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Reconceptualising spaces of the air: performing the multiple spatialities of UK military airspaces



This paper seeks to unpack the complex spatialities of UK airspace, looking beyond traditional civil aviation classifications to focus specifically on the spaces used by military aviation in the UK context. It argues that UK national sovereign airspace should not be viewed as a single homogenous entity, but instead must be reconceptualised as a plethora of multiple, vertically and horizontally, overlapping airspaces that can be activated or deactivated according to need. The paper employs a performativity-based framework that highlights specifically how these spaces are identified and named, to illustrate how these multiple military airspaces are actively performed. Within this it focuses on analysing the citational and iterative actions of professional airspace managers working within the UK Civil Aviation Authority and Royal Air Force. The paper makes extensive use of documentary sources and interviews with key personnel to illustrate how the airspaces above the UK are brought into being through the actions of these actors and how these operations can be seen as part of a wider enactment of militarism’s control over space.


I am standing in the nerve centre of one of the UK’s two Control and Reporting Centres (CRC); this one housed in a former Cold War bunker at Royal Air Force (RAF) station Boulmer, situated on the northeast coast of England (RAF 2009b).1 The Boulmer CRC and its sister facility at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, form the backbone of the RAF’s Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS), which is tasked with providing information and surveillance for the UK’s Air Defence provision (RAF 2009b). Around me eager, alert-looking young men and women of the RAF’s Aerospace Battle Manager (ABM) specialism sit in front of large computer screens, which provide them with information on the aircraft flying in UK airspace and the active airspace structures through which they fly.2 The information that enables them to do this comes from a network of military radar stations located across the country, from RAF Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, and from printed documents produced by civil and military airspace practitioners. On one side of the room sit the surveillance specialists, who are tasked with identifying aircraft flying through UK airspace, on the other are the weapons specialists, who are responsible for actively controlling military aircraft onto targets should threats appear on screen.3 Many of the operatives are wearing headphones, listening and talking to each other or to the pilots of these aircraft through their headset microphones. Some are making use of automated radar and radio transmissions to ascertain salient information that they input into the system in order to create the Recognised Air Picture of UK airspace. Still more operatives congregate around a bank of key central screens, staffed by a Master Controller and his/her team. This is where vital decisions regarding the security of UK airspace are made and implemented should any problems arise. This 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week mission of the ABMs is twofold. First, in concert with civil and military Air Traffic Control (ATC), they seek to ensure the safety of UK airspace – watching, and training, for unusual aerial activity that might indicate airborne terrorism, and deconflicting and controlling operational military aircraft.4 Second, they act as part of the wider North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Air Defence provision – providing information and controlling the RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert fighter aircraft that are tasked with securing NATO’s airspace against external threats (usually in the form of Russian military aircraft flying to the north of Scotland (see BBC 2007)).5 So here, underground in Northeast England, the highly trained ABMs of the RAF enact UK military airspaces, bringing them into being through their speech acts and practical actions. In this paper I use the example of UK military airspace management to enable the conceptualisation of airspace as multiple and complex geopolitical airspaces.

Within academic geography there is a tradition of research on the economic and transport geographies of commercial aviation (for an overview see Graham 1995; Leinbach and Bowen Jr 2004). In recent years more critically and theoretically engaged literatures have emerged concerned with uncovering aerial or aero mobilities (see Adey 2006 2007 2008 2010; Cwerner et al. 2009), the significance of computer code to the spatialities and anticipatory nature of aerial spaces (Budd and Adey 2009; Dodge and Kitchin 2004 2005), the social and cultural geographies of civil air travel (Adey et al. 2007; Budd 2009), issues relating to surveillance, biopolitics and airport security (Amoore 2006; Salter 2008), ‘leisure-time’ interactions with and within the air (Ingold 2007; McCormack 2009; Wylie 2009) and the geopolitics of air power (Butler 2001; Graham 2004 2005; Grosscup 2006; Kaplan 2006; Omissi 1990; Williams 2007 2010a 2010b). These interventions have begun to enable us to think more critically about the vertical dimension, and to consider the ways in which the aerial is represented, experienced, analysed and conceptualised geographically.

