Combined Air Operations Centers (CAOC): The Key to NATO’s Air Warfare

1.0 Introduction

NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) are a set of international headquarters across Europe. They supervise and support the air forces and air defence of NATO member states. They report to NATO’s Allied Air Command (AIRCOM).

The NATO Air Force is under the tactical and operational command of CAOCs. These centres function within the framework of the NATO Integrated Air Defense System (NATINADS). NATO states the NATINADS “can deploy and address the full range of air and missile threats.”

Further, COACs are part of NATO’s broader defence system that tracks “up to 30,000 air movements in European NATO airspace per day”. Some countries, such as the United States, also have operational national-level CAOCs. However, they do not have a direct connection to NATO.

How does NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence work? | NATO IAMD
Lieutenant General Fernando de la Cruz Caravaca [source

2.0 Organisation:

Active NATO Combined Air Operations Centres include:

CAOC TJ: located at Torrejon Air Base, Spain. 

CAOC UE: located at Uedem, Germany. 

DACCC PR: located at Poggio Renatico Air Base, Italy.

2.1 CAOC TJ

2.1.1 Introduction


Northeast of Madrid, Spain, at the Torrejón Air Force Base, is the home of the Combined Air Operations Centre Torrejón (CAOC TJ). Celebrating its 10th anniversary as NATO’s leading unit responsible for air defence in Europe’s southern region, CAOC TJ recently held a ceremony attended by senior Spanish and Allied representatives [source] . Admiral General Teodoro Sánchez Calderón, the Spanish Chief of Defence, commended the dedication of personnel from 19 different nations who contribute to CAOC TJ’s success. Highlighting the unit’s core mission of overseeing the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System, Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sánchez de Lara, the Commander of CAOC TJ, emphasized its role in safeguarding airspace, protecting populations, and demonstrating NATO’s unity and solidarity.

With a staff representing 17 NATO countries, which will soon increase to 190 to sustain an adapted organisation, CAOC TJ continues to plan, coordinate, prepare, and control NATO air operations in the south. This includes the vital 24/7/365 air policing mission. This mission ensures the defence of European territories and populations from air risks and threats. The ceremony underscored CAOC TJ’s multinational composition, integrating diverse weapons systems and mentalities towards achieving its objectives. Admiral General Sánchez Calderón concluded the event by recognising the contributions of past and present CAOC Torrejón personnel. These contributions included maintaining the unit’s high standards of efficiency and professionalism. Further, they urged current members to uphold these capabilities through their dedication and commitment. [source

Torrejón Air Force Base [source

2.1.2 Motto

Emblem of  CAOC TJ [source

A castle with two towers in the colour sable is situated over five blue waves in the centre of the unit’s crest. A light blue backdrop serves as the setting for the castle with two towers in the colour sable. Three stylised aircraft are arching upward from the left tower. A four-pointed Compass Rose with silver and sable colours may be seen in the upper left corner. The unit’s name is incorporated into the surrounding silver edge at both the top and bottom in sable colour.

The traditional Compass Rose design of the NATO symbol designates Combined Air Operations Center Torrejón as a unit under the NATO Command Structure. And, it offers guidance for all Service personnel in completing their missions.

2.1.3 Leadership

Commander: Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sanchez De Lara

Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sanchez De Lara [source

Deputy Commander: Brigadier General Evangelos Tzikas

Air Operations Centre Director: Brigadier General Fernando Manuel Lourenço da Costa

2.1.4 Recent events

Germany’s Ramstein, The initial decade of its establishment as the air defence unit for NATO’s southern zone in Europe, has come to an end for the Combined Air Operations Centre at Torrejón (CAOC TJ). This milestone was marked with a ceremony at Torrejón Air Base on November 27.  

Admiral General Teodoro Sánchez Calderón, the Chief of Defence for Spain, presided over the ceremony. He expressed gratitude for the efforts of the CAOC TJ staff members, who come from 19 different countries. Later, Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sánchez de Lara, Commander of CAOC TJ, gave a speech to the audience. In the speech, he emphasised the critical role that the CAOC TJ plays in Europe’s defence. 

