Hopefully everything you need to know about modern day QRA’s
QRA stands for Quick Reaction Alert: Where crews are on standby to quickly react to a tasking.
On standby 24/7
In the UK we have Typhoon fighter jets on standby, fully armed and fully fuelled 24/7. In the UK there are two QRA Stations, North and South, North at RAF Lossiemouth and South at RAF Coningsby. In the “Q Shed” pilots will be on a 24 hour shift, dressed in most of their flying gear, ready to run to the QRA Hangars next door.
There will also be a designated Tanker on standby at RAF Brize Norton, ready to refuel the thirsty Typhoon Fast Jets.
Control & Reporting Centres
Control & Reporting Centres (CRC’s) as part of ASACS the CRC’s watch the UK skies to ensure no aircraft are flying abnormally or no unidentified aircraft are heading for the UK on Primary Radar. There are two Secure CRC’s in the UK, “Blackdog” at RAF Scampton and “Hotspur” at RAF Boulmer. If they designate a Track as a Target of Interest “Zombie” they will gather as much information as possible and report this to the NASOC at RAF High Wycombe. They will scramble QRA if needed and co-ordinate and task air assets as required. They control Aircraft in the tactical environment on Frequencies called TAD’s (Tactical Air Designators)
National Air and Space Operations Centre (Formerly NADOC: National Air Defence Operations Centre) based at RAF High Wycombe. Responsible for the Defence of the UK’s skies. They receive intelligence from the CRC’s and are the people who will speak to the Designated Government Minister, briefing them on the threat and receiving their instructions.
QRA’s operate on TAD’s (Tactical Air Designator) It is important to note these are used for things other than QRA as well. I have often seen frequencies passed about as “The Main QRA TAD’s” for example however thinking along these lines will catch you out as other aircraft which have nothing to do with a QRA may be allocated those TAD’s or QRA missions will take place that don’t use these “QRA TAD’s” as posted.
Callsigns & Codenames
Hotspur is the Callsign for CRC Boulmer
Blackdog for CRC Scampton
Tactical Callsign for any QRA Aircraft (This will be a Number, Letter, Letter, Number & Number)
Transponder Callsigns: It is important to note that the aircraft Callsign, it’s Radio Callsign that is, may not be entered into the Transponder as it is used on a Radio. I have seen anything from the previous missions Callsign, “Q”, “Q0000001”, “Q0000002”, “0” and blank entries used and change during the mission too.
Tansor: Codename for QRA Tanker
Tango: Training Scramble
Q1: The lead QRA Aircraft, subsequent jets numbered 2, 3, 4 etc
Aircraft will fly under a unique Squawk Code in the range of 1301-1327 designated as NATO Air Policing.
Can we track them?
The Typhoons nearly always go Mode 3 A/C, so no. The Tankers are Mode-S & ADSB so generally yes. The Zombies, well if they are Russian you have no chance, if it’s an airliner then perhaps yes. As usual you are best off with a tracking service that doesn’t filter out military (i.e. 360radar)
As stated there will be Typhoons & Tanker at a permanent state of readiness. However this readiness can be increased without a launch taking place. I have heard of Typhoons going engines on and sat on the runway with engines on without actually ever going up. This is important to note as you may see a Tanker getting airborne and starting to pre-position before the jets are ordered to lift. The readiness times they work at are likely to be classified.
The mission will change dynamically depending on the situation, intelligence and direction from Government. It is not always to intercept. The two most common scenarios are Russian Aircraft heading towards the UK Area of Interest and the Aircraft that has lost communication with Air Traffic Control. QRA Aircraft may be ordered into the air to a specific location, they may be tasked to identify and interrogate an aircraft or to establish communication with an aircraft by means other than a radio and they may be tasked to Escort, it simply depends on the mission.
Again this will be down to the requirements of the mission but Typhoons may be given authority to go Supersonic over land. Normally this is not allowed and restricted to areas over water due to the Sonic Boom created when a Jet goes supersonic. However as we are dealing with defence of the UK skies, where lives could be in danger, it may necessitate supersonic flight over land.
