Free route aspirations face rogue jet threat

The significant increase in ‘non-cooperative’ military activity over the Baltic Sea could – if left unchecked – dash the prospect of an ambitious roll-out of free route airspace in Europe.

A number of incidents where military aircraft flew dangerously close to commercial airliners led to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) examining how best to prevent a potentially serious accident in future.

EASA was tasked with investigating several worrying incidents where foreign military jets were sighted operating over the sea near the EU region’s borders. These were operating without activated transponders or filed flight plans and were unresponsive when radio contact was attempted. EASA reported that incidents of this type have at least tripled since 2012.

While EASA stated that it would be foolhardy in economic terms to adopt the ‘dramatic’ measure of establishing a Baltic no-fly zone, the agency pointed to the consequences of inaction.

“[The] forecast trend [50 per cent between now and 2035] together with the planned deployment of the new SESAR concepts and technologies such as free route airspace, dynamic sectorisation, and advanced Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA) concepts and new CNS infrastructure necessary to support the implementation of these new concepts are likely to jeopardise the safety of civil traffic if the necessary civil/military coordination is not strengthened,” said EASA.

The Borealis Alliance of nine European air navigation service providers has launched a comprehensive programme to deliver seamless and integrated free route airspace across the whole of northern Europe by 2020, extending from the eastern boundary of the North Atlantic to the western boundary of Russian airspace.

EASA is advising member states to follow the International Civil Aviation Organization’s recommendations as laid out in its Circular 330 document, which outlines ways to enhance cooperation and interoperability between military and civilian agencies.

This could also see some European defence forces making primary surveillance data from military radars accessible to civilian air traffic control. Even though primary surveillance radar detects only the approximate horizontal location of an aircraft and not its altitude, offering this data would at least improve situational awareness for air traffic control.

Several EU member states in regions where non-cooperative military traffic over the high seas is prevalent are reported to be studying the technical feasibility of this. EASA is also recommending that this data should be provided to civilian air traffic control in these regions to the ‘maximum possible extent’.

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