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News > 'Vigilant Skies' brings ESC-infused NATO, Russian effort to fruition
Vigilant Skies
Turkish F-16s and Russian SU-27s escort a simulated renegade aircraft over the Black Sea during the joint NATO-Russian Vigilant Skies exercise June 8, 2011. Vigilant Skies demonstrated a joint Russia-NATO Combined Airspace Initiative, for which Electronic Systems Center specialists have overseen technical feasibility and specifications. (Courtesy photo)
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'Vigilant Skies' brings ESC-infused NATO, Russian effort to fruition

Posted 6/23/2011   Updated 6/25/2011 Email story   Print story


by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

6/23/2011 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- When NATO and Russia wrapped up a joint international airspace demonstration June 10, it marked a great success for an effort Electronic Systems Center officials helped set in motion.

Dubbed "Vigilant Skies 2011," the joint demonstration was sponsored by the NATO-Russia Council Cooperative Airspace Initiative, known as NRC CAI. This initiative was designed in the wake of 9/11, to prevent terrorist attacks via civilian aircraft.

The project allows NATO nations and Russia to share real-time air information on movements in both NATO and Russian airspace and to coordinate the response to renegade aircraft events in the border areas, including the "escorting," or interception, of them. It also provides a much higher level of transparency between Russia and NATO nations, in terms of airspace activity, said Sal Pomponi of the International Operations Division, who was in Warsaw for the exercise to provide technical oversight.

ESC officials became involved when the concept was conceived in 2003. It became an official project in 2004, when a joint NATO-Russia team was commissioned to conduct a feasibility study covering the options for tying in data from disparate systems. ESC and MITRE were the US technical representatives for this effort and made a major contribution to the system design and specification.

The report, completed in 2005, proposed an initial solution that would have resulted in building a new system costing 10-12 million Euros (about $12-14.5 million), just on the NATO side.

"The plan was approved by NATO, but it soon became apparent that there wasn't sufficient support from the NATO funding nations to develop a new system," Mr. Pomponi said. "Fortunately, at just that time, ESC became aware of software recently developed and fielded by Eurocontrol (the European equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administration) that appeared well suited to the CAI requirements.

"It was free to NATO countries, and we were confident that it could do 80 percent of what we needed," Mr. Pomponi said. The ESC team proposed a demonstration and, with a lot of borrowed hardware and signed agreements among Eurocontrol and host nations Russia and Poland, conducted it in 2005.

"It was a roaring success, so NATO gave the go-ahead to field this low-cost solution ," Mr. Pomponi said.

Russia, using the same standards and protocols, proceeded to build a new system, which cost about $10 million while NATO implemented the proposed solution. With purchased hardware and other installation and overhead costs, the total NATO price tag was about $2 million.

"The cost was so low, it was almost too low," said Manny Lindo, former deputy director of the International Programs Office. "When you're looking for relatively small amounts of money, it's sometimes easy for your program to get lost."

Eventually, though, using "Partnership for Peace" money, the US made a 25 percent contribution as a member of the NATO coalition willing to fund and enhance the basic system. Now, following the success of Vigilant Skies, they'll have a chance to see it all come to fruition with full operational employment.

In fact, the effort is likely to grow. Currently, the NATO side system includes three sites for airpicture sharing with Russia - Warsaw, Poland, Bodø, Norway, and Ankara, Turkey. However both Finland and the Ukraine observed Vigilant Skies and have expressed interest in joining in. Eventually, team members hope for more Baltic state participation, to eliminate other gaps.

The other possibility for expansion would come on the opposite end of the mammoth Russian land mass, up against the Bering Sea, where the U.S., in Alaska, shares a near-border.

"We were asked to look at that possibility in 2007 and concluded in our report that, yes, it could definitely be done," Mr. Pomponi said. "We never did get to demonstrate it, but there's revived interest now."

Much of the renewed interest in all of this comes from legitimate terrorism concerns, but there is also value simply in demonstrating cooperation.

"With the U.S and Russia looking to show examples of cooperation, this CAI initiative is a really good one," Mr. Lindo said. "The success of this recent exercise shows what's possible when nations work together toward common goals."

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