UK military threatens ‘lethal force’ during Olympic Games

The UK’s Royal Air Force has confirmed that aircraft that fail to comply with procedures within a restricted airspace zone around the Olympic site could be subject to ‘lethal force’.

RAF Typhoon jets and Puma helicopters with snipers armed with hi-tech rifles will be among the military aircraft patrolling the Olympic restricted zone – which comes into force at midnight on July 13.

“As a last resort, we will have lethal force as an option,” said Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, the Olympics air security commander. Asked who would give the order for lethal force to be used, AVM Atha said: “The highest level of Government makes that decision.”

The fact that the military will control much of the UK’s sovereign airspace during the Olympic Games and that fighter jets will be stationed near the capital to respond to threats, may strike many as alarming.

It has however been known for some time that the military is preparing to ‘sterilise’ London’s airspace during the Olympic Games between July 14 and August 15 in what is being seen as the the most severe air security restrictions Britain has seen since World War II with all air traffic under strict rules to stick to routes that have been planned well in advance.

While the airspace security arrangements during the Olympics Games will be more strict than usual, the tough rules will actually be a simple scaling-up of the peacetime national surveillance regime.

Quick Reaction

A Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force of Typhoon fighter aircraft is already held at continuous ground-readiness, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, usually at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, and at RAF Leuchars in Fife.

During the Olympic Games, RAF jets will be stationed at Northolt, close to Heathrow and will be prepared to act on instructions from UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) staff monitoring all aircraft in an area stretching from Brighton on the south coast to positions 15 miles north of Stansted and Luton airports to the north, the Thames estuary in the east and to the west of Reading.

The QRA force’s purpose is to identify any aircraft approaching or within national airspace without prior approval or not having identified themselves and which cannot be identified by any other means, i.e. the aircraft is not talking to civilian or military air traffic control, has not filed a flight plan and is not transmitting a recognisable secondary surveillance radar code.

Two QRA Typhoons were scrambled recently from RAF Coningsby when a small civilian aircraft was transmitting inadvertently on an emergency frequency and was out of radio communication. Authorisation was given for one of the Typhoons to transit at supersonic speed over land, which resulted in the sonic boom heard by large numbers of the general public.


“Deterrence is a key part of our Quick Reaction Alert posture. The RAF’s air defence capability to detect and deter aircraft approaching UK sovereign airspace is just one aspect of a multilayered approach that the UK Government takes to protect UK and NATO-monitored airspace,” said the UK MoD at the time.

While the UK’s air traffic control body, National Air Traffic Services (NATS) will continue to handle aircaft carrying the extra 500,000 visitors expected during the Games into London airports from its control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, the Royal Air Force National Air Operations Centre (NAOC) charged as it is with policing UK airspace will be monitoring all aircraft from deep underground somewhere west of London.

“Since 9/11 we have had to acknowledge that that there is a potential threat to the UK from terrorist organisations utilising civilian aircraft (most likely airliners) as weapons of mass effect with enormous human, economic and psychological consequences and that we must counter that threat,” says Air Defence Wing Commander Davy Jones who heads a small team on 12-hour shifts, day and night all year round.

“We are at the strategic level; it is not up to us to monitor the airspace continually. We have a much larger team at Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs) compiling the air picture, watching the airspace continually and working hand in hand with civilian ATC at Swanwick and Prestwick,” he says.

“However, we will always be monitoring 121.5 throughout the whole of the UK and a call will start an immediate reaction.  The first call will get our attention but quite often, and some carriers are better than others, an immediate response will be heard and a new frequency allocated. However, a second call and we are up and responding; the team will pull up the flight plan and we will highlight the route on the screen. We will work out a rough expected position based on the filed flight plan but at the same time the CRC will have found the track and label it with the callsign.”