The Tanker tasked to support will usually take off from RAF Brize Norton but it’s useful to note that a Tanker already airborne supporting training flights could be re-tasked for the QRA mission. If RAF Brize Norton in due to be unavailable the Tanker will pre-position at another 24 hour airfield with the required runway length, crash category, etc. It is often referred to as “Tansor” during a QRA Operation.
Other aircraft could also be tasked on occasions. For example an E3 Sentry or even a Helicopter to do the intercepting duties
Other agencies may become involved in the Mission. Swanwick Controllers at NATS for example will be moving other Aircraft out of the way and indeed any Air Traffic Control Unit could be called upon to assist by clearing the skies for Air Defence Priority Flights. There are designated Airfields around the UK that Escorted aircraft may be taken into. Local Emergency services such as Police, Ambulance, Fire & Rescue and Coastguard may become involved. Due to the nature of these missions often dovetailing with Counter Terrorism it wouldn’t be unusual for an intercepted aircraft to be met by Counter Terrorist Forces once it had landed.
QRA Pilots carry a list of pre-prepared warnings that they may be instructed to read out to an intercepted aircraft. You may have heard these warnings read out on television. They sound a little like “I am instructed by Her Majesties Government of the United Kingdom to inform you that if you do not respond to my orders you will be shot down….” These Warnings are designed to be clear and concise for obvious reasons. The Crib sheet of pre-prepared orders is likely to be classified, but it’s safe to say they will be somehow designated so the intercepting pilots can be told to read out “Order 1” for example.
It is important to understand what this term means, it is my understanding that Sovereign Airspace is the Airspace above land and extended out from the coastline by 12 nautical miles as defined by international law.
However nations may assume control of the Airspace, by international agreements, way beyond this boundary. The UK Flight information regions extend far beyond what is considered Sovereign Airspace. If a Track of Interest is detected in this area, not using a radio, Transponder, flight plan and complying with the Rules of the Air it quickly becomes a safety concern as it’s intentions and course are unknown. Aircraft under positive control could even be moving a lot slower and keeping them safe could become quite a challenge.
A term the RAF/MOD use regularly to define this area beyond “Sovereign Airspace” is the UK Area of Interest.
As part of NATO the UK provides air policing services to those nations who don’t have the assets to police their own airspace, examples being the Baltic Air Policing Mission and Iceland. Other nations also provide services as part of NATO to ensure a country has Air Policing cover.
The UK will also work with it’s bordering counties to pass on intelligence about tracks of interest. It is not unusual for a UK QRA to be “passed on” to the next country as it gets closer to them.
A lot of the QRA Process is sensitive from a security perspective, however I have taken great care to gather this information from Official Publications, MOD Approved Publications and documents that are not protectively marked, or are designated as “Unclassified” and are publicly available.
As with all roles, they need to train for it, QRA is no different. The training, mostly classified, takes place in modules. The most basic training will take place unnoticed and Typhoons will use their usual Squadron training Callsigns. At the other end of the scale is a Tango Scramble which is a full QRA practice, often the crews being trained do not know one will even take place. When this happens an Aircraft, usually a Cobham Dassault Falcon 20 will fly out to a location, then turn and fly back towards the UK. The CRC’s will detect it and scramble the QRA. The problem for enthusiasts comes in distinguishing a genuine QRA from a Practice. Lately they have adopted genuine QRA Tactical Mission Callsigns and they Squawk NATO Air Policing. They don’t, of course, fly supersonic over land but the mission is almost indistinguishable for the observer. One good tip is to be on the lookout for a Cobham Falcon with Callsign FRA99 “RUSHTON99” this tends to indicate when a practice may be imminent. It also usually ends with Typhoons escorting it into Durham Tees Valley where the Falcons are based. Also you may see interception NOTAM’s pop up from time to time in a certain area, over land, that can be useful to spot a practice. They also practice intercepts on different aircraft types, mainly because they don’t know what they will be intercepting in a real world scenario and their target could have very different handling and speed characteristics to a Cobham Falcon!
A QRA Documentary by Sky News
QRA from the Tankers perspective