“The C2 Behind the Few” – The UK Joint Force Air Component visit Bentley Priory and Battle of Britain Bunker

‘Hostiles approaching, 20 minute warning.” At this point, Britain’s Chain Home radar would detect the incoming wave of German aircraft and send initial reports to the Filter Room at Bentley Priory. At the 15-minute mark, Chain Home Low radar would pick up any low flyers. RAF pilots are scrambled. At 10 minutes from London, the Royal Observer Corps are spotting enemy and reporting altitudes and vectors. Exploiting all this information, the Uxbridge Operations Room has visually created the air picture and is talking friendly interceptors onto hostile bombers and fighters. Thousands of timely decisions, aided by contemporary technology, formed a fine example of Air Command and Control (C2) and a legacy of lessons still relevant today.

The UK Joint Force Air Component (JFAC) is the RAF’s rapid, deployable and scalable Air C2 Headquarters. On 19th September, serving unit members embarked on a Force Development visit to Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory and the 11 Group Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge. Led by Flt Lt “EJ” Logan, an Aerospace Battle Manager currently training in the role of Senior Air Defence Officer, the visit provided an opportunity to reflect on the enduring challenges of Air C2 and analyse their lessons.

The Filter Room at Bentley Priory was an essential link in the Dowding System. Collating reports from radar and observers on the coast, the ladies of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) would plot the hostile course on the large-scale map of the British Isles. Today, our reliance on algorithms leads us to forget that these women were performing complex trigonometry at a blistering rate, yet the simplicity of the map allowed the commander to easily visualise the situation.

Down in the depths of the High Wycombe bunker, the UK JFAC repeat this process today, albeit through use of the Integrated Command and Control Software for Air Operations (ICC). The evolution of the Filter Room may be digitalised, but the information on the screen is identical and most importantly, deployable. The UK JFAC is at readiness to deploy overseas and establish Air C2 anywhere in the world. A high tempo of exercises and internal validation will see the UK JFAC become the lead Air C2 organisation for the NATO Reaction Force in 2020. Thanks to the inspiration from this visit, we will be taking some lessons learnt from our wartime predecessors with us.

As we descended into the 11 Group bunker Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, it was hard to ignore the feeling of familiarity. Our Aerospace Battle Managers were definitely back in their comfort zone. Tote boards showing aircraft readiness states and mapping of the Recognised Air Picture, overlaid with friendlies and hostiles, are their bread and butter. It was at this point, the tour guide realised he had to step up his game! The WAAFs that worked around this table were a phenomenal C2 force to be reckoned with and this spirit and capability is maintained to this day; Winston Churchill, after visiting the Ops Room on 16th August 1940, best summed up the Battle of Britain’s decisive day. Turning to Major General Ismay, Churchill declared: “Don’t speak to me, I have never been so moved.”

So what has changed for Air C2 in the current day? The short answer is everything, and nothing at all. The technology has far surpassed anything that even Dowding could have believed, yet the principles are identical. Timely decisions, communicated clearly, using modern technology to seize the advantage. The Dowding system is alive in the UK Joint Force Air Component and is ready to deliver Air C2 worldwide. In a final reflection of history repeating itself, the UK JFAC will soon fall under the historical 11 Group. 11 Group will be dusting off its colours and stood up in November as the Multi-Domain Operations Group. An important piece of our national history, rekindled to shape our future.

Flt Lt Adam King
SO3 Information Operations