General Sánchez de Lara stated,

“Our primary focus at the CAOC is the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System.

He also emphasised how, as a multinational force, CAOC TJ—the only NATO command structure unit stationed in Spain—combines disparate weaponry systems with disparate mindsets in order to accomplish a common goal. [source

The combined air operations centre at torrejón celebrates ten years of operational life [source

2.1.5 Training

Planning Phase

From 17 to 31 March, 2023, the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) Torrejón undertook its internal training exercise. The exercise, Torrejón Advantage (TAD), aimed at ensuring personnel readiness for a diverse array of NATO missions.

For Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sánchez De Lara, newly appointed as Commander of CAOC Torrejón, it marked his first observation of staff training. His observation was crucial for bolstering Alliance Air and Space Power support. In a multinational environment, CAOC Torrejón staff, alongside outstations, engaged in simulated planning and execution of combined and joint Allied Air Operations, bolstering their preparedness for overseeing NATO Air Policing in southern Europe.

Execution Phase

The exercise, structured in planning and execution phases, emphasised operational and tactical level command and control in complex, high-intensity joint war fighting scenarios. The scenarios included hybrid warfare elements. With participation from external units across Europe, CAOC Torrejón achieved its annual training objectives. They certified staff for Crisis Establishment roles and upholding the safety and integrity of Alliance airspace. And, sustained round-the-clock surveillance and control of NATO Air Policing assets. CAOC Torrejón undertook its internal training exercise, Torrejón Advantage (TAD), aimed at ensuring personnel readiness for a diverse array of NATO missions.

Additionally, the exercise was vital for their involvement in the Ramstein Ambition exercise series under the auspices of Headquarters Allied Air Command. For Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sánchez De Lara, newly appointed as Commander of CAOC Torrejón, it marked his first observation of staff training, crucial for bolstering Alliance Air and Space Power support.

The exercise, structured in planning and execution phases, emphasised operational and tactical level command and control in complex, high-intensity joint warfighting scenarios, including hybrid warfare elements. With participation from units across Europe, CAOC Torrejón achieved its annual training objectives, certifying staff qualification for Crisis Establishment roles. They upheld the safety and integrity of Alliance airspace, while simultaneously maintaining round-the-clock surveillance and control of NATO Air Policing assets. [source

For the new Commander of CAOC Torrejón (centre) Lieutenant General Juan Pablo Sánchez De Lara, it was the first time to observe his team performing during staff training that prepares them to provide critical support Alliance Air and Space Power. Photo courtesy CAOC Torrejón [source

3.2 CAOC UE

3.2.1 Introduction 

The Combined Air Operations Centre in Uedem, Germany covers all air policing operations in European NATO airspace north of the Alps. This covers command of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing operation and  NATO’s recurring Air Policing and Surveillance mission to Iceland.

The Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem, situated in Germany, holds responsibility for overseeing Air Policing activities across European NATO Airspace, specifically north of the Alps. This encompasses the management of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, where participating nations alternate in providing Quick Reaction Alert forces for Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Additionally, it manages NATO’s periodic Air Policing and Surveillance mission to Iceland.

Among its duties is the coordination and deconfliction of airspace for various annual live-fly exercises, including Baltic Operations in the Baltic Sea and Ramstein Alloy, which rotates among the Baltic States. The center’s Command and Control personnel have repeatedly facilitated the establishment of dedicated airspace for prominent events such as international football championships and intergovernmental summits.

Staffing at the Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem comprises personnel from 18 NATO member states, currently filling 185 positions during peacetime. This number will increase to 190 to accommodate an adjusted organizational structure. Two partner countries, Sweden and Finland, contribute permanent staff augmentation. The positions of Commander and Deputy Commander rotate between Germany, Belgium, Poland, and Germany in accordance with established agreements. [source

The Combined Air Operations Centre in Uedem [source

3.2.2 Motto

Emblem of CAOC UE [source

On a light blue background, a stylised yellow watchtower dominates the middle of the unit’s crest. Two stylised aircraft ascend behind the tower. In the shield’s upper right corner, the NATO compass rose is depicted.

