I am writing this node as a Fighter Controller in the Royal Air Force in
order to draw to people's attention the vital, yet often thankless, task carried
out daily by me and other Air Battle Managers throughout NATO and the
Commonwealth. In order to put the branch into perspective I have included a
brief history - although it seems large, it is by no means exhaustive, and any
questions are welcome. This writeup concerns the British world of Fighter
Control - however, as this is where Air Battle Management (ABM) started, and
owing to the standardisation of ABM throughout NATO, this applies well to most
other air forces.
Formation of the Branch.
In 1941 all was not going well the for the Royal Air Force. The Battle of
Britain threatened to destroy Fighter Command's squadrons on the ground and
in the air in accordance with Reichsmarschall Göring's grand plan for
the air power element of Operation Sealion. Hitler's express intention was
included in Directive 16 to Operation SEALION - that the RAF "must be so
crushed that it would be unable to offer any resistance worth speaking of to the
German crossing of the Channel".
However, in 1935 Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the Air
Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command, was investigating use of a new
technology - radar (for Radio Detection and Ranging), originally conceived as
a "death-ray". In 1937 the Government constructed the first of its radar
sites, the Chain Home (CH) system on the south east coast - the world's first
radar array. By September 1939, 19 of these sites had been built in the UK and
another 3 overseas. CH was a monostatic
primary radar system - that is, electromagnetic radiation (EM) in the radio
band was propagated by one mast, and the echoed signals received and decoded by
a separate mast. The system could effectively detect aircraft flying at medium
altitude up to 100 miles away, ideal for the detection of Luftwaffe
bombing raids. Skilled radar operators were even able to give an approximate
size and altitude of the raid. In 1939 the first Chain Home Low (CHL) array
was erected to cover lower airspace (below 3,000ft), providing a far better
coverage of the airspace over the Channel. By the start of the Battle of
Britain 27 each of CH and CHL stations had been built to counter the threat of
This was not quite enough for Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who wanted to use the radar
system to vector RAF fighters directly into the Luftwaffe raids. In
1939 and 1940 a small device - called a transponder - was fitted to RAF
aircraft. This responded to CH radar beams by transmitting its own signal,
causing an elongation of the plot on the radar screen. Codenamed PARROT, this
was the forerunner to the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system now in use
with all aircraft around the world. Owing to the fact that this system relies upon retransmission of RF energy from the aircraft, it is known as Secondary Radar. Dowding now felt able to implement his
plan for Air Battle Managers to control RAF fighters. Medically downgraded
fighter pilots - many of them veterans of overseas campaigns with several kills
to their names - were selected and trained as Fighter Controllers. They would
sit in operations rooms around the country and manage the air battle via a
tactical map on a large table, based upon the information received from the CH
system. This proved effective in deterring and defeating incoming Luftwaffe
raids, although the Germans, initially skeptical about radar, started to bomb CH
sites. On 15 September 1940 the Battle of Britain was won, the Luftwaffe
reverted to night raids only, and Operation SEALION was called off indefinitely.
Radar, and the newly formed branch of Fighter Controllers, had played a crucial
role in the defeat of Hitler's plans.
The Cold War Era.
Fighter Control had established itself firmly as the most vital element of
front line home defence. Radars were built up and down the east coast in order
to detect, deter and destroy the perceived Soviet threat to the UK. In order
to protect Fighter Controllers concrete bunkers were built in the early 1950s to house the new
Control Reporting Centres (CRCs) at various locations, including Saxa Vord in
the Shetland Islands, Buchan in Aberdeenshire, Neatishead in Norfolk and
Bentley Priory in London. CRCs were responsible for the identification of all
aircraft in the UK's allocated air policing area as hostile or friendly, using a
range of ID criteria. Hostile aircraft were then intercepted by the main air
defence fighter aircraft of the time - most notably the English Electric
Lightning, the most advanced jet fighter in the world at the time it entered
service with 74 Sqn RAF in 1960, and later on the McDonnell Douglas Phantom.
