Managing the air battlespace in the busy skies of Iceland

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Article / June 2, 2017

By: Air Task Force-Iceland Public Affairs

Members of 21 Aerospace Control and Warning (AC&W) Squadron and 22 Wing Operations have deployed to Keflavik Air Base as part of Air Task Force-Iceland (ATF-Iceland) for Operation REASSURANCE. 

“Maintaining an accurate recognized air picture, passing that to higher headquarters and controlling fast moving aircraft in sometimes tight airspace; it’s a big responsibility,” said the team’s senior officer, Major John Verran. 

This team of ten is normally based at 22 Wing North Bay, Ontario, in a NORAD role where they monitor and track air traffic within Canadian airspace and its approaches. The team has taken their skills as Aerospace Controllers and Aerospace Control Operators to Iceland, the only NATO nation without a standing military. This time, their role is to help fulfil the Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities to meet Iceland's Peacetime Preparedness Needs mission. This long-standing NATO mission involves fighter aircraft basing out of Iceland to provide surveillance of Iceland’s airspace, as well as launching rapidly (“scrambling”) to intercept and identify unknown aircraft if needed.

Serving alongside Icelandic Coast Guard personnel at the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) in Keflavik, on a rocky, often wind-swept peninsula west of Reykjavik, the team performs a critical command and control function.  Working as a close crew, they ensure mission execution and the passage of accurate information between ATF-Iceland and the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Uedem, Germany. CAOC is the NATO headquarters responsible for the control of Royal Canadian Air Force assets in Iceland.

“This is fun, I love it,” said Aviator Kory Clermont, of his first overseas mission as an Aerospace Control Operator. “I work with the Master Controller to help maintain situational awareness in the team and coordinate the scramble procedures for CF-18s with civilian Air Traffic Control.”

The team analyzes and assesses information from multiple radar feeds, datalink, and visual reports to develop a common picture of what is happening in the air at any one time. However, this is not the only critical function of these members.  They also serve as air intercept controllers, communicating with pilots and directing them where to be and how to get there.

Most of the work this team does is hidden from public view in a secure operations center surrounded by computer screens. However, the air surveillance and intercept mission that Canada is performing from May to June 2017 could not happen without their expertise and dedication. 

“In order to conduct an efficient intercept, it is important to have freedom of movement [for our CF-18s],” explained Major Verran. “For effective operations to occur, there is a degree of control that must happen. To this end we liaise with the Icelandic Civil Aviation Administration.”

For Major Verran, the most important operational role of the CRC is two-fold: effective battlespace management and safety. “Developing plans, recognizing when it is necessary to execute or alter those plans and doing so expeditiously and safely is what we strive for every day.”

To this end, the Aerospace Controllers and Aerospace Control Operators run daily exercises involving the CAOC and ATF fighter detachment. They practice communication procedures and scramble drills, which involve pilots, controllers and maintainers working together to get fighter jets airborne quickly.

“It’s always interesting going to another country and working, in this case, with our Icelandic counterparts,” said Captain Ross Nevile, an Aerospace Controller. “You are entrusted with maintaining safety in the airspace of another country through applying your procedures thoroughly.”

To ensure the team was prepared for operations, they arrived in Keflavik a full week before the main body of the ATF. This allowed the group to develop standard operating procedures and liaise with local authorities.

"We have a relatively young crew on this deployment, but it provides an excellent development opportunity. The amount and type of control they see, and the close interaction with their pilot peers, is a valuable experience that these young controllers will use in their careers.” said Major Verran. 

Conducting operations in the often busy skies of Iceland is a challenging, but a necessary job. Through sound battlespace management and coordination over the course of the deployment, the CRC team is a key contributor to a successful mission.

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