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What happens during an air interception? (master)
Dec. 6, 2024 | 2:50
NATO jets on high alert regularly take to the skies to check on planes that aren’t in radio contact with civilian air traffic controllers. Watch to see how an air interception works.

Air interceptions can occur whenever air traffic is flying over or near NATO’s European Allies, and is not in compliance with international aviation rules and regulations. The two NATO Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) detect these activities within the framework of NATO’s Air Policing mission – an enduring peacetime activity conducted 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
If NATO’s air commanders determine that a plane is behaving unusually or unsafely by flying without an identifying transponder, or refusing to respond to hails from air traffic controllers, they can send fighters to investigate.
Those fighters scramble as quickly as possible to visually identify the aircraft and ascertain the nature of the problem. Often, a civilian or military aircraft has experienced a malfunction leading to a loss of communications. Sometimes, however, NATO aircraft intercept Russian military aircraft that have no flight plan or no radio communications with civilian air traffic controllers.
When this behaviour occurs, NATO jets may launch to visually identify the aircraft and ensure that they are tracked as they pass by NATO airspace.



Every day, NATO’s air forces are on watch to keep the skies above us safe. Sometimes, they detect suspicious activity near NATO’s borders, and so rapidly launch fighter jets to approach the unknown aircraft and investigate.

This is known as an air interception. But how does it work?


First, civilian or military radars detect an aircraft that isn’t transmitting an identification code, a unique identifier that can link the aircraft to a filed flight plan, or help military aircraft determine friend from foe. They alert NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centres, or CAOCs. CAOC Torrejon in Spain is responsible for air traffic in the south of Europe, while CAOC Uedem in Germany handles everything north.

Air traffic controllers attempt to contact the aircraft. If that doesn’t work, their commanders may decide that NATO needs to visually identify the radar track. This means scrambling fighter jets.


The scramble could launch from one of the more than 32 airbases throughout NATO, where Allies keep fighters on permanent Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA, status, which indicates a state of high readiness. Pilots on QRA have 15 minutes to get ready, get into their jets and take off. Controllers on the ground give them a heading, altitude and distance to interception.

They don’t know what they’ll find, but they’re prepared for anything.


The pilots find the aircraft and get close enough to visually identify it, while maintaining safe distance. Sometimes, the unidentified planes are foreign military aircraft. For example, Russian jets passing near NATO airspace routinely and dangerously ignore communication from air traffic controllers.


If the unresponsive plane is a foreign jet transiting through international airspace, NATO pilots note the aircraft type, watch for any unusual behaviour, and report back to their ground controllers.

Once the aircraft is safely away from NATO airspace, the Allied fighters break off their escort and return to base.

Often, the unresponsive contact is a civilian plane experiencing a communications malfunction. NATO jets can confirm the problem using hand signals and help escort the plane to safety.


Once their mission is completed, the jets return to their home station.

Allied pilots are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ready to keep NATO airspace safe.

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Mission & Vision

189th IN BDE (CATB) observes, coaches, and trains our ARNG and USAR partners to provide trained and ready units to support combatant commander requirements around the world. O/O, conduct Mobilization and Large Scale Mobilization Operations (LSMO) in support of our ARNG and USAR partners to meet combatant commander OPLAN requirements.
Our purpose is to support First Army’s mission to achieve FORSCOM directed readiness and deliver trained and ready NG and RC forces. We accomplish this through partnership with the National Guard and US Army Reserve as FORSCOM’s proponent for the integration of the Army’s Total Force Policy (ATFP) and execution of Mobilization Training Centers (MTC) operations as part of the Army’s LSMO effort.