A mobile CRC was also developed, 1 Air Control Centre (1ACC), for deployment to
gaps in the radar coverage of the UK and also for field deployment on the
European mainland to help counter any Soviet invasion.
This period saw several important developments, not least the creation of
1ACC. Fighter Control integrated more closely with elements of the Royal Navy,
and the foundations of digital data links - those tactical data exchange methods
vital for sharing information - came into being. It was also realised that an
airborne element should be included in the UK Air Defence Ground Environment
(UKADGE, the term covering the whole ABM and air defence (AD) system). The
ageing Shackleton Mk 2 airframe was chosen for this role, using surplus radars
from Royal Navy Gannet Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft. The
Shackleton AEW2 was issued to 8 Sqn RAF and entered service in 1972 - despite
their age and ramshackle nature they continued to operate in the AEW role until
the E3 Sentry entered service in 1992. (Humourous note - the Shackletons
were so old that individual aircraft became known as "ten-thousand rivets
flying in formation," a nickname typical of the British military sense of
Probably the most essential development was the Bloodhound AD surface to
air missile (SAM) system. Entering service in 1958 the Bloodhound was capable
of destroying a target flying between 10,000 and 60,000ft and at a range of up
to 20 miles, and could cruise at speeds of up to Mach 2.0. Some 352 of these
weapons were deployed around the UK, providing a significant and formidable
boost to home defence. On the detection of an incoming raid by a CRC, a master
radar unit would decide whether to scramble fighters against it or to launch
Bloodhound. Responsibility for the control of Bloodhound lay with Fighter
Controllers at Tactical Control Centres.
Post Cold War.
In 1991 the RAF was heavily involved in the first Persian Gulf War, and
1ACC had deployed. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc, however, left Fighter
Control without a purpose - supposedly the air threat had been neutralised.
Nonetheless, the branch remained in place, for the AD of the UK and to continue
with its important role in the training of new fighter pilots. By now the main
AD fighter aircraft was the Tornado F3, a modification of the Torndao GR1 bomber airframe, designed to
counter low-level threat. Despite its diminishing role,
Fighter Control continued to develop, with the introduction of the E3 Sentry
Airborne Weapons and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. The UK purchased 7
D-generation (E3D) aircraft, the most capable kind operating anywhere in the
world. All of the aircraft are operated by 8 and 23 Sqns at RAF Waddington (they
are the only aircraft in the RAF to wear the markings of two different
squadrons), and provide an extremely capable low-level radar detection element
for the UK and NATO. The Type-101 radar was purchased for 1ACC, leading to a
vast improvement in deployment capability and detection/control.
In 1997 the new Labour Government introduced the Strategic Defence
Initiative, a far-reaching assessment of post-Cold War needs. This implicitly
questioned the use of the home AD system, and the branch came under very real
threat of drastic reductions. However, the tragic events of September 11 2001
proved the importance of having a capable home AD system, and it now looks
likely that the Fighter Control branch will become one of the very few branches
set to grow - both in funding and in personnel - in the coming years.
THE MODERN BRANCH
The Fighter Control branch is part of 3 Group RAF, based at RAF High Wycombe.
There are three CRCs in the UK - RAF Buchan (my base, due to cease operations in
November 2004), RAF Neatishead (also earmarked for closure, still under
ministerial review), and a standby CRC at the RAF School of Fighter Control, RAF
Boulmer. Using the capable yet ageing Integrated Command and Control System
(ICCS), introduced in 1992, the role of the branch remains the same as ever - to
support the AD of the UK and to support operations overseas using a range of
ground, air and sea-based sensors. Over the years it has evolved into two
separate specialisations - surveillance and weapons, both of which are
covered in more detail below, and UKADGE has been replaced by the UK Air
Surveillance and Control System (ASACS).
