How RAF will shoot down airliners


THE rules of engagement for RAF pilots dealing with rogue aircraft are chillingly straightforward.

Documents seen by Scotland on Sunday reveal that Tornado pilots have been told to give civilian aircraft suspected of posing a threat just two chances to turn away or land before blowing them out of the sky - hijackers, innocent passengers and all.

The same pilots have even been given special psychological training to cope with the enormity of what they may be ordered to do.

The instructions set out in a partially censored Ministry of Defence memo underline how seriously the government now takes the threat of a terrorist assault on Britain in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

The memo states: "If the pilot of the intercepted aircraft refuses to comply with orders... the pilot of the fighter aircraft... may then authorise the use of a knife-edge manoeuvre to show the pilot of the intercepted aircraft that the intercepting fighter is armed.

"If this fails to elicit a response, *** may order a warning burst of gunfire (any warning burst is to be fired from such a position so as to be immediately recognised by the intercepted pilot as a warning to reinforce the order to land and not an attack)."

During the engagement RAF pilots will report any manoeuvres by the intercepted rogue plane "construed as aggressive or evasive" before a decision is taken, ultimately by Tony Blair, to take it out.

Within minutes of intelligence picking up an unexpected deviation in the flight path of an aircraft towards a British terrorist target, the lives of all those aboard would be lost.

The military has drawn up the rules of engagement to avert potential attacks on over 350 critical national infrastructure sites identified by MI5, including the Houses of Parliament, the Bank of England and military bases and nuclear power plants in Scotland as well as England and Wales.

The procedures to be followed by the RAF's Quick Response Aircraft team, understood to be based at Cornwall, East Anglia and RAF Leuchars in Fife, are not simply academic or the stuff of training exercises.

Military chiefs insist that the decision to shoot a hijacked civilian plane out of the sky to prevent a larger loss of human life and avoid "inevitable and irreparable evil" would not be taken lightly.

Aggressive manoeuvres can only take place after pilots have first attempted to obtain visual confirmation of a plane's identity, by operator, aircraft type and registration number and where there is "no reasonable alternative" to the use of force.

While RAF patrols are in the air, communications staff on the ground will watch the location, height and speed of the suspect aircraft, including the potential remaining duration of flight and range of the aircraft.

The memo notes that the degree of force must be "proportional". "In circumstances where a rogue civilian aircraft carries only hijackers and, if brought down would crash without further loss of human life, the application of the principles of proportionality will be uncomplicated.

"Much more difficult, however, is the use of force against a rogue civilian aircraft which will directly threaten the lives of passengers and crew on board that aircraft who are innocent of any crime and who are being held against their will.

"Further, if a downed aircraft is likely to fall in a location where there is a risk of causing further loss of life on the ground, the application of the principle becomes significantly more complicated. "

But this will be judged appropriate if it seems likely that those innocents on board are likely to die "in a very short time" anyway and if the loss of life from shooting it down is "not disproportionate to the consequences which are expected from not doing so".

Another MoD memo reveals that Britain's defence capability to deal with rogue aircraft also extends to RAF and Army Ground Based Air Defence assets, including high velocity missiles .

Royal Navy air defence ships also carry Sea Dart surface to air missiles and many ships are equipped with Sea Wolf point defence missiles.

The acutely sensitive nature of the issue has persuaded ministers that only they must be allowed to give the final instruction to shoot down a civilian aircraft.

But Scotland on Sunday has learned that senior MoD figures are pressing for this to change. They have warned privately how they fear the requirement to wait for politicians to act could ultimately cost lives.

Handing responsibility to the MoD would bring the chain of command into line with the US where the military has the authority to shoot down civilian aircraft, consulting politicians all the way to the President if time permits.

In evidence, Desmond Bowen, MoD's director-general of operational policy, one of a group of key military chiefs charged with running the British leg of "Operation Enduring Freedom", acknowledged that "these are appallingly difficult judgements to make".

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