Most recently, Adey’s book Aerial life (2010) has innovatively synthesised many of these key interests, providing an authoritative analysis of the current state of critical aerial and aviation geography research. Adey successfully combines many of these differing approaches to illustrate the utility of interrogating the myriad of ways that the aerial dimension impacts upon the human experience and how this is represented and performed. In this paper I seek to add to this growing area of aerial analysis. However, the focus of this paper shifts from Adey’s mobilities-centred analysis to one that interrogates the geopolitics of military airspaces and the importance of their performance as spaces of power projection because, as Budd notes, ‘airspace remains an under-researched and under theorised site of aeronautical activity’ (2009, 115). This is particularly true of military airspace.

Military airspaces are more than simply the spaces through which military aircraft fly, and they are distinctly different from civil airspaces, especially in the UK. Within UK airspace management, civil airspace tends to be composed of permanent air lanes, volumetric corridors of airspace that link airports. Military airspace, conversely, is composed of a number of different types of space that are activated and deactivated according to usage requirements. They tend to be large geometric volumes that do not link directly to airports or military air stations, and are most often located above sparsely populated areas of the UK, above dedicated military ranges and out to sea. Because of these differences, this paper contends that it is necessary to examine the geographies of these spaces separately from the civil airspaces that authors such as Adey (2006 2007), Budd (2009) and Dodge and Kitchin (2004 2005) have analysed. This will enable a fuller comprehension of the complexities of UK airspaces, which is important in that it enables us to more fully understand the complexities of these spaces, in terms of management, control and usage, and also helps us to expand our conceptual understandings of spaces and how they are brought into being.

Military airspaces have an inherent intangibility and invisibility, and as such are more explicitly hidden spaces of militarisation than Army training facilities and Navy dockyards (Adey 2008). However, their use creates spaces of geopolitical power projection, as well as sites of military training and endeavour, which makes them significant sites for study. Power projection is an explicitly geopolitical performance. As I have noted elsewhere, the idea of power projection is commonplace within strategic studies and international relations literature; however, it has been subject to little theoretical consideration (see Williams 2010b). One significant instance of its use is in Steinberg’s (2001) analysis of the social construction of oceanic space, and his invocation of Said’s (1993) analysis of the projection of overseas rule. I have developed this to contend that power projection can be conceptualised as referring to the ‘stretching’ of power from the centre outwards and argue that this provides a geopolitical imagery of power as being highly mobile, yet tied to the centre and projected outwards (Williams 2010b; see also Allen 2003). We can extrapolate from this the importance of analysing the production and representation of military airspaces as a way to understand how states project their power to create and maintain a strong image of their abilities and help to deter threats to their sovereign territory. As Sharp notes, ‘strategies of power always require the use of space and, thus, the use of discourses to create particular spatial images … is inseparable from the formation and use of power’ (1993, 492). Thus, we need to uncover the processes through which military airspaces are brought into being in order that we might challenge their dominance and their functioning as sites of power projection.

Woodward’s (2004 2005) work on military geographies and the ways in which the military exerts control over space has been at the forefront of new interrogations of the hidden and subtle, as well as overt and public militarisations of land space (see also Gillem 2007; Lutz 2009). Beyond that, analyses by Agnew et al. (2008), Blackmore (2005), Graham (2004 2005), Paglen (2009) and Weizman (2007) have investigated and uncovered some of the ways in which the military acts to control the air, and how it is represented in this endeavour. It is vital that we seek to illuminate the implicit orderings of these spaces and the extents to which they are militarised because it is only through uncovering these hidden geographies that we can seek to disrupt the pervasiveness of militarised space. Military airspaces are one of the least well known and understood of these spaces, and as such this paper seeks to illustrate the performative processes undertaken by government and military personnel that actively brings these spaces of power projection and military control into being.

