During the four-day event, which concluded on Sept. 26, NATO and Russian personnel practiced detecting, tracking, intercepting, and handing off control of mocked hijacked commercial aircraft traversing between NATO’s Polish and Turkish borders with Russia. The exercise included simulated computer activities and two days of live-flight drills with Polish and Turkish F-16s and Russian Sukoi 27s.
The Daily Report was one of the media organizations invited to observe the event from NATO’s coordination center in Warsaw, Poland. Representatives from the United States, Armenia, Finland, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine also followed the activities from Warsaw and Moscow.
During the exercise, NATO and Russian air controllers put to the test the NATO-Russia Council’s Cooperative Airspace Initiative Information Exchange System that’s designed to enable data-sharing between the two sides’ air control operations centers so that they could effectively coordinate the control of a hijacked airliner in a real-world situation.
“This exercise is aimed at showing we are actually building mutual trust between NATO and the Russian Federation,” said retired Gen. Waldemar Skrzypczak, Poland’s deputy defense minister, in his opening remarks for the Sept. 25 live-fly exercise on the Polish-Russian border. “We’d like to show . . . that CAI is an effective tool. Our intention is to show that the system is fully operational and works appropriately,” he said.
Officials constructed this year’s exercise to overcome the technical and procedural deficiencies identified during the two previous Vigilant Skies events in 2011 and 2012, retired Lt. Col. Michal Kalivoda, NATO project officer, told reporters on Sept. 24.
This year’s event began with a simulation drill on Sept. 23. Kalivoda said the day’s activities showed there’s been “a huge improvement” in the IES since 2011.
Poor weather on Sept. 24 delayed the live-fly exercise on the Turkish-Russian border until Sept. 26, so participants held a second day of simulations on Sept. 24 before the two days of actual flights.
On the morning of the first live-fly event on Sept. 25, a Polish Casa 295, serving in the role of a civilian aircraft in the exercise scenario, took to the sky from Krakow, Poland, headed for Oslo. Shortly after takeoff, air traffic controllers lost communication with the aircraft, which caused officials to initiate a set of procedures to deal with such situations. Eventually a radio message came from hijackers aboard the Casa 295, informing that they intended to divert the aircraft to St. Petersburg, Russia.
Two Polish F-16s then scrambled. They intercepted and followed the hijacked airplane to Poland’s border with Russia. At that point, two Russian Su-27s originating from Kaliningrad, Russia, assumed responsibility for following the aircraft as it entered Russian airspace some 20,000 feet above the Baltic Sea. The crew aboard the hijacked aircraft eventually regained control, after which controllers redirected the airplane back to Poland. Throughout the nearly three-hour drill, NATO and Russian operators openly communicated these movements with each other using the IES.
Midway through the scenario, Lt. Col. Radoslaw Kwiatkowski, chief of the Warsaw coordination center, said, “We fulfilled the mission successfully, because the renegade [aircraft’s] track was seen and recognizable during the entire time.”
Vigilant Skies had its genesis in 2002 when NATO and Russian officials began exploring what kind of cooperation would be possible between the alliance and its former Cold War adversary.
In 2005 came the initial configuration of the CAI’s IES. The two sides refined it over the next six years, leading to the first Vigilant Skies live-fly exercise in 2011.
While that exercise went “very well,” it also highlighted areas for improvement, said NATO’s Kalivoda. Since then, NATO operators have become more familiar with working with their Russian counterparts, training takes place more regularly, and a 25-point checklist is in place to help guide operators through different scenarios.
The main CAI coordination centers are located in Warsaw and Moscow. The exchange of information is conducted in three pairs of area air traffic control centers: Bodo, Norway, and Murmansk, Russia; Warsaw and Kaliningrad; and Ankara, Turkey, and Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Kalivoda said he hopes other NATO nations would add centers.
“Our cooperation is going very, very well,” said Col. Sylwester Bartoszewski, deputy director for the Warsaw coordination center, in response to a reporter’s question on possible barriers to progress due to past and current tensions in the overall NATO-Russia relationship caused by events like Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and NATO’s ballistic missile defense plans, respectively. “We are not working on political levels,” he said.
“Common goals and common tasks and common aspirations unite us,” said Lt. Gen. Yevgeni Potapov, Russia’s event director, through an interpreter during a video teleconference from Moscow with reporters in Warsaw on Sept. 25.
He said his assessment of Vigilant Skies was “positive.” Each subsequent iteration has grown from the previous one, he said. “We are striving to make it more complex, more efficient. We’re trying to make more complex conditions both for pilots and system operators,” said Potapov. Speaking on the importance of cooperation, Potapov said “only joint efforts may yield results” for combatting such serious threats as terrorism.
NATO’s Kalivoda said there’ve been no showstoppers in the 10 years of the CAI. Fighting terrorism is a common goal. Looking ahead, officials seek to continue refining the IES for greater effectiveness, expanding the coordination into greater portions of European airspace, and attracting the participation of more non-NATO nations, he said.
While minor technical and communications glitches did occur during Vigilant Skies 2013, new procedures and processes were efficient in execution, Turkish air force Brig. Gen. Hakan Evrim, NATO event director, told reporters on Sept. 25, following the first day of live-fly activities. Coordination was “perfect” and the ability for the two sides to communicate was “high,” he said.