Updated: 01-Feb-2002 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 39- No. 1
February 1991
p. 24 - 29

The European air traffic crisis NATO's search for civil and military cooperation

Leif Klette
of NATO's Executive Secretariat and Chairman of the Committee for European Coordination

Once the effect of the Gulf conflict on the airline industry is over, air traffic congestion and delays in Europe, which had assumed crises proportions during the last few years, triggered off by an explosive increase in civilian air traffic, can be expected to reoccur. Yet the finite European airspace also has to accommodate allied air forces which must retain maximum freedom of operation. These potentially conflicting demands can only be harmonized by careful civil/military coordination. The present wide recognition of this requirement as a key element in sound air traffic management, proves the farsightedness of the North Atlantic Council in establishing in the 1950s the NATO Committee for European Airspace Coordination (CEAC) which, as it enters the new decade, is faced with tremendous challenges in the European air traffic environment. The recent dramatic impact of the Gulf crisis on airline economics has driven home the fact that we live in a fragile world in which peace and stability are the essential foundation for a continued growth of the air transport industry. Furthermore, the conflict has offered a grim reminder of the crucial role air forces play in providing the mobility, speed and flexibility which the emerging security environment demands.

NATO is often mistakenly perceived by the outside world as a purely military organization, thus its involvement in European air traffic management could also be seen as predominantly concerned with safeguarding NATO's defence interests. In fact, the creation of the Committee for European Airspace Coordination (CEAC) was prompted by the need for assistance to commercial aviation in the mid-1950s to enter a new era - the jet age - and a new environment - the upper airspace - where the military had until then been the supreme masters due to the performance of their aircraft.

The task was urgent and the setting-up of CEAC thus filled an important gap in international cooperation, since military aspects were excluded from the charter of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) when it was set up to deal with civil aviation in a global framework after the Second World War. Looking back, it seems quite natural that this initiative should have been undertaken by the North Atlantic Council, since NATO was, and remains, the only international organization which provides the framework where all the interested parties, civilian as well as national and NATO military, are represented in a forum with a common purpose and objectives.

The Alliance's initiative to assist the development of civil aviation was in fact in line with Article 2 of its Treaty - the non-military dimension - which promotes such goals as friendly international relations and conditions of stability and well-being. Since the Alliance's 16 member countries represent by far the greatest force in civil aviation, promoting safety and economy in flying was and remains an important objective to the Alliance, and is yet another dimension of its broad mission and agenda.

However, what makes CEAC unique is its dual objective of providing for the requirements of all airspace users, civil as well as military. While recognizing the importance of civil aviation, the Alliance's overriding objective is to preserve peace, that very peace which has indeed fostered the tremendous development of the air transport industry since the last world war. Notwithstanding the historic developments in East/West relations, allied air forces remain an essential prerequisite for maintaining peace and these forces will continue to require airspace and a certain freedom of operation if they are going to fulfil their mission.

Flexible and cost-effective

The current international recognition of civil/ military coordination as a key element in air traffic management, has proved that the Council' s initiative in establishing CEAC 35 years ago was indeed farsighted, although its founding fathers would probably have been surprised to know that the Committee would be considered even more important in the 1990s. There has been much speculation about who actually took the first initiative in the establishment of CEAC. However, it is on record that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), who had already been planning the defence of NATO Europe on an integrated basis since the appointment of General Eisenhower as the first SACEUR, foresaw in the early 1950s the prospect of increasing air traffic congestion and conflicting civil and military requirements, unless adequate international coordination was established through a NATO committee or agency.