This paper argues that only through a focus on the performative nature of these multiple military airspaces can we interrogate ‘militarism’s control over space’ in ways that account for the entirety of its outcomes (Woodward 2005, 731). Drawing on a host of work related to spatial naming, identity and performance, the enactment and enacting of technological processes, and the relationship between human operators and their technological tools, this paper proposes that UK military airspace is actively and continually enacted as plural military airspaces through a range of citational, re-iterational and spatialising practices.

The paper is structured as follows. The first section discusses the ways in which social scientists have engaged with the aerial realm as a geopolitical space, identifying the differences between our considerations of the ‘sky’, the ‘air’ and ‘airspace’, and reconceptualising airspace as airspaces (see also Williams 2007). This illustrates the necessity of reworking our spatial imaginings and representations of this complex, socially constructed set of spaces from the singular ‘airspace’ to the plural ‘airspaces’. The second section investigates the bureaucratic mechanisms and military processes through which control is exerted and exercised over UK military airspaces. The paper undertakes a close, and highly detailed analysis of relevant RAF, Civil Aviation Authority and European documentation, and makes extensive use of the author’s personal engagements with, and observations of, CAA, RAF, Air Traffic Control and Ministry of Defence (MOD) personnel involved in the practices of UK military airspace management to uncover the performative practices that bring UK military airspaces into being and enable the projection of military power to be conducted.6 It explores how UK military airspaces are produced and performed by those tasked with this on a daily basis, and considers their role in the bureaucratic mechanisms that govern and regulate these spaces in this performative endeavour. The final section provides conclusions on the wider significance of employing this approach to advancing understandings of how military practices, and thus militarisation, acts to exert control over spaces.

The UK has been chosen as the empirical focus for this paper because the 350 000 square miles of UK sovereign airspace are ‘some of the most densely trafficked airspace[s] in the world’ and subject to multiple competing pressures from different user groups (Budd 2009, 115). Heathrow and the south-eastern approaches are among the busiest civil air routes in the world, with UK airspace in toto experiencing ‘an average of over 5,400 commercial flights a day [along with] hundreds of military jets, private aircraft, helicopters, airships, hot-air balloons and gliders’ (Budd 2009, 115). In addition to this, there is a necessity to provide higher level en-route air lanes for the trans-Atlantic routes that cross the country. Given the UK government’s ongoing commitment to deploy UK forces overseas (both to conflict and non-conflict zones), the UK military aviation community demands as much airspace as possible in order to enable training for these commitments. The deployment of new aircraft with larger airspace requirements (the Eurofighter Typhoon, for example) only adds to this pressure on space.7 Furthermore, in line with other EU states, the UK airspace management and regulation body, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), has been required to begin implementing pan-European airspace management processes that have altered the practical processes of airspace management over the last two decades. Thus, competing pressures, created by a busy commercial airline industry (both to and from UK airports and en route through UK airspace), a prominent private pilot community, a combat active military, and a new regulatory framework, makes analysis of the performance of UK airspace significant in uncovering the processes through which military airspaces are enabled. The paper seeks to use the UK as a case study to illustrate the necessity of conceptualising airspace as airspaces and to illustrate the need to interrogate the performances that bring these spaces into being. It does not, however, seek to assert a global applicability for the UK example, acknowledging instead the breadth of different airspace management regimes that exist across the world.

The geopolitics of airspaces

The discipline of classical geopolitics is littered with literature that focuses on the relative dominance of land and sea power to states (see, for example, Cohen 1963 2003; Mackinder 1904 1919 1943; Spykman 1942). While Mackinder (1924 1943) and Spykman (1942), as well as the Geopolitik school (see Herb 1989) acknowledged the growing importance of air power to territorial security, it is only recently that political geographers have begun to problematise the vertical dimension that we inhabit. Work by Graham (2004), Kaplan (2006), Weizman (2002 2007) and Williams (2007 2010a) has sought to elucidate the ways in which geopolitical spaces exist within both horizontal and vertical dimensions, re-creating sovereign space as a volume rather than a flat bounded plane. These engagements are significant in that they go beyond the more traditional and less critical description-based narratives of air power to critically analyse the significance of military aviation in the projection of power across not only the horizontal aspect of the line of flight, but also the vertical extent of the trajectory of ordnance and surveillance equipment.