Someone took the yellow watchtower from the Kalkar, Germany herald. Kalkar is near Uedem, the former location of the Combined Air Operations Centre. Before the establishment of Combined Air Operations Centres, they conducted offensive and defensive air operations independently. The two stylised aircraft symbolise the merging of these two skill sets. The light blue background represents the sky, mirroring the air domain. And, the NATO compass rose identifies the Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem as a unit within the NATO Command Structure.

3.2.3 LEADERSHIP

Commander: Major General Harold van Pee

Major General Harold van Pee [source

Deputy Commander: Brigadier General Holger Radmann

3.2.4 History

Four Allied Tactical Operation Centers oversaw the air attack phase, while four Sector Operation Centers handled the air defense phase, until just after the Cold War. Notably, the Uedem Paulsberg site hosted a Sector Operation Center, while the Von-Seydlitz barracks at Kalkar housed an Allied Tactical Operation Center.

In 1993, these centres were closed and replaced by Interim Combined Air Operations Centres. However, the Combined Air Operations Centre 2 Kalkar initially lacked a Recognized Air Picture. This picture is a comprehensive list of aircraft within a specific airspace. Consequently, the Uedem Sector Operation Center continued functioning remotely until March 1994.

To enhance NATO’s capabilities, the 32nd US Air Operations Group at Ramstein Air Base and the CAOC 2 at Kalkar collaborated to develop an interim deployable capability. This collaboration led to the establishment of the 32nd Air Operations Group and the CAOC 2 Detachment at Ramstein in September 1996. The creation ensures coordinated preparedness for deployed missions. They began offering the “Interim Deployable Combined Air Operations Center Capability” in 1997.

In 2005, the Combined Air Operations Centre 2 relocated from Kalkar to the Paulsberg facility at Uedem. It achieved full operational capability by March 2006. Subsequently, the airspace of ten European NATO countries was incorporated into the air policing Area of CAOC 2. This incorporation followed the closure of Combined Air Operations Centre 4 at Messstetten on June 30, 2008. The establishment of CAOC Uedem occurred on March 1, 2010, through the amalgamation of CAOC 2 and its Ramstein detachment.

3.2.5 Training

CAOC Uedem played a crucial role in supporting BALTOPS 2023. BALTROPS is NATO’s premier maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Region. With its location in Uedem, Germany, CAOC Uedem coordinated and controlled NATO Air Power throughout the exercise.

BALTOPS 2023 exercise [source

BALTOPS 2023 saw participation from twenty nations. Included were both allies and partners, with 50 ships, over 45 aircraft, and 6,000 personnel involved. Integrating air operations into NATO’s Air Surveillance and Control System ensured interoperability among multinational air assets, facilitating realistic training scenarios.

Under the command of Rear Adm. James Morley, who led the exercise control group, CAOC Uedem leveraged its experience from previous years to coordinate air operations in support of BALTOPS. This coordination was essential for enhancing trust and interoperability across air, land, and sea forces participating in the exercise.

Additionally, the NATO Space Centre, located at Allied Air Command, enabled space domain scenarios. The scenarios contributed to comprehensive and challenging multi-domain operations.

Vice Adm. Thomas Ishee, commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) and U.S. Sixth Fleet, emphasised the significance of exercises like BALTOPS in demonstrating NATO’s commitment to collective defence capability. By conducting BALTOPS, NATO showcased its ability to rapidly respond to regional security challenges. And, how it can maintain peace and security in the Baltic Sea region.

