Watching the skies

Quick reaction alert

The primary role for the Royal Air Force is air defence of the United Kingdom.

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The Air Surveillance and Control Systems (ASACS) Force is responsible for compiling a Recognised Air Picture, with radars monitoring the airspace around the UK, and providing tactical control of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Force.

Where once Spitfires and Hurricanes sat on ground alert and patrolled the skies against the Luftwaffe’s aircraft and V-1 ‘Doodlebug’ rockets, today this task is performed by the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon.

24/7, 365 days a year

QRA Typhoon aircraft and their pilots provide a UK air defence capability 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

They are supported by personnel from across the RAF from Airspace Battle Managers and Air Traffic Controllers to the Squadron Engineers who, like the Pilots, take shifts to ensure QRA aircraft are permanently ready to fly.

While on duty, QRA pilots are prepared in their flying suits to take to the skies at a moment’s notice with their aircraft armed and ready.

Where there are indications that an aviation security incident might develop, pilots will standby in the cockpit, ensuring aircraft can take off even more swiftly. This allows the RAF to respond across the country and over the seas around the UK, to defend against potential threats.

Their purpose is to provide an air defence capability ready to detect, deter and if necessary destroy any aircraft intending to attack any target within the UK.

Whereas during World War Two, the main threat was from enemy fighters, since 11 September 2001, the UK now faces a much broader threat to its airspace including the threat from terrorists.

However, QRA aircraft are also ‘scrambled’ in support of NATO to intercept and escort Russian long-range aviation aircraft, such as the Tu-95 Bear, whenever they are flying within the NATO air policing areas that surround the UK.

They also have in the past provided support for aircraft that have lost their radios or have other emergencies requiring airborne assistance.

The task of defending UK airspace is not completed solely by Typhoon aircraft. Voyager aircraft from RAF Brize Norton are also on alert to provide an air-to-air refuelling capability, thus extending the range and endurance of QRA fighters.

Coordinating QRA

These assets are all coordinated by the National Air Defence Operations Centre (NADOC) at High Wycombe. NADOC collates information from radar sites across the UK and from civilian air traffic and intelligence agencies to decide when the threat is sufficient to scramble fighter aircraft.

Should a scramble be ordered, NADOC will pass the order to the control and reporting centres at RAF Scampton and RAF Boulmer that have direct contact with the pilots and will pass on the scramble message.

Once airborne, the fighters will be directed to their targets by fighter controllers from the ASACS Force Command, and will work in conjunction with military air traffic controllers who provide not only normal radar services, but also work with their civilian counterparts to ensure these military priority flights can follow the most direct routes to their targets.

QRA operations are not restricted to operating from RAF Coningsby and Lossiemouth. A permanent detachment of QRA aircraft is positioned in the Falklands and during periods of heightened tension or notable national events, QRA aircraft are able to deploy to other locations as required.

Since World War Two the task of alert air defence hasn’t fundamentally changed. Whilst the aircraft used and the threat may have, the basic premise of QRA has not. It provides a unique, niche capability to provide armed, high performance aircraft to respond quickly to a multitude of threats throughout the UK and overseas.

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