RAF Boulmer monitors the UK Air Defence Region – and despatches air assets as required. MS&T’s Dim Jones describes the aerospace surveillance and control system and the folks who man it.

On the Northumberland coast, roughly midway between the two Typhoon bases at Coningsby and Leuchars, lies RAF Boulmer, the hub from which the UK’s Aerospace Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) monitors air activity in and around the UK Air Defence Region and, when necessary, deploys air assets to counter potential and actual threats. Boulmer is one of two Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs) in the UK, and is active around the clock; the other, at RAF Scampton, operates during the working week, unless operational requirements dictate otherwise. There is an additional CRC in the Falkland Islands, and UK ASACS personnel provide manpower for equivalent organisations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. RAF Boulmer’s Station Commander is also the ASACS Force Commander, responsible for both the static element of the UK ASACS, and for maintaining a deployable capability, No 1 Air Control Centre, based at RAF Scampton and held at readiness to provide tactical air command and control worldwide.

In order to fulfil its surveillance and control roles, the CRC relies on a network of remote radars and radio links around the UK, information from which is fused to produce a Recognised Air Picture (RAP). Boulmer also receives information from the Civil Air Traffic system, and from surveillance organisations in countries bordering the UKADR, such as France, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. In order to be able to react to any threat or unusual activity, the CRC exercises Tactical Control (TACON) of the two Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) (QRA(I)) forces, Southern at Coningsby and Northern at Leuchars, where Typhoon aircraft are held at permanent readiness to scramble, and of the associated tanker aircraft, held at readiness at RAF Brize Norton.

The ASACS is manned by personnel of the Aerospace Battle Management (ABM) branch, and Air Surveillance Manager/Operator trade groups. The School of Aerospace Battle Management (SABM) is also located at Boulmer. Recruiting for the ABM branch is by means of normal selection procedures, including computer-based aptitude testing, in which ABM candidates undergo many of the same tests as pilots. The first part of the SABM course is common to all entrants, following which they are streamed to either surveillance or weapons (control) duties. The branch is currently enjoying a high recruiting and manning level, due in part to reductions in recruiting for other branches, and internal branch transfers; however, although the posts in the Falklands Islands are established, those in Afghanistan and elsewhere are not.

A normal shift in the CRC will comprise a Master Controller and a number of Fighter Allocators, each of whom will have several controllers through whom to achieve the range of tasks assigned. A weapons graduate will emerge from SABM with a Certificate of Qualification (CQ), and capable of controlling a 2 v 2 mission. However, very much more will soon be required, and the graduates will be assigned to the CRC’s Training Squadron to continue their professional development. Early requirements will be the ability to control air-to-air refuelling missions, and also QRA, following which, and on satisfactory completion of a work-up syllabus and check sortie, they will be declared Limited Combat Ready (LCR). Additionally, a controller on a first tour can expect to undertake at least 2 Out-of-Area (OOA) detachments of varying length, each theatre having specific preparatory training requirements. Following award of LCR status, trainees remain under the control of Training Squadron; although they are releasable on an opportunity basis for CRC control duties in roles for which they are already qualified, either for their personal currency requirements or to provide manpower for the CRC task, the focus is on their professional development. A shortage of available live assets makes the more complex scenarios hard to generate, and full use is made of opportunities provided by the major periodic exercises, such as Joint Warrior, and the Combined Qualified Weapons Instructor (CQWI) Course. Extensive use is also made of the simulator, in which any scenario can be generated, and upon which the actual RAP of the day can be superimposed, just to make life more interesting. When all the training objectives have been achieved, a successful tactical check will result in the award of CR status; with a fair wind, this can be achieved in about 18 months.

Controllers for the Airborne Early Warning (AEW – E3A Sentry) force, although under separate operational control, are members of the ABM branch; all of them will have undergone the standard weapons controller training and qualified at Boulmer; transfer to AEW duties is thereafter by application and selection.

Controllers are required to maintain currency in all forms of control, from ‘broadcast’, where the position of forces is indicated to friendly fighters with reference to a datum point or ‘bullseye’, to full close control of an individual fighter which – despite the sophistication of modern airborne weapons systems - can still be required for tactical reasons. Day-to-day tasks include the monitoring of practice intercept (PI) sorties, including assisting with the set-up of friendly and opposing forces, and the control of training air-to-air refuelling towlines. With reduced front line live flying activity, this training can be hard to come by, and it is important that the available assets are used efficiently. Every Thursday, the planned flying for the following week is collated and allocated according to an established priority list. No plan, of course, survives first contact with the enemy – issues such as weather and aircraft serviceability conspire to confound it – and it is then the responsibility of the CRC supervisors to make best use of what is available on any day, and react to the inevitable short-notice changes.

Major upgrades to existing equipment are in the pipeline, but must compete for scarce funding. Most of these are in the area of communications and connectivity; although radio comms are controlled by a sophisticated system, the final link is through data and voice radio transmitters and receivers.

In sum, the ASACS represents a key element of both UK homeland security, and the RAF’s deployable Air Command and Control capability; life in the ABM branch of the RAF is rarely dull and always busy.