Overall, CAOC Uedem’s support during BALTOPS 2023, alongside other NATO assets such as the Space Centre, played a vital role in enhancing alliance readiness and interoperability. Consequently, NATO’s deterrence and defence posture strenghtened in the Baltic Sea region. [source

3.4 DACCC PR

3.4.1 Introduction

Alliance Air Operations can be remotely monitored and controlled by the Deployable Air Command and Control Centre, situated in Poggio Renatico, northern Italy. Further, its duties include preparing units for global operational deployment and providing skilled and specialised experts to support Allied Air Command during Allied operations and drills in conjunction with the Combined Air Operations Centers.

Capabilities and Attributes

NATO commanders have access to a unique force projection capability through the Deployable Air Command and Control Center. The DACCC advertises that it is:

  • Deployable: Capable of being deployed in peacetime, disaster, or combat situations anywhere in the world.
  • Sustainable: Self-sufficient, equipped to carry out missions continuously for an extended period of time.
  • Configurable: Two operations can be operated simultaneously with equipment that can be divided, added to, or adjusted.
  • Affordable: Offers a productive complement to the current fixed and aerial command and control systems. 

In essence, the 295 postings at the Deployable Air Command and Control Center are contributed by sixteen NATO nations.

Organizational Structure

The unit is composed of four functional pillars: two deployable components that are used in drills and operations, and two that assist with daily tasks when in garrison:

NATO’s deployable air surveillance and control capability encompasses the Deployable Air Control Centre, Recognized Air Picture Production Centre, and Sensor Fusion Post (DARS). Responsible for various air missions, including surface-to-air missiles, air traffic control and management, area air surveillance, recognized air picture production, and other tactical control tasks, it regularly assesses its readiness to swiftly deploy from its garrison and integrate into the current NATO Air Command and Control organization.

Established at Headquarters Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany, a Deployable Air Operations Centre serves as a pool of personnel for the Joint Force Air Component within the NATO Command Structure.

Initial, ongoing, and upgrade training for all Allied Air Command personnel assigned to the Joint Force Air Component is the responsibility of the Training & Exercise Division. It also prepares personnel from the Deployable Air Operations Center for their supplemental role in NATO’s Joint Force Air Component.

The provision of personnel and administrative assistance, logistic support agreements, local force protection services, agreements with NATO assistance and Procurement Organizations, and garrison support are all under the purview of a Combat Service Support Division. In addition, the Division oversees the implementation of the Capabilities Package, Control and Reporting Center operations, deployable sensors, engineering services, health and safety, and communication and information systems.

Soon, a new component called the Deployable Sensors Branch will offer passive electronic support measures and deployable air defence radar.

3.4.2 Motto

Emblem of  DACCC PR [source

The unit’s crest’s blue and white colour scheme represents the sky and NATO’s commitment to air power and air supremacy to achieve tactical and strategic goals.

With the unit’s full name “Deployable Air Command and Control Centre” around the left and right halves and its corresponding acronym “DACCC” at the top, the white herald’s edge is displayed.

3.4.3 Leadership

Commander: Major General D.J. (Denny) Traas MSc

Major General D.J. (Denny) Traas MSc [source

Deputy Commander: Brigadier General David Morpurgo

3.4.4 Training

Exercise Poggio Dart 23, occurring from December 4 to 15, 2023, signifies a significant milestone in NATO’s commitment to strengthening air command-and-control capabilities. Held in Poggio Renatico, Italy, the exercise served as a platform to demonstrate the NATO Deployable Air Command & Control Centre’s (DACCC) autonomous node capabilities within Air Command and Control (AirC2).

By combining simulations and live-fly activities, Poggio Dart 23 aimed to refine personnel coordination skills in planning, executing, and controlling missions involving air, land, and naval assets. The exercise’s unique setup integrated a diverse range of assets, including US F-16 jets, Turkish Air Force F-4 Phantoms, Italian Navy AV-8s and F-35Bs, Eurofighters, Tornados, among others, highlighting interoperability and joint operations.

