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RAF Spadeadam

First stop for Electronic Warfare Training is the windswept Gilsland Fells at Spadeadam

IF it were possible for an RAF station to be considered as one that goes under the radar, then Spadeadam would definitely fall into that bracket.

It has been in the news recently with a team from the Cumbrian station deploying to Sweden, complete with a selection of surface-to-air missile systems, as part of Exercise Arctic Challenge – a multinational operation aiming to strengthen the participants’ national defence, increase operational effectiveness and improve cooperation between like-minded nations.

The station, located just north of Hadrian’s Wall, has also welcomed personnel from the Netherlands, the Royal Netherlands Air Force treating many visitors to the Lake District with some impromptu flypasts in a range of aircraft, including Chinooks and Apaches.

The station is used to playing host to overseas visitors, Spadeadam the only Electronic Warfare Tactics facility in Europe; aircrews from across the globe practise tactics and manoeuvres over large parts of the surrounding countryside traversing Cumbria, Northumberland and the Borders – by land mass, the station is the RAF’s biggest, covering 9600 acres.

Blue Streak Test Firing

Although the site was only taken over as an RAF station in 1976, its military origins date back to the 1950s when the land was leased by Lord Carlisle to the Ministry of Defence, the location earmarked as a centre for the ill-fated Blue Streak ballistic missile project. The new system was planned to replace the reliance on V-bombers which carried Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

The missiles would be housed underground ahead of launch, a system that caused issues with finding suitable sites in the UK, Spadeadam the only location where construction was started on a full-scale underground launch site. The location of the underground development was only made public in 2004, when tree felling in the area revealed the remains of abandoned excavations for a missile silo.

Present Day Blue Streak Rocket Test Bed

(Present Day Blue Streak Rocket Test Bed - 📸 Phil Thirkell)

The project was cancelled around 1960 as the costs grew from an initial £50million in 1955 to a reported £300million by 1959, military chiefs instead opting to replace Britain’s nuclear deterrent, then carried on aircraft, to being transported underwater: Polaris missiles purchased from the US transported on British-built submarines and available for immediate launch in the event of a nuclear attack.

Due to the amount of money already spent at the site, work continued on sister projects including Black Prince, a British-led satellite launch system with the aim of deploying medium-sized payloads into orbit that morphed into the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), Britain joining with France and Germany, amongst others, with the aim of providing a European alternative to the American and Russian monopoly.

There were believed to be several areas to the original site: an engine test area used by Rolls Royce, a component test site, a BOC (British Oxygen Company) compound for liquid oxygen fuel manufacture, and an office and workshop area.

Remains of BOC liquid oxygen production site

(Remains of BOC liquid oxygen production site - 📸 Phil Thirkell)

The engines and rocket system would be tested on site, prior to being transported to Woomera in Australia, 300 miles north west of Adelaide, the rocket as opposed to missile’s first test flight taking place on June 5, 1964. Several artefacts from the Blue Streak project are on display at the Solway Aviation Museum on the site of Carlisle Airport, a few miles from Spadeadam, including the rocket engines.

It wasn’t until 1971 that Britain formally withdrew from ELDO, Spadeadam handed over to the Proof and Experimental Establishment for firing and range activities. The site, however, was still in the thoughts of many in the RAF, and in the mid-1970s it was designated as RAF Spadeadam, becoming Europe’s first electronic warfare tactics range in 1977.

The station has spent almost half a century training RAF crews and NATO allies in electronic warfare, with many units conducting training exercises at Spadeadam; among those is the Joint Forward Air Controller Training and Standards Unit (JFACTSU), located at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, whose training course ends with an exercise at the Cumbrian station where students call in mock attacks from Hawk aircraft.

Aircrews from home and abroad conduct close air support (CAS) training at the station, and since 2006, it is the only mainland UK location where practice bombs can be dropped. There are numerous items of military equipment on the range including a host of home and ‘enemy’ aircraft and targets: the fake airfield at Spadeadam, nicknamed Colinski, has been constructed complete with SAM systems and obsolete aircraft including Belgian AF T-33s, Adl’A Mystère IV-As and a former East German Su-22.

Targets at RAF Spadeadam

(Targets at RAF Spadeadam - 📸 Phil Thirkell)

Among recent publicised trials that have taken place at the station was one involving the swarming capacity of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), namely drones, which saw 20 fixed-wing UAVs of differing shapes and sizes flying more than 220 sorties over a two-week period. The testing explored the practicality of using a swarm of drones in a military attack, the largest collaborative, military-focused evaluation of its kind in the UK.

The recent visit of the Royal Netherlands Air Force highlighted the multi-national use of Spadeadam, with aircraft using both the station and the nearby Carlisle Airport – Exercise TAC Blaze used to train aircrew in low-level flying techniques which gave tourists and Lake District locals some great pictures and footage.

The station has also looked to forge links with the local community with the Spadeadam half-marathon a fixture in the calendar for many runners, the race dating back to the late 1990s with a route that intrigues many competitors: forest trails are enlivened by the surprise appearance round many turns of tanks, rocket launchers and even mock Russian lorries.

The race organisers did, however, have one complaint with the starting spot being “close to an electronic warfare facility that interfered with our electronic time-keeping instruments”.

But, first and foremost, Spadeadam is an active RAF station and crucial to electronic warfare testing for both the UK and its NATO allies. Despite its vast size, the station is run by a small team of RAF personnel, civil servants and contractors.

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