First live NATO-Russia counter-terrorism exercise in the skies

Polish, Russian and Turkish fighter jets intervened in response to the simulated hijacking of a passenger aircraft by terrorists, during counterterrorism exercise “Vigilant Skies 2011”, which took place between 6 and 10 June. The exercise was a joint demonstration of the operational readiness of the NATO-Russia Council’s Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI). It is the first NATO-Russia system of its kind to be fielded and it was the first such jointblive-flying, real-time counter-terrorism exercise.

“This exercise will contribute to developing standards of communication between our Russian military and civil experts and their colleagues from NATO, […] raising the possibilities of protecting citizens from terrorist acts,” says Major General Yevgeni Potapov, the Russian Exercise Director.

Developing the CAI system is one of thepriority areas of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) work programme. It is designed to prevent terrorist attacks which use civilian aircraft – such as the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 – by sharing information on movements in NATO airspace and Russian airspace, and by coordinating interceptions of renegade aircraft. The initiative will improve air safety for the thousands of passengers using international flights between NATO airspace and Russian airspace each day, and the millions of inhabitants on the ground.

This new airspace security system provides a shared NATO-Russia radar picture of air traffic and allows early warning of suspicious air activities through commonly agreed procedures. In situations when an aircraft starts behaving erratically, the air traffic coordination system offers increased information sharing and communication to ensure rapid, joint responses to terrorist threats.

The CAI system has two coordination centres – in Warsaw and Moscow – and local coordination sites in Kaliningrad, Rostov-on-Don, Murmansk (Russia), Warsaw (Poland), Bodø (Norway), and Ankara (Turkey).

Dramatic scenarios in the skies over Poland and the Black Sea

On 7 June, the first day of the live-flying phase of the exercise, a Polish aircraft played a ‘renegade’ aircraft role, taking off from Krakow. After a flight-plan deviation and loss of communication with the aircraft, Polish fighters intercepted the aircraft, before handing the mission on to Russian fighters. Following a struggle in the cockpit, the terrorists were overpowered, but the plane’s navigation equipment was damaged and the plane needed to be guided by the Russian fighters back to Poland, where it eventually landed safely in Malbork.

The next day, over the Black Sea, communication was lost with Turkish ‘renegade’ aircraft, which had taken off from Incirlik/Adana in Turkey but deviated from its flight plan over the Black Sea. A coordinated intercept, handover and escort mission was conducted by Turkish and Russian fighters.

Development of the CAI system

Based on a feasibility study completed in 2005, detailed system requirements and a project plan were agreed for the CAI system that will enable the reciprocal exchange of air traffic data between centres in NATO countries and in Russia. Implementation started in 2006 and the system reached full operational capability in 2011.

The NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) has led the implementation of the NATO part of the system, and the software was procured from EUROCONTROL.

Implementation of the Russian part of the system was led by the State Air Traffic Management Corporation, under the guidance of the Federal Air Navigation Authority. The Russian segment of the system was developed and supplied by the “Almaz-Antey” Concern.

A total of around 10 millions euros have been invested in the CAI project. Nations that have contributed financially include Canada, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The system is open for participation by other nations, as it is clear that the more countries that join the system the safer the airspace will be. “This is a modular system. We can of course enlarge it,” explains Istvan Talla, NATO Deputy Secretary General for Defnce Investment. So far, Finland and Ukraine have indicated an interest in joining and consultations are underway.

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