Cooperative Airspace Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region

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This paper offers an overview of existing arrangements and provides a discussion of policy challenges involved in constructing a regional Euro-Atlantic capability to jointly monitor and counter common airspace threats through the networking of military and civil air traffic control systems. It argues that a strengthened political, financial, and technical commitment to build a cooperative airspace security system is a “win-win” area for NATO-Russian engagement that would promote regional military transparency, deepen cooperation against airborne terrorism, and enhance regional crisis stability. Deeper and broader regional airspace security arrangements would also foster the culture of cooperation, transparency, and confidence built between all Euro-Atlantic states—large and small—through practical civil-military cooperation.

In a May 2010 op-ed, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden wrote of the “vital” need to “adapt” Euro-Atlantic security institutions “to the challenges—and opportunities—of a new era.” He noted the importance of “reciprocal transparency” of military forces, called for improved cooperative means to deal with “external challenges,” argued for more “effective conflict-prevention, conflict-management, and crisis-resolution” mechanisms to enhance stability, and reaffirmed the importance of territorial integrity and the indivisibility of regional security. “We seek an open and increasingly united Europe in which all countries, including Russia, play their full roles,” Biden stated.

A careful examination of “bottom-up” cooperative opportunities in airspace security in line with this vision is in order at a time when policy makers in Washington, Brussels, and Moscow seek to design and agree on a common capability to defend the Euro-Atlantic against missile threats. Toward this end, an expansion of ongoing cooperative airspace security projects is a cost-effective and technically feasible undertaking that could promote both agreement and action on the rules of engagement, as well as on the sharing of information, technology, and costs in regional missile defense that involves Russia. In an effort to make Euro-Atlantic security “indivisible,” it might also be useful to learn from past experience with using this type of functional engagement for the purposes of reassurance.

This paper begins by introducing a practical case of airspace problems over the Baltic. It continues with an overview of existing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) approaches to the networking of military and civil air traffic control systems. It further describes the William J. Clinton administration’s efforts to build cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe through the Regional Airspace Initiative. The paper then offers an analysis of present airspace tensions in conflict-prone and non-NATO state areas in the region. Finally, it reviews the ongoing NATO-Russian Cooperative Airspace Initiative and recommends that this project be expanded geographically and to the sharing of military aircraft data as well as extended to U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation across the Bering Strait.