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Command and control

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss how the RAF detected incoming aircraft and managed its assets to intercept them in the Cold War.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now Ross, when we were discussing command and control a little earlier, you talked about the UK air defence ground environment. What would we understand by that term?
ROSS MAHONEY: In short, what we’re talking about is the radar stations and fighters controllers that provide the command and control for the defence of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom during the Cold War by the 1970s, in an air defense sense is referred to as the United Kingdom air defense region. The ground environment relates to those systems required to provide the command and control of both missiles and fighters in the defence of the UK.
And we’re talking about a series of radar stations from northern Scotland all the way down to Cornwall, but with a general direction heading out to into the North Sea, given that the general direction of Soviet aircraft, Maritime patrol, and any other type of aircraft is coming down through the Iceland gap into the North Sea. And we’re talking about processes similar to what we see laid out here. As you quite rightly mentioned, the idea is roughly the same from the original concept of the First World War, through to the modern day. Command and control allows your defender to get assets up quickly on station and able to intercept as quickly as possible.
It’s a more efficient way of applying air power and you don’t have to maintain controls, and you can concentrate on assets at the right point. Britain’s air defence ground environment goes through various upgrades. White Paper of 1979 began the process of upgrading the radar stations up north, and it’s the fighter controller branch, whose origins can extend back to the people that manned these. And these helped in the process related to the Dowding System. And so that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the commanding control of defensive assets, fighters, and missiles.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now most of us would think about the concept of early warning as putting information into the system. But clearly, there’s early warning and there’s early warning. So with regards to the UK air defence ground environment and our RAF Fylingdales how would we differentiate the roles that those two systems perform when it comes to the defense in the UK?
ROSS MAHONEY: Yes, so of course there’s two issues to do with early warning. We’re talking about with the ground environment, we’re talking about air defence in the UK against plausible fronts that could be defended against. Flyingdales is the ballistic missile early warning station based up in Yorkshire, that basically would give Britain notice of ballistic missile threats principally. And that’s early warning in the sense that it gives Britain the notification and opportunity to prepare retaliation. So it’s early warning, they’re both providing early warning but they’re doing it for different reasons.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: I understand. So Flyingdales fits into the slightly cliched public view of the four-minute warning.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Understood. Now in terms of the role of the RAF and certainly, the changes of tactics that we see from the late ’50s into the 1960s beyond, low level interdiction becomes a tactic which is more commonly at least trained for. And one of the reasons you have low level interdiction is simply being able to get under the radar coverage of defenders. The curvature of the earth works against that. Now the RAF has invested in a number of airborne early warning systems. Can you talk us through a little bit of how they operate into basically this sort of perspective.
ROSS MAHONEY: So from the mid 1960s onwards, the RAF becomes involved in airborne early warning. That is aircraft such as the Avro Shackleton principally. The failed attempt to develop an airborne early warning platform on the Nimrod which overruns and is cancelled. And then the eventual decision to purchase the E-3 Sentry. And actually, there had been some pressure from the RAF to buy it much earlier, because it had been bought from NATO’s combined Airborne Early Warning force that eventually ends up based at what was RAF Geilenkirchen, becomes the NATO airbase. But the basic principle behind AEW is the ability to manage airspace and take the load off other systems, but also for deployment.
So Airborne Early Warning systems are deployed on operations as well. Where you can’t manage airspace with the ground defence environment, you can use Airborne Early Warning. It is used for directing fighters. When flighters are scrambled, they’re commonly passed on to the Airborne Early Warning aircraft that’s also quite often scrambled to these threats. For example, during the ’70s, it was quite common during what was referred to as Operation QTIP for Shackletons to be scrambled. But also the task were say, managing airspace. So they may also be tasking Buccaneer maritime strike aircraft onto targets.
So their role is not just about Airborne Early Warning, the it’s about battle space management, which is what the ground defence environment is doing as well, but they are much more focused on the defensive response, whereas the airborne early warning might be used to task offensive aircraft in terms of attacking physical targets. Or it might be a Russian cruiser that is coming through. We will bear in mind the original design of the Buccaneer was to attack Russian cruisers, they might be used in that respect as well. So it’s a bit of a dual role going on.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: I understand. So the development of an aircraft which is taking the radar into the air and to look down or to look over the curvature of the Earth, gave sort of an additional dimension not only of seeing aircraft coming in, but once they’ve been identified, they’re controlling the actions. Whether it be defensive, or as you mentioned, aggressive.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, and in the modern sense, we talk about command control computers and intelligence. It’s a multifaceted and layered development that we see from the early days of command and control in the First World War, with development of radar adding to that system. And then further developments and improvements in radars and sensors. And the advantages it gives you in terms of controlling airspace and defending your centre of gravity. At the end of the day, Britain is the centre of gravity to the British Empire originally, but also to Britain’s interests, has to be defended.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Understood, Ross. So that’s just giving you again, a bit more background about the role of the RAF not simply in terms of providing the cover, but processing the information and the intelligence that allows them to meet the threats as they come towards Britain, or the space that it defends.