These critical geopolitical engagements need to be considered with reference to the canon of airspace law, because these legal requirements direct the practical operation of national and international airspace across the globe. As such they can be considered within the oeuvre of aerial geopolitics (Adey 2008). The first British declaration of sovereign airspace came in 1911 and by 1919 the first international legal framework dealing with the ‘sovereignty of the air’ had been developed (Martial 1952; see Williams 2007). The most significant treaty, which remains current today, is the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. This provides all contracting states with sovereignty over the airspace above their land and maritime territory to a limit of 12 nm (Kyriakides 1998). This enshrines the horizontal extent of a state’s aerial territory, rendering traditional Cartesian perspectives of state territory in three dimensions, and creating the geopolitical realities of national airspace.

Taking, as its starting point, the critical geopolitical engagements with airspace described above, and those concerned with the geographies of the aerial dimension described in the introduction, this paper proposes that although critical engagements with aviation, aeromobilities and air power are beginning to be developed, there is a need for more empirically detailed engagements with the practices of the enactment of military airspaces. This will enable critically engaged and empirically focused analysis of how airspace is brought into being beyond the textual descriptions derived from the international treaties to which states accede. That is not to say that work on airspace creation is completely absent. Indeed, Budd’s (2009) illuminating chapter on the production of UK civil airspace provides a concise and detailed overview of the processes involved, centring on those conducted by civil air traffic control, and through the air charts describing UK civil airport arrival and departure patterns. However, no comparative analysis of the production and performance of UK military airspace exists.

The starting point for this explicit engagement with these spaces is a requirement to unpack the definition of airspace as a spatial and geopolitical entity. Key to this is the recognition of the difference between the descriptive terms ‘sky’, ‘air’ and ‘airspace’. This is required because, as will be illustrated below, while all may be considered as descriptive of aerial ‘matter’, these are radically different ‘matters’ that are encountered in distinctly different ways. Beginning with sky; this term describes a culturally constructed place, a homogenous region above the earth’s surface that stretches as far as the eye can see. It is this construction of the ‘sky’ that is most often referred to in cultural references to ideals associated with the freedom and adventure offered by flight. This is most commonly illustrated in the use of phrases such as ‘the wild blue yonder’, ‘the sky beyond’, the ‘sky as frontier’ in literatures about aerial adventuring (see Courtwright 2005; Jenkins 1975; Taylor 1983).8 In this mode, the term sky describes an intangible; something we can see from our office windows, coloured red by the rising or setting sun, or an alluring space that we gaze into across a tropical beach.

Conversely, the invocation of the term ‘air’ has a resolutely scientific basis, describing the mixture of atmospheric gases that we breathe. Indeed ‘air’ and ‘atmosphere’ are interchangeable terms to describe this conceptualisation of gaseous matter. In terms of geographical engagements with this space, recent work by Whitehead (2009) is illustrative of research interrogating the political geographies of the atmosphere. However, in relation to advancing a geopolitical account of this matter, perhaps the most illuminating perspective on the geographies of the air can be found in recently translated work by Peter Sloterdijk (2009a 2009b).

Focusing on the deployment of poison gases during the First World War as a point of explication, Sloterdijk encourages us to consider the ever-changing nature of the air we breathe, to consider the ability of these gases to alter the clean, breathable, air creating lethal airspaces almost imperceptibly. Of most significance in Sloterdijk’s work is the identification of a movement from considering the air as a purely scientific realm to articulating a more politically informed, corporeally concerned position. This analysis changes our perceptions of the air, enabling its transformation into a geopolitical entity that can be harnessed by those states that have the political and military power and will to make use of it. Sloterdijk’s movement acts as a bridge between notions of the air, and of airspace, bringing the geopolitical nature of this latter zone to the fore and highlighting the implicit power projection capabilities of this aerial matter.