Major General Denny Traas, DACCC Commander, emphasised the exercise’s multifaceted approach, blending military presence with diplomatic initiatives to strengthen security and stability in the Adriatic region. Colonel Duarte Freitas, Chief of DACCC Combat Operations, stressed the pivotal role of simulations in preparing personnel for complex air operations, ensuring their adaptability and effectiveness in real-world scenarios. With a focus on enhancing interoperability and readiness, Exercise Poggio Dart 23 epitomised NATO’s dedication to nurturing a resilient Alliance amid evolving security challenges, with the DACCC playing a vital role. [source

Exercise Poggio Dart 23[source]

4.0 The Future: More CAOCs?

Recently, on 6 March, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden took a significant step towards bolstering NATO’s northern flank by inaugurating a combined air operations centre (CAOC) at Bodø in northern Norway. This joint initiative, aimed at enhancing regional security, involves personnel from the air forces of the four Nordic nations, with substantial support from the US Air Force (USAF) and the UK Royal Air Force (RAF), as stated by the Danish Ministry of Defence.

4.1 Strengthening NATO’s Deterrence in the High North

The establishment of this CAOC aligns with the ongoing NATO exercise ‘Nordic Response,’ designed to strengthen cooperation and military deterrence in the High North region. Major General Rolf Folland, Chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, emphasised the importance of this collaboration in providing credible deterrence on behalf of NATO in the region, particularly during exercise NR24, where he also serves as the acting air component commander for NATO’s northern flank.

4.2 Enhancing Interoperability Through Joint Exercises

For exercise NR24, they have established the combined Nordic Air Operations Centre at Camp Bodin within Bodø Air Base. This temporary facility acts as the air component headquarters and coordinates air operations during the exercise, engaging approximately 300 officers and specialists. Colonel Henrik Nielsen, Chief of Staff of the Air Command Denmark, emphasised the importance of seamless cooperation among the Nordic countries. Their goal is to develop a joint concept for air operations.

Exercise Nordic Response, extending the Cold Response series, involves over 20,000 soldiers from 13 allied nations and operates under NATO’s Joint Forces Command Norfolk. With NATO overseeing the exercise, it aims to validate and test the connections between NATO and national defence plans. The focus is on reinforcing continental Europe and demonstrating the Alliance’s capability to respond effectively to threats or crises in the region. This series of exercises highlights NATO’s dedication to maintaining a coherent deterrence message and ensuring readiness across all domains. [source]

5.0 Conclusion

The establishment and ongoing evolution of Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) within NATO’s integrated defence framework significantly underscore the alliance’s commitment to ensuring air superiority, surveillance, and command-and-control capabilities across its operational theatres. Initially, CAOC TJ takes on the responsibility of overseeing air policing in southern Europe. Subsequently, CAOC UE steps in to manage operations in the northern region, while DACCC PR plays a crucial role in providing deployable command-and-control capabilities. Collectively, these centres serve as vital components in NATO’s collective defence strategy.

Moreover, recent developments highlight NATO’s adaptability and responsiveness to emerging security challenges. Specifically, the inauguration of a combined CAOC in northern Norway vividly shows the alliance’s readiness to safeguard its northern flank. Additionally, the collaborative efforts of member states, significantly supported by partners like the US and UK, signify a unified approach towards enhancing regional security and interoperability within the alliance.

Furthermore, the emphasis on training and exercises, exemplified by initiatives such as Torrejón Advantage and Exercise Poggio Dart 23, further underscores NATO’s commitment to maintaining readiness and operational effectiveness in the face of evolving threats. These exercises not only bolster the skill sets of personnel, but also foster greater cohesion and cooperation among allied forces.

As NATO continues to navigate a complex geopolitical landscape, characterised by hybrid threats and regional instabilities, the indispensable role of CAOCs in ensuring the alliance’s collective defence posture becomes increasingly apparent. By utilising cutting-edge technologies, improving interoperability, and nurturing strategic partnerships, NATO’s CAOCs are uniquely positioned to adapt and flourish in an ever-changing security environment. In doing so, they steadfastly uphold the alliance’s core principles of unity, solidarity, and deterrence, ensuring a robust defence mechanism against any form of aggression.

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