Inside Britain's Quick Reaction Alert System

An edited version of this piece ran in the Mail on Sunday's Live section on December 5, 2010.

Flt Lt Cockroft in the Q Shed at RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

The sink-into sofas and reclining armchairs are slightly on the big side for the small, beige room. There's a flat screen TV, DVD player and games console; a battered teapot and some cups. Along the corridor are bedrooms and a kitchen. It could be a flat shared by unusually house-proud students, but for a few incongruous details.

There are no posters of rock stars on the walls: instead, the comfy chairs face a huge map of the North Sea. Over to one side the room opens out onto a bank of computers. And everywhere there are landline telephones; red phones, black phones, phones on tables, phones attached to the wall, phones on the floor. 

The four men sat in the room look comfortable, despite being half-in and half-out of heavy green rubber suits. Gentle wisecracks come easily - everything seems pretty relaxed. But as soon as one of those phones starts to ring, there's a visible stiffening of spines. 

Although the name on the sign outside is RAF Leuchars Quick Reaction Alert, this single-storey building on the edge of the air base near St Andrews is known by everyone here as "the Q shed." Work here is intense, uniquely pressured, and never stops. This is the front line in the never-ending battle to keep British skies safe.

"It's easy to understand parts of the military when you see them abroad on the news," says Flight Lieutenant John Cockroft, a pilot with 111 Fighter Squadron. "But the prime aim of any military of any country has got to be to defend its home nation - and that's what we're doing."

An armed QRA Tornado F3 in the HAS at RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

Flt Lt Cockroft and his three colleagues - another pilot, and two navigators - are the modern-day counterparts of the Spitfire and Hurricane aces of the Battle of Britain. If a potential threat to Britain's airspace is detected, they're ready, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to run to the Tornado F3 fighter aircraft that sit in a state of heightened readiness a few yards away. Within minutes those jets will be screaming into the sky, ready to identify, intercept and, if absolutely necessary, engage.

But the job of securing UK airspace doesn't fall solely on these airmen. As Live discovered during rare and exclusive access to Britain's Quick Reaction Alert system, hundreds of people are involved in a precision-engineered network that is essential to the security of the nation.

"It's very easy, and perhaps even romantic, to concentrate on one end of things," says Wing Commander Nick Stringer, who heads the Operations Wing at RAF Leuchars. "But it's not just the four guys in the shed. Ops Squadron, Air Traffic Control, the ground crew, the computer people - they're all vital, and so is the chef making sure the food's in the right place or the suppliers making sure the pieces are ready to go. It's a team effort."

An Identification Officer's work station in the CRC at RAF Scampton, September 24, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

That team effort involves personnel at six different bases across the UK. The technologies used are constantly being upgraded, and the next phase for Leuchars will begin in March, when the Tornado jets will be retired and QRA duties will be taken over by new Eurofighter Typhoons. But the theory underpinning the Quick Reaction Alert system has remained unchanged since World War Two, when Britain's air defence system was set up by Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding.

You can't escape that history at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire, one of two bases (the other is at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland) which build up a moving real-time 3-D map, called the Recognised Air Picture, that pinpoints the position, direction and identity of every aircraft in and around UK airspace. During the War, Scampton was home to 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters, and its Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) - the heart of the QRA effort - is housed in 617's former squadron building.

Data flowing in to the CRC include radar signals, flight plans, airline schedules, "squawks" from the transponders on board aircraft, information from civilian Air Traffic Controllers, and reports from intelligence services. The vast majority of air traffic operates normally, safely and within the law - but it's the job of the CRC's Identification Officers to spot the ones that don't. 

"What we do is highlight tracks of special interest," explains Sergeant Ian Davies, an Identification Officer. "Those are [aircraft] which perhaps do not conform to the normal procedures for routing and recognition."

At his computer terminal, Sgt Davies sees aircraft as coloured symbols against a black screen. The arrangement of dots and dashes either side of the object - the track - shows the path the aircraft has taken, and its expected route. Checking its identification code against an air traffic database, Sgt Davies is able to tell whether the aircraft is where it's supposed to be, and whether it's sticking to its flight plan.

Once satisfied he knows what it is and that it's operating normally, Sgt Davies tags that aircraft as identified, and the process begins again with another of the hundreds of objects in the sky over Britain on a typical weekday. If, however, that identification process fails - if there's no flight plan filed, something is wrong with the transponder signal, or the aircraft is behaving oddly - Sgt Davies would make a different series of mouse clicks and that aircraft would be designated a "track of interest". He'd discuss this with his immediate boss, the Surveillance Director, and, if both of them felt there was cause for concern, they would alert the Master Controller.

