NATO

NATO Air Policing: 60 Years On

The Royal Air Force trialled air policing a month before it was introduced to NATO.

On 1 June, NATO will mark the 60th anniversary of its air policing and integrated air defence system.

However, the system was trialled by the Royal Air Force a month before it was introduced by NATO.

The RAF also likely coined the term "air policing" as early as the 1930s.

"It was in the 1930s and it was over a country called Mesopotamia. Nowadays, we know it as Iraq," Air Commodore Jason Appleton, Deputy Chief of Staff Support at NATO's Headquarters Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, told Forces News. 

He explained that it was "air policing within a different kind of guise".

Air Commodore Appleton said: "The Royal Air Force came up with this idea of saying – well, rather than commit lots of boots on the ground, why not have aircraft?"

The RAF's idea meant fewer people needed to be involved and policing could be carried out at "greater speed" and have "greater reach in terms of the area" it covered.

Two RAF Hawker Hurricane MK1 fighters from RAF 79 Squadron taking off from RAF Hawkinge, Kent during the Battle of Britain 200740 CREDIT PA.jpg
Radar technology became increasingly important during the Second World War (Picture: PA).

As the UK entered the Second World War, the importance of radar technology became increasingly relevant.

"What you have it was called the 'Dowding System' during World War Two, and this was about the radars and all the observations looking to the south and to the east," Air Commodore Appleton said.

The use of radar technology allowed the UK to see any potential threats coming towards Britain and "allowed them to scramble aircraft to meet, to intercept any potential aggressors."

"This was conducted – perhaps a lot of it – over the English Channel," he added.

RAF Westland Wapiti aircraft operating out of RAF Hinaidi near Baghdad, Iraq circa 1930 CREDIT RAF/SARAH YATES
An RAF Westland Wapiti aircraft operating out of RAF Hinaidi near Baghdad, Iraq, around 1930 (Picture: RAF/Sarah Yates).

By 1960, NATO had existed for more than a decade and a lot of member states had developed their own air defence systems, "but it wasn't integrated per se," Air Commodore Appleton explained.

He said: "Countries were looking after their own national responsibilities.

"In 1960, the discussion started about how we can integrate this better, how we can provide more of the collective defence, collective reassurance across the whole of the NATO area of responsibility."

The Deputy Chief of Staff Support at NATO's Headquarters Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base said that for the UK and the RAF, that "meant relatively little change".

"It allowed all of our allies to perhaps copy the same sort of system into what it became in 1961."

For 60 years that airspace has been maintained thanks to a collective effort and 24/7 high readiness.

"It's a real visible effort and it's been a persistent effort over all that time," Air Commodore Appleton said.