Airspace is a term that has been defined in a variety of ways within the social sciences. Within mobilities research Urry (2007 2009) uses the term to refer to airports, as the land spaces that facilitate the movement of passengers from the ground into the air. Similarly, Pascoe (2001) argues that airports exist at the threshold of airspace. However, he goes beyond Urry’s conceptualisation to define airspace as being composed not only of airports but of ‘airways and flight paths’, creating ‘a complex, crafted network’ that is ‘divided into several discrete areas of control’, thus illustrating a power dynamic at work (Pascoe 2001, 9; see also Budd 2009).

Banner’s (2008) work on the legal issues presented by the advent of aviation in the first decades of the 20th century illustrates the complexity of the situation faced by early aviators in relation to the airspace in which they flew. Banner discusses in detail the problems caused by US legislation that provided landowners with title over the airspace above their land, and in effect created thousands of tiny cubes of airspace that pilots supposedly had to pay to travel through (Banner 2008). This state of affairs was unworkable, but as Kaplan (2006) has suggested, the centrality of property rights to US law has had a significant impact on perspectives on airspaces.

Approaching a definition of airspace from a more culturally motivated standpoint, Millward (2008), in her innovative analysis of women pilots during the interwar period, considers airspace to be related to the notion of airmindedness (see also Corn 1983). This ‘simultaneously create[s] the very idea of this space and respond[s] to the contours of the space as it [i]s produced and developed’ (Millward 2008, 20). She makes a connection between discursive and physical engagements, opining that

Airspace is the result of productive activity undertaken by women and men flying for a combination of ideological, personal, and commercial motives. It combines material space (the air, aerodromes, airways, infrastructure) with the discourses interwoven through it (of vision, power, technological prowess, gender and youth). (2008, 10)

Here again are suggestions that airspace is brought into being at least in part by geopolitical motivations – power and ideology playing important roles in the mobilisation of geopolitical space. Finally, Millward contends that airspace is produced through a range of ‘processes and actions of developing such technology, infrastructure, training, finances, legislation, goals and so forth’ (2008, 18). Thus, her conceptualisation in line with Sloterdijk’s movement indicates, significantly, that there is not only a geopolitical but also a cultural aspect at work in the articulation of airspace.

Another articulation of these cultural spaces is that which seeks to engage with the geographies of the computer technologies involved in the creation of airspace, to attempt to understand how, where and in what form they are constructed. Work by Dodge and Kitchin (2004 2005) as well as Budd and Adey (2009) focuses on the extent to which airspaces (conceptualised extensively to include the entirety of the process of being a commercial airline passenger) can be considered as ‘real virtualities’ brought into being by the software and computer code that enables civil air transport to function. Within this vein, airspace is conceptualised as being produced through the mutually constituted relationship between ‘the materiality of air travel and its software and data’ (Dodge and Kitchin 2004, 198). Alluding to the notion of performativity, Dodge and Kitchin contend that this code/space ‘is constantly in a state of becoming, produced through individual performance and social interactions’ (2004, 204). Furthermore, Budd and Adey consider the extent to which simulated airspaces, and the anticipatory logics of aviation preparedness, create a ‘software simulated airworld’ (2009, 1366).

While code/space and the anticipatory code of the ‘software simulated airworld’ have much to offer, this paper contends that it is the ideas of an ‘ongoing process of imagining and re-imagining’ airspace (Millward 2008, 18), in concert with Pascoe’s descriptions of airspace as being multiple and controlled, that are more useful in forming a viable conceptualisation of how airspace is performed. This decision has been taken because both of these perspectives suggest a geopolitically motivated conceptualisation, driven by notions of power and control, and of multiplicities of representation. Furthermore, notions of their cultural construction are advanced through an acknowledgement of the centrality of human actors, rather than computer code, in this enablement. Thus, military airspace can be conceptualised as a specific three-dimensional space that is brought into being through its representation and the multiple activities of practitioners that enable aircraft to traverse through a delimited volume of air, especially in the fulfilment of the projection of military power across space. This articulation directs us to consider this as an artificial space created through the engagement of specific professionals involved in the practical enablement of the movement of military aircraft.