"I'd try to make a reasoned judgement," says Squadron Leader Darren Phelps, today's Master Controller at Scampton, "after collating all the information my team provides me. It's very important they give me all the extra bits of granularity - so instead of just having a stab, I've got all the information available."

Sgt Davies at work in the CRC, RAF Scampton, September 24, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

Next, Sqn Ldr Phelps has to assess whether the unidentified aircraft represents a potential problem to British airspace, or whether it's something that affects Britain's NATO allies. If it looks like a NATO issue, he will call his NATO superiors, at Finderup in Denmark; if it's a British problem, the call is to RAF Air Command, at High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire. The whereabouts of the unidentified aircraft may determine which of the two QRA bases the Master Controller alerts: Leuchars usually handles situations developing in the northern half of the British Isles, while Typhoon jets based at RAF Coningsby, in Lincolnshire, usually handle the southern half.

While he awaits the decision, the Master Controller will make sure everything is in place. Staff on standby could be called back to their desks. If there's a radar-equipped Royal Navy ship or an AWACS radar aircraft in the area they may be asked to assist. If the track of interest is a long way from the QRA base, RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, could be asked to ready a VC-10 tanker so the fighters can refuel in mid-air.

If the decision is taken to launch the fighters, the Master Controller issues the order through a black box called a Telebrief. The CRC's orders will be heard on Telebriefs at a number of different locations simultaneously. Just like the system itself, the language used hasn't changed since the War: the order is: "Scramble, scramble, scramble."

In the tower at RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

In the control tower at Leuchars, the base's Air Traffic Control staff will hear the order and immediately ensure their airspace is clear. That job may be made more complex by the base's good neighbour status: "Dundee airport doesn't have a radar, so we also provide a radar service for aircraft in and out of Dundee," says Air Traffic Controller Flight Lieutenant Laura Tarrel. "There's a lot more going on for us in the local airspace that people often aren't really aware of."

In the Ops Room at Leuchars, Squadron Leader Henry Paul and his team will acknowledge the call and make a written note of the details, in case the aircrews need to check anything later. The Ops team begin preparing for their main role, which is to ensure that information and imagery from the fighters is quickly passed up to the relevant people once the aircraft return to the base.

In the Q shed, a panel with one green and one red button operates a siren in the building; another button below it opens the aircraft shelter doors. "We'll hit the sirens, open the shelter doors, and run out to the jets," says Squadron Leader Karl Jewitt, a Tornado F3 navigator and the officer in command of 111 Fighter Squadron's A Flight, "and the engineers will already be at the aeroplane doing what they need to do to get it ready for us."


Ground crew in the Q Shed, RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

Several ground crewmen also live in the Q shed. Unlike the aircrew, whose QRA shift is 24 hours, the ground crew are there for a week at a time. They tend to the aircraft every few hours so last-minute checks are kept to a minimum, and ensure its complement of missiles - all live, unlike on a training flight - are armed and ready.

The airmen are at their jets in seconds. The last man out will press the green button to reset the siren, and is also responsible for locking the Q shed door - those computers contain classified information.

The CRC staff will be continuing their attempts to identify the unresponsive aircraft - and if they've been successful, this will be where the incident ends. Exact figures for the numbers of QRA scrambles are not made available, though Live understands that UK QRA aircraft have been scrambled, on average, approximately once a month so far this year. But scrambles are heavily outnumbered by "call to cockpit" alerts, where crews get to their aircraft but the situation is resolved before they leave the ground. 

If the aircraft remains unidentified and unresponsive, the fighters will taxi to the end of the runway and Leuchars's Air Traffic Controllers will clear them for take-off as quickly as possible. The time taken between the scramble being ordered and the fighters leaving the runway is classified - but it is measured in minutes, and not many of them.

The fighters climb to 20,000 feet and point themselves in the right direction. The Leuchars tower hands them over to the CRC's Weapons Controllers - Aerospace Battle Managers trained to deal with combat aircraft. They make sure the aircrews have all the tactical information they need, and liaise with civilian air traffic control to clear a route to get the fighters in position as quickly as possible. 