Tactical Action

“We have exactly the same equipment and picture as the CRCs, thus as soon as it is highlighted we will see it, alleviating any need for the CRC to call us. Quite often at this stage it is obvious that there is nothing sinister with this incident, for instance the aircraft is outbound from the UK and is too far away for radio communications. However, if the track is inbound or gives us any other cause for concern then we will be contemplating tactical action even at this early stage,”

If an aircraft remains out of communications London/Scottish will contact the duty CRC on the dedicated line with the basic details. The CRC will change the tac label to highlight the track thus alerting all, including our NATO colleagues, that there is a potential incident in the UK and will contact us with the details; the aircraft officially becomes a ‘lost-comms’ at this stage.

“Depending on the location, routing and any other information I may have will dictate my reaction, but most likely I will order RAF fighters up to cockpit readiness; which is crew in the aircraft, power on and ready for immediate start, able to be airborne in about three minutes),” says Wing Commander Jones.

“Some may think that this is a bit of an over-reaction at this early stage but time is of the essence if we have to scramble and successfully intercept prior to any potential target being reached, and all we know at this stage is that for some reason these pilots are not responding to ATC instructions on the assigned frequency and also are not listening out on guard.”

Whilst the fighter crews are ‘coming to cockpit‘, the duty officer at Transport Security (Transec) within the UK Department for Transport will be contacted and requested to contact the airline operations concerned and have them attempt to raise their aircraft by any means of ‘secondary communications’ such as ACARS, SATCOM or mobile phone and have them contact ATC immediately, normally on guard.

“Some are better than others at contacting their flight crew, and indeed some, even major carriers, have no secondary communications,” he says.


If the company cannot contact their crew, and the flight is still not talking to ATC, the NAOC will then most likely scramble a pair of fighters to intercept the aircraft as quickly as possible.

“From our point of view we have to assume the worst and until I get evidence to the contrary I have to assume that this aircraft poses a potential threat to the UK,” says the air defence chief.

Once airborne, the RAF jets, and indeed the air-to-air refuelling tanker as well, will have priority over all other aircraft, and thus a number may have to be rerouted out of our way, causing delays and expense to a lot of other flights and airlines.

“As we approach for the interception our fighters will be attempting to raise the suspect aircraft on 121.5.  If the aircraft answers our call we will remain well astern and once satisfied that nothing is amiss we will recover to base. However, if assistance is required, we will readily give it, and indeed as in the instance of a recent bomb threat will escort the aircraft to an agreed diversion airfield. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to continue and intercept the aircraft. We will always approach from astern having completed a very wide intercept and with our mode C switched off so there will be no warning or sudden automatic manoeuvres from the aircraft’s traffic avoidance collision system,” says Wing Commander Jones.

Jet fighter pilots will first confirm the identity of the aircraft and whether there is anything unusual – all lights out may signify an electrical emergency which could explain why there has been no radio communication.

One aircraft will approach on the left hand side and forward of the cockpit so that they are easily visible to the captain. The fighter crew will again call on guard and the RAF would expect an immediate acknowledgement on 121.5. If there is no acknowledgement it would attempt to ascertain by looking in the cockpit or visual signals what is the problem and whether there is an emergency or something more sinister.


By means of visual follow-me signals i.e. rocking the aircraft’s wings and turning to the left the RAF will confirm that the flight crew or whoever is flying the aircraft is compliant with their instructions. While all of this is going on the NAOC will be in constant touch with the highest levels of government.

“Assuming that there is an emergency and we are required to lead aircrews someplace we will convey our intentions by visual standard ICAO signals. Suffice to say that if there is something more sinister then we have to have and do have procedures in place to deal with any situation,” he says.

Some may say this is an over-reaction. However, until the RAF can positively ascertain that there is nothing sinister, that the flight crew or even cabin crew are not under duress and that the cockpit door is secure it must assume the worst and that the aircraft poses a threat and could be used as a weapon to devastating effect.

“Thankfully we rarely get to the stage of an interception. Indeed more often than not we can look at the situation early on and assess that this is not a threat but probably just a wrong frequency on handover or some other explanation. It is however a daily occurrence for us to have to bring our crews to a higher state due to a ‘lost-comms’ on guard,” says the NAOC chief. “We do not scramble as often as our colleagues in some other European countries but we certainly will if we feel the situation dictates and a potential threat exists.”

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