Air policing: securing NATO airspace
NATO Air Policing is a peacetime mission, which 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 airspace violations.
- NATO Air Policing is a collective task and a purely defensive mission, which involves the 24/7 presence of fighter aircraft, which are ready to react quickly to airspace violations.
- NATO members assist those Allies who are without the necessary means to provide air policing of their own territory.
- The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is responsible for the conduct of the NATO Air Policing mission.
- Preservation of the integrity of NATO airspace is one of the missions of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence.
- Air policing was intensified following the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
More background information
Safeguarding the integrity of Alliance members’ sovereign airspace is a peacetime task contributing to NATO’s collective defence. It is a clear sign of cohesion, shared responsibility and solidarity across the Alliance.
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 NATO Air Policing mission.
Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) headquartered at Ramstein, Germany oversees the NATO Air Policing mission with 24/7 command and control from two Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs); one in Torrejon, Spain, and one in Uedem, Germany. CAOC Uedem is responsible for NATO Air Policing north of the Alps and CAOC Torrejon for the south. The CAOC decides which interceptor aircraft will be scrambled (i.e. tasked to react) according to the location of the incident.
NATO member nations provide the necessary aircraft and assets for the air policing of their own airspace, under SACEUR direction. Those without the necessary means to do so (Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro and Slovenia) are assisted by other NATO members to preserve the integrity of their sovereign airspace in peacetime and to ensure their security.
NATO has been protecting the Baltic skies since 2004, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the Alliance. The Baltic Air Policing mission started in April 2004 and has been executed continuously ever since. Slovenia’s airspace is covered by Hungary and Italy, while Albania and Montenegro are covered by Greece and Italy.
All NATO member nations 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.
The mission of patrolling the skies along NATO’s eastern border was intensified in 2015 following the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
NATO Air Policing requires the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS), the Air Command and Control (Air C2) structure and Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) (QRA(I)) aircraft and crews to be available on a 24/7 basis.
This enables the Alliance to detect, track and identify to the greatest extent possible all aerial objects approaching or operating within NATO airspace so that violations can be recognised, and appropriate action taken.
The term “air policing” was first used by the United Kingdom between the two World Wars to describe their mission in Mesopotamia (now part of Iraq), where aircraft were used to replace the more traditional army approach of "boots on the ground” in an effort to cut back on the large imperial army. This was the first time air power had been used for a policing task and is still considered to be the birth of the concept, even though this first initiative was policing the situation on the ground, rather than in the air.
In the 1960s, nations participating in the NATO military structure realised that individual air defence systems operating independently could not effectively protect Alliance airspace, so they began working together to establish a structure to overcome this deficiency. Combining national assets supplemented as necessary by other NATO elements, an integrated air defence structure and system – the NATO Integrated Air Defence System (NATINADS) – was established.
Established in 1961 during the Cold War, NATO Air Policing was – and still is – an integral part of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD). On duty 24/7/365, NATO Air Policing is a constant in a rapidly changing security environment, giving SACEUR the capability to preserve the integrity of Alliance airspace in peacetime.
In the early days of NATINADS, all NATO member nations (with the exception of Iceland and Luxembourg) provided fighter aircraft to SACEUR. Referred to as “NATO command forces”, these aircraft were put under the command of SACEUR already in peacetime. This gave him the necessary flexibility to react to any incident in NATO airspace in a timely manner.
In 2004, nine new member nations joined the Alliance. Some of them did not possess fighter aircraft and could therefore not provide the necessary means for the protection of their airspace. This responsibility was taken over by NATO member nations which possess an air policing capability. Initially, NATO only used the Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania, but since 2014, has also been using Ämari Air Base in Estonia for the deployment of additional air policing assets.
Also in 2004, special arrangements were established to ensure adequate air policing of Slovenia. The country’s airspace is covered by both Hungary and Italy. The Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) decides on a case-by-case basis which nation will be scrambled according to the location of the incident.
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 Keflavik Air Base to provide protection of Icelandic airspace. The first deployment took place in May 2008.
When Albania joined NATO in 2009, an arrangement similar to that for Slovenia was established with Greece and Italy ensuring coverage over Albania.
At the Lisbon Summit in 2010, Allied leaders agreed to address air and missile defence in a holistic way by developing a NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS). NATINAMDS is based on the previously existing NATINADS enhanced by new BMD elements.
In 2015, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed an agreement to conduct joint air policing of their territories. Under the agreement, the Belgian and Dutch Air Forces will defend the Benelux airspace on a rotational basis. The joint operations started on 1 January 2017.
In 2017, Montenegro joined the Alliance. Greece and Italy have agreed to ensure the coverage of the airspace over Montenegro using the same model as for Albania.