Subsequently, the Council set up CEAC in April 1955 to deal with civil/military problems of an international character related to the use of NATO European airspace, with the general aim of promoting safety and economy in flying, and without impinging unduly upon the requirements of the NATO Military Authorities. Reflecting CEAC's mandate, it is composed of both high-ranking military and civilian national representatives of allied countries, and has the active participation of the NATO Military Authorities. Recognizing the international character of aviation, the Council furthermore introduced a new feature into the NATO committee structure by providing for working level cooperation with other relevant international organizations. Under this procedure, representatives of ICAO, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL) attend CEAC meetings in an advisory capacity, thus ensuring interaction with planning taking place in other fora, including the requirements of neighbouring non-NATO countries. Commenting on this innovation in his opening address to the recent 35th anniversary session of CEAC, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ambassador Henning Wegener, stated that, "One could well foresee that this successful pattern will need to be reproduced in other areas, as NATO increasingly looks at the wider security challenges beyond the narrow East-West framework which has preoccupied it in the past decades."

CEAC's working methods are extremely flexible and cost-effective, which is reflected in the fact that it has no permanent technical support, thus most of the work is carried out on an ad hoc basis in small groups of national and international experts, using national rapporteurs responsible for processing the work and presenting it to the policy level. Because of the essential difference of purpose and requirements of civil and military air operations, civil/military coordination in air traffic management is no easy matter, even on a national basis, and requires, above all, a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. Over the years, the discussions in CEAC have increasingly developed a give-and-take mentality among its civil and military members, who have come to see their common interests in a wider context and have developed a remarkable degree of flexibility and compromise in finding solutions to their problems.

Indeed, CEAC's educational effect as an international forum for civil and military air traffic managers has done a lot to break down psychological barriers and although this cannot be quantified, it may in the long term come to be regarded as one of the Committee's important achievements.

Major areas of activity

CEAC performs on a more limited scale much the same coordinating function as ICAO, but without duplicating the work of the latter since it is the only international forum where national and NATO military requirements can be taken fully into account in a civil/military air traffic management environment. The Committee's mandate is wide and flexible, permitting the consideration of any international civil/military airspace problem. Some of CEAC's priority tasks are:

  • coordination of all major NATO and national air exercises, with a view to ensuring air safety and avoiding undue economic burdens on civil operators, while at the same time achieving the training essential for Alliance military requirements;

  • review of the need for reserved military airspace in NATO Europe, which has led to the abolition of a number of such areas and, more importantly, established the principle of flexibility in the use of airspace on a coordinated civil/military basis;

  • continuous coordination and updating of civil and military air/ground/air communications, navigation aids and frequency requirements* for NATO Europe;

  • coordination between the civilian secondary surveillance radar (SSR) system and the NATO military air defence identification system, which co-exist in the same frequency band;

  • review of civil and military Air Traffic Services (ATS) systems in member countries in order to ensure maximum standardization and compatibility in the NATO European environment including the common civil/military use of facilities and equipment;

  • coordination of national plans with NATO plans to ensure adequate and flexible national air traffic services which would be needed to maintain the continuous airflow required for the rapid reinforcement of Europe in times of tension, emergencies or war.

Some of these tasks, particularly those related to exercise coordination, emergencies and air defence, are clearly exclusive to NATO. Others overlap with the activities of ICAO and EUROCONTROL, and an effective interaction with these organizations has been established which ensures that civil/military plans and procedures agreed in CEAC in many cases are in fact applied for the entire European area or even globally. For example, CEAC's work to avoid or minimize frequency interference from civil and military communications systems throughout NATO Europe, has become an indispensable link to ICAO planning for the whole of Europe. And NATO's standard procedures for identification and interception of aircraft, which were established by CEAC over 30 years ago in order to ensure the safety of civil aviation, has since been adopted and published, with minor modifications, by ICAO for world-wide application. These are only some examples of the flexible interaction between two organizations which, over the years, has been of considerable benefit to the international community as a whole.


Historically, it is interesting to note that European developments in the field of civil/military Air Traffic Services planning over the last 30 years are closely related to decisions taken at NATO around 1960. At that time, the Council, on the advice of the NATO Military Authorities, directed CEAC to study the possibility and desirability of some amalgamation of civil and military ATS systems in NATO Europe, including the common use of equipment and facilities. In parallel, six member states, based on studies carried out in CEAC, established EUROCONTROL which, according to its original concept, would have been responsible for both planning and providing ATS on a supranational basis, but was limited to general air traffic in the upper airspace (generally above 25,000 feet). This concept, which was in fact never implemented, is perhaps today regarded as visionary in the light of the current debate on the need for some form of integration of the fragmented European ATS systems.

