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QRA – experience and expectation

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss what the ‘scramble’ meant for RAF Fighter Command in the Cold War.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: We talked a little bit earlier about the Soviet bomber threat. And the RAF had to innovate continually to deal with the threat of the Soviet Union. Now behind us, we have the Gloster Javelin, which operated in the 1950s into the late 1960s, and was conceived as part of the force that would counter any bomber assault on UK territories. Ross, what went hand in hand with the aircraft was the concept of the quick response alert, which effectively is the same tactic as we see in the Battle of Britain with the scramble. How much more difficult was it to operate that with sophisticated yet aircraft?
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, so QRA, quick reaction alert is the mode of operation for Britain’s fighter force in the ’50s and ’60s. And it still is today. Actually there’s very direct continuity in how Britain has defended the UK since, actually, the First World War. The so-called Dowding system of The Second World War owes its heritage to the London Air Defence Area of 1917, 1918. And what you see is you see a development of the sensors involved, and so radar being a key one. The key problem facing the 1940s and 1950s is, of course, where that threat is coming from.
The Second World War, the threat is coming from France, or even before The Second World War, it’s perceived to be coming up and across the North Sea. With the Soviets, it’s coming through the Iceland - Faroe gap. It’s coming down from the Arctic Ocean into the North Sea. You see a refocusing of Britain’s radar stations - shift from the southwest of the UK to north, to Scotland, to Northeast England. Of course, the other challenge is the aircraft coming in, and detecting them quick enough remains a key challenge.
Improvements in radar technology means you’re able to detect aircraft further out to sea, which means that you can scramble an aircraft at fighter base in northern England, places like RAF Leuchars for example, in the ’80s, to detect Soviet aircraft. The other development of course, in all of this is the eventual introduction of Airborne Early Warning radar. The introduction of the Shackleton in the AW role is quite important. For example, during the 1970s, in what’s called Operation QTIP, five Shackletons are being scrambled to monitor and then control the fighter aircraft as their airborne. Furthermore behind all of this is the development in the aircraft, but also in the policy. So of course, there are two parts to this.
One is the defence of the V bomber bases, which is largely given over to the missiles, to the Bloodhound and so forth, but also the use of aircraft. So the gradual improvement in the RAF’s fighter force in this period. The Javelin is an example of an aircraft that, if I was marking, it would be a C plus, must try harder. Whereas you get aircrafts such as the Lightning, which is a very good point interceptor. Short legged, it doesn’t have very much endurance, but can get up quick, high fast, and out there very quickly. The introduction of the American Phantom in the late ’60s into the ’70s is another improvement.
Eventually in the 1980s, the introduction of the Tornado air defence variant is quite important. Because while it has been criticised, and is perhaps not the world’s greatest air to air fighter, its advantage was it that it had persistence. It had a degree of ability to cruise and be up in the air quite long. And quite often these aircraft are doing is monitoring Soviet aircraft that come into British airspace. And you have to remember that this is not just bomber aircraft. It’s also maritime patrol aircraft. We’ve heard you mention the TU-95 Bear. Well of course the Bear has a maritime patrol variant. And it’s purpose is to try and work out Britain’s defences, naval differences.
And by keeping those aircraft out to sea, we’re able to defend UK interests. At the end of the day, we’re a maritime nation. We need to defend our sea lines of communication. And the air defence environment that’s developed in the UK allows us to do that.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now the end of the Cold War, the Tornado ADF is probably the most sophisticated aircraft we have. It does have a long endurance. But it wasn’t common for common combat air patrols to be flown unless they were in a combat environment.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah they sort of happened both. A Tornado could be scrambled for QRA, but then because of its persistence, undertake a combat air patrol mission. So they do happen side by side. So there is a little bit of– I suppose one of the interesting things, one of the problems with the Tornado is that, as I mentioned, it’s not a dog fighter. It’s not an air to air aircraft. Interestingly, The Eurofighter Typhoon, which now equips the RAF, is a Cold War aircraft. It’s development starts in the ’80s. One of the reasons it’s being developed is to make up for that shortfall in air to air combat capability.
Of course today, in terms of QRA, in terms of defending UK air space, the Eurofighter Typhoon is one of the leading aircraft in the world for that role.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now over the Cold War period, as Britain changed its designation for the strategic delivery of nuclear weapons, the quick response alerts, they moved away from defending the Vulcan or the V - Forces principally. To what degree are we actually seeing Britain being defended through QRA, as opposed to Britain’s ability to retaliate being defended.
ROSS MAHONEY: Well, of course they’re both interlinked. But yes, the shift is more from defending the retaliatory capability to things such as defending the sea lines of communication. By providing QRA, stopping Soviet aircraft from entering our space, you’re defending the UK interest. The other place where you increasingly see QRA, or it’s been there for a long time, but there’s a bit more of a focus is in RAF Germany. Phantoms are deployed to Germany. There had been Lightnings deployed to Germany on QRA, so defending the central front. So the composition and nature of the fighter force shifts. But ultimately, it is about defending UK interests, rather than, say, defending Britain per se.
It’s about those interests, ability to retaliate, ability to defend our sea lines of communication. And they’re all linked. But the balance of that focus changes over time.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Ross. Let’s go on and consider both experience of QRA for the RAF, and the purpose for air defence in the Cold War era, in the next stage of this particular course. Thank you very much.


We used this video step to try and address the following questions, out of the many we might have considered:

  1. The concept of the ‘scramble’ really dates from the Second World War – how different was practice with sophisticated jets?
  2. The Tornado ADF is a long endurance point defence aircraft – so why were combat air patrols were not regularly flown?
  3. AEW and the fighter force were defending UK airspace – but how much of that was to protect the public?

As ever, we would welcome your thoughts on the topic as we covered in in the video.


This step will deal with the concept of ‘Quick Reaction Alert’, which quite simply is the state of readiness that the RAF adopted in preparation for an attack, focusing on the aircraft that were on standby across Britain. Whilst it can notably be likened to the ‘scramble’ during the Second World War, its origins can be traced back to the First World War, and is indeed still something carried out today. It is important to understand however that during the Cold War, the advanced aircraft made this a much more difficult task.

Gloster Javelin

Operational primarily during the 1950s and 1960s, the Javelin was one of the RAF’s key interceptor aircrafts, yet was very much in the shadow of its superior, the Lightning.

English Electric Lightning

For most of the Cold War, the Lightning was the RAF’s leading fighter aircraft. It was an incredibly quick interceptor, but lacked endurance, which was why in-flight refuelling became so important.

Tornado Air Defence Variant

Not as good at air-to-air fighting in comparison with the Javelin or Lightning, but had much longer endurance, which made it better for monitoring airspace and maritime patrol. This was a development from the Tornado Interdictor/Strike aircraft.

Eurofighter Typhoon

One of the leading aircraft in the world still today, its development actually began in the 1980s to deal with the shortfall in close combat aircraft with a longer endurance. The Typhoon is a very agile and effective dogfighter aircraft; perfect for QRA and is still the aircraft of choice by the RAF. It has a whole website dedicated to it if you are interested in more information).

There was a notable shift in the role of QRA, moving away from the defence of the V-Force, and instead protecting Britain’s assets, its shipping capabilities and communication lines. Many interceptor aircraft were also stationed across West Germany under the QRA concept, as another line of defence not only of Britain per say, but of Britain’s interests across Europe.

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

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