Watch the skies.

We filmed this video step in the c.1940 RAF control room model in the Battle of Britain Hall at RAF Hendon.

Here were our ‘prompt points’ for the discussion in the video:

  1. With respect to defending British air space, what is meant by the UK Air Defence Ground Environment?
  2. There is, of course, early warning and early warning: how would we differentiate the role of the UKSDGE and the radar batteries at RAF Fylingdales?
  3. As strike tactics increasingly involved low level interdiction, how does the emergence of airborne early warning change the defence of the UK?

Tell us what you think on these topics in the comments below. Please.

In this step we shall explore how Britain’s ability to detect a Soviet attack evolved over the space of the Cold War. The idea of ‘Command and Control’ deals with Britain’s ability to detect an incoming attack, whether from Soviet bombers or ballistic missiles, and respond proportionately. The UK Air Defence Ground Environment, above all, is the chain of radar stations and fighter controllers stretching across Britain, which can detect an incoming attack and organise an interceptor force as quickly as possible. This concept originates from the First World War, the technology is simply more advanced, but the key motivation is to provide an efficient way of alerting and deploying air power.

The RAF before the Second World War established the Dowding System, which was a network that brought together technology, ground defences and fighter aircraft into a unified system of defence, and we can observe a very similar system continuing into the Cold War period.

The idea of early warning, created two distinct issues, dependent on the nature of the incoming threat. The ground environment could organise the air defence of an incoming attack, but only that of a reasonable threat, for example Soviet bombers or fighters. Britain could not ‘defend’ against ballistic missiles; they could simply prepare to make a retaliatory strike. RAF Fylindales had the role of detecting an incoming ballistic missile, early enough, so as to request the launch of Britain’s nuclear missiles before the attack came.

The ‘four minute warning’ was the approximate time that Britain had to react, between the detection of an incoming attack and its impact. Whilst popularly known as the ‘four-minute warning’, in all likelihood it was probably less than this. It was not long before the fear of a nuclear attack appeared throughout popular culture, and indeed this idea of ‘four minutes’ was highly evocative.

Air interdiction is the tactical bombing of a ground target, to disrupt enemy forces and supplies long-term; it differentiates from strategic bombing because interdictor aircraft do not work independently from ground troops. The key advantage to low-level air interdiction is that aircraft can get under radar coverage, although the method was not without fault – or its dangers. We will cover this with respect to Gulf War I next week.

Integrated with ground based warning systems, the RAF had a number of aircraft that could detect an incoming attack from the skies, providing an extra dimension to the overall system of detection:


The Shackleton was an early maritime patrol aircraft, also used in anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue missions, predominantly was engaged in service during the 1950s and 1960s. It was effectively drummed into service in an early warning role; and initially had radar added to it from the decommissioned Fleet Air Arm Fairey Gannets.

Hawker Siddeley Nimrod

Brought into action to replace the outdated Shackletons in the later 1960s, in the broad sense it had better technology and specifications and so was more effective in the maritime patrol and reconnaissance roles. However the dedicated early warning version of the Nimrod was operated by the RAF for two years – development issues became insurmountable. Technology advanced very quickly and by the 1980s, a newer aircraft was commissioned to replace the Nimrod.

Boeing E-3 Sentry

The Sentry’s roles included air and sea surveillance, airborne command and control, and weapons control. It is a development of the Boeing 707 airframe, although with obvious refinements and sophistications. Just as the Shackleton’s maximum effectiveness reached its capacity, so too eventually did the Nimrod, the E-3 Sentry was the perfect replacement, and is still in operation today.

The airborne early warning system, could also manage airspace, by directing other aircraft to targets, but it was the combination of both ground and air based detection systems that allowed Britain to receive warning in time to ‘scramble’ and defend itself/ prepare retaliatory strikes.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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