State aircraft carrying the heads of state and government of all NATO nations to the NATO summit in Madrid are enveloped in an invisible protective bubble.
The nerve centre of the umbrella that protects them is located at the Combined Air Operations Centre at Torrejón (CAOC-TJ), at the air base of the same name on the outskirts of the Spanish capital. Its action is being carried out "on behalf of all 30 NATO countries", which reiterates the "message of cohesion projected by the Alliance", according to allied sources.
This shield, which protects them from possible hostile acts, covers the airspace of the countries on the southern flank of the Atlantic Alliance. In this case, it is reinforced to prevent VIP aircraft carrying high-ranking national authorities attending the summit in the Spanish capital from being the target of any potential aggression by unidentified aircraft or third countries.
From the CAOC-TJ control room, the flight of, for example, Air Force One, in which the President of the United States is travelling, is monitored second by second. Its surveillance begins as soon as the presidential aircraft enters its extensive area of responsibility, which stretches from the Azores to Romania and from the Canary Islands to Turkey.
That is no less than 6,500 square kilometres from east to west, including part of the Atlantic Ocean, the entire Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. The CAOC-TJ not only ensures the in-flight safety of Air Force One and 7 other accompanying aircraft. It also oversees the flight of the Airbus 310-300 Polaris carrying Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And it oversees the flight of French President Emmanuel Macron's Dassault Falcon 7X and two other aircraft carrying his entourage.
Included, of course, is the protection of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Airbus 321-200; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Airbus A330; Italian Mario Draghi's Airbus A319CJ; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Boeing 747 and the aircraft carrying all the leaders of the Alliance nations arriving in Madrid from 15:00 today, Tuesday 28 June.
The CAOC-TJ is under the direct command of Air Lieutenant General Fernando de la Cruz and is the protective umbrella for 13 countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Romania and the southern half of France.
To carry out joint surveillance of southern European airspace, CAOC Torrejón has nearly two hundred military personnel from 17 NATO nations, who carry out their surveillance mission 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
They are fed with data from around 20 Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs), which monitor air traffic in each nation, from around 100 radar stations that scan the skies and are the eyes and ears of the CAOC-TJ.
Under their control and tactical command, they have more than fifty fighter aircraft on alert both day and night, deployed at more than 20 air bases in different countries. Torrejón controllers guide a wide variety of fighters from many different air forces, including Spanish EF-18s and Eurofighters, French Rafale, Italian Eurofighters and F-35s, Greek F-16s and also Hungarian Gripen.
Under its control is also an Alliance Boeing E-3 AWACS, the airborne warning and control system that, with its disc-shaped radar antenna on the upper structure of the aircraft, scans the skies for unidentified flights. It also has at least one Northrop Grumman Block 40 Global Hawk unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft, or AGS, based in Sigonella, Italy.
The incidents and alerts that can arise are very varied. They can be "suspicious traces that appear unexpectedly and do not comply with international air traffic regulations," explain the CAOC-TJ. They can be caused by a civilian aircraft that does not comply with the rules of its flight plan or by a military aircraft not belonging to a NATO member state. Examples include MiG-29 or Sukhoi 27 fighters, Tupolev Tu-95 four-engine surveillance aircraft or Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers.
If a civilian controller verifies that an aircraft does not respond to his repeated calls, or deviates from its established route, the incident is routed to the national Air Command and Control Centre via the military personnel of the Air Control Squadrons working in the civilian Air Control Centres.
An alert is then triggered and NATO protocol requires an aircraft or pair of aircraft to be in the air within minutes. This short turnaround time means that, 24 hours a day, CAOC TJ has fighters ready to take off. This means that pilots, mechanics and armourers live and sleep in the immediate vicinity of the hangar where the fighter is parked.
The CAOC TJ's twin is located in the German town of Uedem (CAOC-EU), which is close to the border with the Netherlands and is responsible for monitoring and securing the airspace of the Northern European Alliance states.