Nato-Russia Council

NRC Cooperative Airspace Initiative 10 Years 10 Stories Anniversary Feature


Developing NRC capability against terrorism in the skies

The terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 were a stark demonstration of the catastrophic consequences of terrorists gaining control of planes. It was this event that led to the recognition in the 2002 “Rome Declaration - NATO-Russia Relations: A New Quality” of the need for NRC nations to cooperate against terrorist threats to civilian aircraft.  The need for a common response was soon recognised and led to the development of an NRC air traffic information sharing and coordination capability called the Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI).

Through working together on this capability participating NRC nations have a unique opportunity to share relevant data and therefore significantly enhance forewarning of potential suspected use of air vehicles for terrorist purposes. Once a threat is identified, CAI also has agreed procedures for a cooperative response. This unique NRC system is operational and will soon be guarding against air terrorism on a 24/7 basis.


Development of the Cooperative Airspace Initiative

In 2003 the NRC established the CAI working group. In 2005 a feasibility study was carried out to see how such an air traffic management capability could be built between NRC nations. Following agreement on its feasibility, the system began to be implemented in practice and was completed by 2009. CAI’s testing period then began to see how well the system worked sharing air traffic information. Finally, in December 2011, NRC Foreign Ministers declared the system operational. In 2013 the NRC will have a 24/7 capability to monitor air traffic and the potential to coordinate a response to potential air threats.

The geographic reach of the system

The three NRC regions covered by CAI are the geographic spaces between Norway and Russia, Poland and Russia, and between Turkey and Russia. CAI’s two central coordination centres are located in Moscow and Warsaw. In addition, each of the three zones has a pair of local coordination centres: Bodø and Murmansk, Kaliningrad and Warsaw, and Ankara and Rostov-on-Don. They are connected by communication means which enable radar information on air traffic to be shared, and for air traffic personnel to communicate directly by voice in case of an incident.


Live flight exercises put the capability to the test

In June 2011, ‘Vigilant Skies 2011’, CAI’s first live exercise took place. During the exercise, coordination centres practised in real time with aircraft in the skies the procedures for identifying a suspected aircraft and reacting to it together. During the exercise air traffic controllers viewing the same screen in Poland and Moscow identified a transport aircraft flying from Poland towards Oslo as deviating from its planned flight path and signalling a hijack alarm, and therefore turning into a threat. During the next stage of the scenario, ‘terrorists’ on board the aircraft announced they had taken over the plane and were intending to land in St. Petersburg. Using CAI agreed procedures Poland and Russia were able to launch a joint response, and fighter jets were launched by Poland. The Polish fighters escorted the plane until the border with Russia when they ‘handed over’ the suspect aircraft to Russian jets. The success of this live exercise proved that the system was ready to become operational, and tackle real suspected threats to civilian aircraft. A similar scenario was subsequently conducted over the Black See between Turkey and Russia with the involvement of coordination centres in Ankara, Rostov-on-Don and main coordination centres in Warsaw and Moscow.


Taking CAI forward as an NRC capability

While the system is now operational, work among the CAI nations is continuing to improve the capability further. Nations are also continuing to test the system’s ability. In November 2012, a computer-assisted exercise will take place to test cooperative responses. In 2013 another live exercise will be held, ensuring that in the event of a terrorist hijacking of civilian aircraft, nations participating in CAI are ready to identify and respond together to protect populations and airline passengers from the threat of air terrorism.

CAI Vigilant Skies Exercise 

Watch a short documentary video about the Vigilant Skies Exercise 2011 from the NRC YouTube Channel.