While this movement from air and sky to airspace begins the work of reconceptualising the vertical dimension, we need to go further than this, to conceptualise airspace as pluralised airspaces. This overt move from a singular to the multiple is necessary because it enables us to engage with the multitude of actors and actions that bring these spaces into existence. More prosaically, however, describing airspace in the singular is simply erroneous because it suggests that it exists as one homogenous space. While the sky may be perceived as such, the geopolitical spaces inhabited by aircraft, through which military power is projected, cannot be understood in such simplistic terms. Therefore, in order to more accurately reflect these multiplicities, and following Adey (2008), Budd (2009) and Williams (2007), this paper contends that airspace more accurately exists as a plethora of vertically and horizontally overlapping intersecting airspaces and should thus be described in the plural.

Thus, this paper advances a conceptualisation of airspaces as pluralistic, vertically and horizontally bounded, sovereign, geopolitically and culturally enabled spaces that are created and enacted through the input of human interventions, specifically those verbalised communications that identify and name specific spaces. From the small volumes of airspace above individual plots of land to the vast volumes above sovereign states, the legal regimes, and most significantly the practical enablement, of airspace, have consistently acted to define them as airspaces. Enabling this conceptualisation opens up questions about how we seek to understand the ways in which these spaces are represented and enabled. A performative approach is espoused as one way through which we can uncover the practices through which UK military airspaces are enacted.

Performing UK military airspaces

The performativity-inspired framework advanced here is premised on two interconnected avenues of academic inquiry. The first relates to work by Bialasiewicz et al. (2007), Müller (2008) and Weber (1998) that made conscious linkages between geopolitics and performativity. This work elucidates a trajectory of analysis that illustrates the extent to which political discourse performs political positions. The second is concerned with the idea that airspaces can be thought of as ‘matter’ performed and enacted through iterative and citational speech and text acts of those in positions to affect change (see Mackenzie 2002). Both of these approaches are concerned with uncovering the discursive performance of matter. Indeed, as Bialasiewicz et al. note, ‘understanding discourse as involving both the ideas and the material, the linguistic and the non-linguistic, means that discourses are performative’ (2007, 406). Matter, in this geopolitical sense, can be understood through attention to Mackenzie’s (2002 2003 2005) work on the concept of transductions. His work on the ‘post-representational [nature] of technologies’ provides a possible means of understanding the performativity of airspaces as they are iterated through both subjective acts and technological renderings (Mackenzie 2003, 4).

Mackenzie’s work on the ontogenetic process of individuated enactments of technologies provides one way of examining the performance of airspace, as has been illustrated by Dodge and Kitchin (2005) in their use of his transductions work in their analysis of code/space. As they note, using Mackenzie’s concept enables us to consider ‘space, in these terms, [as] a practice, a doing, an event, a becoming – a material and social reality forever (re)created in the moment’ which ‘gains its form, function and meaning in practice’ (Dodge and Kitchin 2005, 172). As Mackenzie opines, Butler’s performativity

shifts the stress from matter as inert ground to matter as an ongoing and variable effect, suspended in a web of interlocking processes whose general dynamics can only be understood in terms of iteration, citation and performativity. (2002, 37)

Mackenzie’s finessing of Butler (1993), to focus on the idea that space can be considered as matter that has a relational ontology, provides us with the ability to direct performative analysis beyond considerations of gender and other social identity formulation, to engage with how spaces are iteratively and citationally produced and reproduced through the performative processes of human actors (see Gregson and Rose 2000; Kaiser and Nikiforova 2008; Rose 1999). This approach enables us to consider the roles of both human actors and technologies in the rendering of these matters and to explicate the ontologies of the spaces being produced. The remainder of this paper, which uses the author’s primary research into the current provision of air defence across the UK and the management processes of UK airspaces, adopts a position that draws on and blends Mackenzie’s focus on the performativity of matter, with the geopolitics of airspace developed above. This enables the elucidation of the performance of UK military airspaces as multiple and imagined spaces of aerial power projection and control that are brought into being by the actions of human actors using specific textual and verbal representations of spaces that are visually represented through computer technologies.

