capability voluntarily contribute to the NATO Air Policing mission in the Baltic States and this responsibility is rotated every four months. The capability for the mission in the Baltic States was established by the deployment of NATO fighter aircraft to Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. Since 2014, NATO has also been using Ämari Air Base in Estonia for the deployment of additional air policing assets.
Enhanced Air Policing
As a part of the broad set of assurance measures introduced following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Allies are providing additional assets to enhance air policing along NATO’s eastern borders. To that end, Allies supplement the existing NATO Air Policing forces in the Baltic States, deploy additional aircraft to Poland, and augment the national air policing capabilities of the Bulgarian and Romanian air forces.
Eastern Adriatic and Western Balkans
Slovenia’s airspace is permanently covered by Hungary and Italy. Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia are covered jointly by Greece and Italy.
In 2006, the United States ended its permanent air policing mission over Iceland. The US mission was replaced by a system whereby Allies periodically deploy fighter aircraft to Keflavík Air Base to provide protection of Icelandic airspace. The first deployment under the mission to meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs took place in May 2008.
In 2015, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands (known collectively as the Benelux countries) signed an agreement to conduct joint air policing of their territories. Under the agreement, the Belgian and Dutch air forces defend the Benelux airspace on a rotational basis. The joint operations started on 1 January 2017.