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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.

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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