The flexible use of airspaces

An examination of the empirics of UK military airspaces reinforces the arguments given above that we must consider airspaces as plural entities. UK airspace is divided into hundreds of airspaces, each having vertical and horizontal limits and different levels of control placed upon them. Before 1996, this system was enforced continually, irrespective of whether aircraft were flying through these defined spaces or not. This situation resulted in a fixed allocation of airspaces that took little account of definite needs. However, in 1996, a new concept, known as the Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA), was introduced, which has altered airspace management practices not only in the UK but more widely across vast swathes of Europe, affecting a change from a static to a performatively enacted airspaces system. This shift to a dynamic spatial enactment enables us to consider these spaces as being constituted through relational ontologies that give meaning to space through the human endeavours that produce them (Dodge and Kitchin 2005; see also Rose 1999) and enables us to offer a conceptual lens that brings practices and representations of space together (Nash 2000).

The FUA concept was designed and is implemented by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (known as Eurocontrol). Eurocontrol was established in 1963 and is based in Brussels. It currently has 38 member states drawn from across the EU, NATO, Eastern Europe and the European Civil Aviation Conference, and its spatial remit stretches from Ireland in the west to Turkey and Ukraine in the east (Eurocontrol 2002). Each of its member states have signed up to a common plan for the development, coordination and implementation of a pan-European air traffic management system. While this was originally limited to ensuring international cooperation regarding flight planning and ATC operations, the FUA concept has effectively changed the geographies of the airspaces of Eurocontrol’s member states, and the ways in which civil and military airspaces are conceptualised and actualised (see Eurocontrol 2002).9

At its core, the concept aims to increase ‘the capacity of the overall air traffic system’ by incorporating flexibility into the system (Eurocontrol 2002, 12). Thus, the adoption of the FUA by the UK has removed the previously static delimited civil and military airspace zones and replaced them with flexible segregation that is activated and deactivated in accordance with airspace usage requirements, creating spaces through practice (see European Commission 2005; see also Nash 2000; Rose-Redwood 2008). Eurocontrol claims that the key aims of the concept are to provide ‘more efficient ways to separate operational [military] and general [civil and private] air traffic’, to ‘enhance[e] real-time civil/military coordination’, and to enable the ‘reduction in airspace segregation needs’ (2002, 13). In 2005 the prosecution of European Commission Regulation 2150/2005 enabled the legal adoption of the FUA concept within the EU and the airspace above the high seas areas surrounding its member states (European Commission 2005, L342/20). This acted to identify the FUA concept as the dominant discourse within European airspace management and to enable its performance by those, discussed below, working within the UK airspace management sector (see Nelson 1999).

There are three FUA-region-wide airspace structures that are all applicable in the UK: the Conditional Route (CDR), the Temporary Reserved Area (TRA) and the Temporary Segregated Area (TSA) (Eurocontrol 2003b 2003c; CAA 2007). Each of these structures has different properties, which enables the airspaces to be utilised efficiently and effectively. The most important of these, for unpacking the performative geographies of UK military airspaces, are the TSAs. In the UK context, the TSA is an umbrella term that covers a raft of primarily military airspace types, which can be enacted by the actions of RAF and civilian airspace management and ATC personnel. These spaces include Prohibited, Restricted, and Danger Areas, Areas of Intense Aerial Activity, Air-to-Air Refuelling Areas, Aerial Tactics Areas and Military Training Areas (see CAA 2006a 2006b 2007). Danger Areas, to illustrate one example, can be ‘allocated on a daily basis for specified period’ and can pertain to a vast array of activities, including ‘weapons ranges, including test and practice ranges for all types of weapons (guns, bombs, aircraft cannons and rockets etc), aerial combat training, parachutist training and demolition areas’ (CAA 2007, Ch. 1.4.1.b).