However, in spite of being the first international effort of its kind, the fact that the EUROCONTROL concept excluded operational military traffic and was limited in space, made it seem somewhat restricted at a time when NATO was considering the future in terms of a much wider scheme of amalgamated civil/military ATS systems, interfaced with air defence, comprising the whole of NATO Europe, and with common use of equipment and facilities. A broad concept such as this, when NATO was already implementing an integrated air defence system in NATO Europe, might have provided an historic opportunity for a high degree of integration of civil and military air control systems in Europe. But there is little point in crying over spilt milk, and having participated as a NATO observer at the crucial meeting on the EUROCONTROL Convention and its application in Paris in 1960,1 can testify to the fact that neither the military nor the civil authorities of the member countries were ready to take the step to implement any such far-reaching ideas at that time.

Over the last few years, EUROCONTROL has, after a long period of uncertainty and declining importance, got new wind in its sails and is now the main European organization for Air Traffic Services planning. Although its executive ATS role under an amended convention is limited to the Maastricht centre in the Netherlands, covering BENELUX and parts of Germany, its membership has been greatly increased to include most European NATO member states and a number of others, and its Agency has undertaken major planning tasks considered of great importance to the future of European air traffic management. The background to this increased interest in EUROCONTROL planning and objectives is obviously the rapidly deteriorating air traffic situation in Europe over the last few years.

Current European air traffic crisis

While it has been suggested for many years that the air transport industry is being strangled by a traffic volume which the supporting ATS and airport structure was never intended to handle, it was during the last couple of years that European air traffic congestion and delays assumed crisis proportions, triggered off by an explosive increase in civilian air traffic which, in 1988, had already reached volumes predicted for 1995. This situation has led to unprecedented efforts to seek remedies in a plethora of international fora, notably ICAO, EUROCONTROL, the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) and, lately, the European Communities. Obviously, the commercial airline organizations have also been actively engaged in such efforts, while consumer groups have been promoting passengers' interests through a public campaign called SCREAM (Sufferers' Campaign to Resolve the European Aviation Mess).

In this heated environment, it is tempting to look for scapegoats, and European airline executives, with extensive access to the media, have been particularly active in portraying the military as one of the root causes of the problem. Calling for the abolition of reserved airspace for the military, arguments are being put forward such as, "now the enemy has gone, it is time to have an airspace organization that is not dominated by the military point of view". Such rhetoric may score points in the media, but the truth is rather that the military have been too complacent and timid in promoting their interests in the European air traffic environment, to the point that vital training and exercise requirements are being undermined. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the reserved training areas have been established by governments, not the military, first and foremost to ensure the safety of civil aviation. From that point of view, the introduction of temporary reserved military airspace in Germany and other countries has been a great success, since air-miss reports have been practically eliminated.

CEAC has long pioneered the concept of the flexible sharing of airspace through close civil/ military coordination, and is more than ever convinced that this must be the concept for the future, since there will simply not be enough airspace available to apply an airspace organization based on rigid segregation. Such flexibility requires good cooperation and procedures, but also advanced technology which makes it possible to activate or deactivate airspace for military or civil use at short notice, as is already the case in some NATO countries.

While deploring unhelpful and unsubstantiated rhetoric in an environment which more than ever needs goodwill and co-operation, CEAC has been gratified to see an increasingly positive and even-handed approach to the requirements of the military airspace users in various European planning fora where commercial interests were normally aggressively promoted, while military considerations were largely ignored. Thus a recent ICAO paper on airspace planning in Europe currently under consideration notes that, "Unlike previous times when the military could hand over parts of their airspace for civil use, the situation today is that military airspace has shrunk to a minimum size absolutely necessary to fulfil the military requirements. In the current situation, the military can only give up airspace if, on the other hand, they can get civil airspace of the same dimensions according to the principle of give and take." The paper goes on to advocate the flexible, shared civil/military use of airspace and notes that, "the mutual understanding of the requirements of one's partner is absolutely necessary".