The command and control system runs as follows:
Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) 9, RAF High Wycombe
Group Captain ASACS, HQ 3 Gp RAF
UKASACS Duty Controller
Master Controller (at CRC)
The Master Controller (MC) is the point at which both
sub-specialisations of the branch combine. He is responsible for the day-to-day
tactical deployment of AD assets within his CRC's area of responsibility, which
includes authority to scramble fighter aircraft. The ASACS Duty Controller is
concerned with the whole air defence picture, and as such is in overall command
of both CRCs at the operational level. Group Captain ASACS formulates strategic
plans for the conduct of daily AD operations, and is subordinated to the NATO
CAOC in his country (CAOC9 in the UK).
The lower levels then split into weapons and surveillance.
The highest level of "weaponeers" is the Fighter Allocator (FA). In an air battle he is responsible to the MC for allocating packets of fighters to individual enemy formations, utilising all of the aircraft at his disposal to maximise attrition on the enemy. He is aided by the Fighter Marshal, who guides friendly aircraft into the battle area, where they are controlled individually by Weapons Controllers (weaponeers). The weaponeer speaks directly to the pilots of anything up to seven aircraft under his control, giving them vital information on the activity, strength and disposition of enemy aircraft. In this capacity the weaponeer must be familiar with the tactics employed by fighter aircraft. He works in an extremely dangerous and dynamic environment, and has earned the respectful nickname of "the third eye in the cockpit" from pilots.
I am in this side of the branch. It is considered the day-to-day operational side of the branch and, as we are at permanaent readiness, is a front-line trade. The highest surveillance officer is the Surveillance Director, who is responsible to the MC for the tactical employment of all available sensors, including AWACS aircraft, NATO ships, ground radars and the surveillance team within the CRC. He is assisted where necessary by the Sensor Manager, who will turn off radars as appropriate to maintain a healthy system. The busiest member of the CRC is the Identification Officer (IDO), a role I fulfil. The IDO is responsible for the categorisation, threat-assessment and, where possible, identification of all air tracks within his area of responsibility. Day-to-day, when I sit on console I do this for a half-million square miles area of airspace. He is also responsible for maintaining tracking of aircraft in combat, and is assisted by the Track Supervisor and tracking team to do this. It is a tremendously dynamic job requiring patience and an extraordinary ability to multi-task (think about assessing aircraft, checking totes, speaking to a continental agency and listening to them with one ear and up to five radio channels with the other ear.....).
The Branch is currently undergoing some key changes. The most important is the replacement of the ageing ICCS system with the UKADGE Capability Maintenance Programme (UCMP), a Windows-based IBM system that should prove far easier to use and more serviceable then ICCS. When UCMP is introduced, RAF Buchan will close, leaving Boulmer and Neatishead as the two CRCs. Under a current small bases review, however, Neatishead's future is also uncertain. Potentially, when it closes for refurbishment later this year, Neatishead may not reopen. Plans exist for a new CRC at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, currently the home of the RAF Aerobatic Team (the Red Arrows), although, again, this has yet to be confirmed.
The introduction of the Eurofighter Typhoon later this decade will revolutionise air defence. The Typhoon will replace the Tornado F3, and is far-and-away the most capable multi-role air defence fighter/bomber aircraft in existence. Owing to its fly-by-wire nature, and the integration of Joint Tactical Information Distribusion System (JTIDS), Typhoon will have a far superior air picture than Tornado, and will be supported and improved by ground controlled interception from fighter controllers. Improved military radars will lengthen the range to which we can work, and continued integration with the navies and air forces of our NATO partners promises to further our ability to defend the air wherever we are deployed.
The branch's future was until a few years ago uncertain. The events of 9/11 have, however, proved that even in peacetime every nation needs a capable air defence system. Whether 9/11 could have been prevented by Fighter Control is a contentious and, ultimately, unanswerable question; what is evident, however, is that with dedicated, professional fighter controllers watching the skies, the UK is a far safer place than it would be if we weren't here.