The F3s will soon be close enough to the unidentified aircraft to be able to see it. Getting "eyes on" is the pivotal stage in what is still primarily an information-gathering mission. But what do they find when they get there?

A Tornado F3 on a training flight, RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

Sometimes, scrambled QRA jets will find themselves shadowing a Russian bomber on exercises. The exercises were common during the Cold War and have recently been revived, but it has been years since they were treated as hostile activity.

"They're military aircraft, but I don't think anyone really, truly believes that they are a military threat," says Wing Commander Brian Cornwell, who has almost 40 years experience in Britain's air defence system and currently is a senior Aerospace Battle Manager at RAF Air Command. "They're flying in international airspace, and they're quite entitled, legally, to be there."

At other times, the scramble may be caused by pilot error. An incorrect transponder setting can cause considerable concern: position 7000 tells radar that the aircraft is operating normally, but 7500 signals that the aircraft has been hijacked.

The other main causes of QRA scrambles are emergencies on board civilian airliners, the worst-case scenario being a hijack. Traditionally, a hijacking would involve the aircraft being re-routed and landing somewhere; but that was before September 11th, 2001.

"The use of an aircraft as a weapon has changed things," says Squadron Leader Rob Laidlar, 111 Fighter Squadron's Executive Officer and Flt Lt Cockroft's navigator, whose experience as a QRA airman goes back to 1999. "I don't think any of us really considered that option before. We haven't really changed how we do business, but it's something else to think about."

Exactly who would take the most difficult of all air defence decisions - to order the shooting down of a hijacked civilian airliner being used as a guided missile - is classified; members of the Royal Air Force are unable to discuss it. Civilians, however, have sometimes let information slip. In his recent memoir, Tony Blair mentions an incident shortly after 9/11 where he had to consider authorising the shooting down of an airliner bound for London that was not responding to radio (the aircraft, which had a faulty radio, made contact with air traffic control before the Prime Minister had come to a decision).

The QRA system was designed to win an air war against an invading enemy, but its role since 1945 has been to assist aircraft in difficulty, assess emergency situations in the air, keep an eye on other military aircraft when they fly near UK airspace, and, above all, to deter anyone considering any form of airborne attack on the British Isles. Of all the statistics QRA generates, the most important and impressive is that no RAF QRA fighter has ever fired on an aircraft over the UK in peacetime. But every time a scramble is ordered, there is a possibility that this might be the first time.

It is an area the RAF aircrews are understandably reluctant to discuss. But the Chaplain at Leuchars, Squadron Leader Reverend Johnny Wylie, knows that it's something that weighs on their minds.

"I don't think the guys in the aircraft fully understand how they would react themselves," he says. "I know they think about it, because if I ever visit it's always a topic of conversation. So much of what they do is processes - preparing the aircraft; planning the mission - and it's very scientific. But actually what they're being asked to do is very emotional, and it can evoke a very emotional response."


A ground crew member working in the living quarters in the Q Shed, RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

No-one at Leuchars or Scampton believes they are particularly exceptional in their respective RAF trades: one after another, they say that anyone who had made it as far through the Air Force training as they have would be able to do the QRA job. But there is surely no other role in the military that comes with quite this agonising a level of ethical complexity. At least a front-line soldier in Afghanistan knows that the people he has to shoot at are armed and have been shooting at him.

"There's nothing that you could say to prepare a pilot for it," says Rev Wylie. "The only thing we try and do is encourage them that if they were ever in that situation - and let's hope they never will be - that they would be doing the right thing, because there are so many checks and balances in the system. They would be doing their duty: and this is what supreme service, selflessness and loyalty are all about."

And just as the QRA system is about more than the aircraft at the tip of the spear, so the responsibility to defend the nation, no matter what it takes, is a burden shared by everyone involved. They may not think they are exceptional, but everyone involved in the QRA mission has to call on vast reserves of patience, tenacity and courage every time they clock in for a shift. Their inability to see how remarkable this makes them may be the most remarkable thing of all.

"It's very much a team effort," emphasises Air Commodore Harry Atkinson, the Station Commander at Leuchars, "and we work very hard to make sure we're being efficient and effective in delivering that mission. It's not something you can do part-time, or a bit more during the week, or not on Sundays - it's all the time and it's constant. That adds some mild pressures, but we do it, absolutely, and we do it with pride. Why wouldn't we?"

RAF Leuchars, September 22, 2010 - photo (c) Lalage Snow

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