Another positive development in this direction is the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) action programme on a strategy for air traffic control for the 1990s, adopted by transport ministers in Paris last April, which recognized civil/ military cooperation as a key element, and established institutional cooperation with CEAC to that effect. ECAC, which currently has 25 member states, is basically a high-level policy body using a project team of EUROCONTROL for the technical work on implementing its ambitious programme aimed at harmonizing and integrating air traffic control systems in the next decade. CEAC intends to contribute actively to this programme and has as a first step released to ECAC a study on Civil and Military Air Traffic Services systems in NATO Europe, which can be used as a data base by the EUROCONTROL Project Team.

Future challenges

There will certainly be no lack of challenges in European air traffic management in the decade ahead. While civil air traffic has been increasing over the last few years far more rapidly than predicted, events such as the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe and the creation of a single European market in 1992 are also bound to have a profound impact on the use of European airspace. In these circumstances, airline associations maintain that nothing but a unified Pan-European Air Traffic Services system will be able to meet future challenges. They have come up with numerous statistics showing that Europe's fragmented national ATS systems incur cost penalties amounting to billions of dollars a year for the airlines, particularly as compared to operations in the United States. The basic flaw with this grand scheme is that it fails to recognize the political/military realities of Europe. Even in a transformed Europe, the sovereignty of national airspace and its military implications, the interface between ATS and air defence, and the need for an ATS system which will respond to NATO and national defence requirements in emergencies, will remain essential. It is generally felt that it is now too late to go back to the drawing board and start with a blank sheet of paper, and that the only realistic approach to achieving a more unified European ATS system will be along the lines of a EUROCONTROL 4-States Integration Project and the European Civil Aviation Conference's programme for harmonization and integration of national ATS systems. The single Air Traffic Flow Management Unit for Western Europe, to be built and operated by EUROCONTROL, will also contribute to these efforts.

Finally, what about the peace dividend? With the Cold War over and a transformed Europe, many take it for granted that the military requirement for flying in European airspace will soon diminish dramatically or even disappear. However, the recent signing of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) has perhaps driven home the point that there is actually little probability of any significant reductions in the current allied holdings of 6,500 combat aircraft, since the agreed equal ceiling permits 6,800 such aircraft on each side.

In the future European security environment, mobility and flexibility will be of the essence, as reflected in the London Declaration issued by the Alliance's political leaders last July. Since only aircraft can provide that mobility, as so amply demonstrated in the Gulf war, it seems that the relative importance of air forces and air defence is more likely to increase in future. Taking into account the Alliance's additional 4,000 non-combat aircraft, it is safe to say that the limited European airspace will continue to accommodate, in the foreseeable future, a uniquely complex mixture of civil and military air traffic, without parallel elsewhere in the world. In these circumstances, the concept of close civil/military cooperation and integrated decision-making at all levels, nationally and internationally, will remain vital, and CEAC will pursue its role as the main international forum for this process.

The dramatic improvement in East-West relations may also open up new and exciting opportunities for cooperation, as the Alliance pursues the implementation of the decisions taken at the ministerial meeting of the Council in Turnberry, Scotland, last June (1) and the London Summit of last July. (2) The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are evolving from predominantly military airspace management systems to civil systems, thus CEAC could play a constructive role in sharing with them its unique experience in civil/ military coordination. In view of the tremendous increase expected in air traffic both from East to West and from West to East in the years to come, it would seem that this cooperation would be in the West's own interest and it would be a further sign that the Atlantic Community is extending the hand of friendship and cooperation to their former Cold War adversaries.

(1) Message and Communiqué in NATO Review No.3,June 1990, p.28.
(2) London Declaration in NATO Review No.4, August 1990, p.32