Textualising airspaces

In practice, the FUA concept works through a number of processes. These are textually represented in Eurocontrol’s FUA guidance manuals (Eurocontrol 2003b 2003c). A simple hierarchical structure has been developed that separates the enactment of the concept into three levels. At the top of this is Airspace Management (ASM) level 1, the ‘strategic level’ (Eurocontrol 2002, 5 2008c). Organisations fulfilling this role are tasked with generating the textual representations of these airspaces, which are then enacted by the personnel working within the ASM level 2 and level 3 organisations (Eurocontrol 2002 2008c). While it is at these two lower levels that UK military airspaces are practically cited and enacted, an overview of the work of the ASM level 1 body for the UK provides context for the activities at these lower levels.

The ASM level 1 organisation in the UK is the CAA, and within it specifically the Directorate of Airspace Policy (DAP). DAP is tasked – under the auspices of the Transport Act (2000) and the UK Airspace Management Policy document (known as CAP 740) – with

secur[ing] the most efficient use of airspace consistent with the safe operation of aircraft and expeditious flow of air traffic whilst taking into consideration the requirements of operators and owners of all classes of aircraft. (CAA 2007, Ch.; see also HMSO 2000)

Although DAP is a civilian body, its remit covers the entirety of the airspace user community in the UK, from commercial airlines, through the armed forces, to private pilots (see CAA 2008). This enables DAP to take the FUA concept’s brief of ensuring civil/military coordination forward. In practice, this is facilitated by the work of a number of DAP’s sub-groups. One of the most important of these is the Off-Route Airspace Section (ORAS), which is responsible for the development and promulgation of textual and visual descriptions of UK airspaces outside of the designated, civil, air routes. Based at the CAA headquarters in London, ORAS is staffed by personnel from both civil and military backgrounds (indeed the CAA seconds a number of military personnel to staff its DAP sections).10 ORAS personnel perform UK airspaces through the promulgation of the dominant discourse (Bialasiewicz et al. 2007; Nelson 1999); setting the policy and practice implications of the FUA concept and the airspaces structures that it generates. The most significant of ORAS’s roles revolves around the amendment of airspace volumes; for example, changing the horizontal extent of the terminal-controlled airspace at a UK airport, or amending the maximum altitude of an airway. This is performed through the alteration of the dominant discourse for a specific airspace, through its textual re-designation, and through its representation on revised air charts.

Below this are the level 2 groups, primarily the Airspace Utilisation Section (AUS) at the CAA and the Military Airspace Booking Coordination Cell (MABCC) based at the National Air Traffic Service in Hertfordshire. These units are responsible for the textual representation and citational performances of airspace usage. Below them, the key level 3 groups for military airspace management are the RAF’s Air Surveillance and Control System housed in the bunker at RAF Boulmer. It is within these groups, through the actions of their personnel and the documents they produce and use, that UK military airspaces are most obviously enacted.

AUS is the only section within DAP that has no policy function; instead, it exists solely to provide documentary deconfliction of UK airspaces to enable military, and unusual civil, air activities to take place safely.11 According to its official description, AUS is tasked with:

Processing the requirements for airspace in respect of Special or Unusual Aerial Activities (UAA). National and NATO exercise planning. RN High Seas Firing exercises. AAR, AEW and EUCARF reservation flights. Royal and VIP flights; State Visits, GAT handling priority for VIP flights. Restrictions of Flying Regulations, issuing Permissions or Exemptions for Captive Balloon or Kite flying activities and Winch launching. Co-ordinating with SRG other UAA requiring Permissions or Exemptions. Authorising and co-ordinating Non-deviating status flights and authorising Exemptions from the carriage of SSR. Managing the Open Skies ATC and Airspace Co-ordination Team (OSAACT). (CAA 2009)

These activities are performed through a discursive citation and reiteration that produces the specific airspaces that the documents written by AUS personnel name. In practice, AUS personnel are contacted by a variety of airspace users who wish to notify the aviation community of special events or activities that will occur in specific airspaces. The role of AUS staff is to generate a notice listing the geographical coordinates and time periods of this airspace use. These Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) also include an alpha-numeric airspace naming system, and provide a textual description of the activities that are planned to take place within that space at the times listed. Each of the airspaces identified by the CAA, be they Air-to-Air Refuelling Areas or Danger Areas, are given unique alpha-numeric designations, which are used in all documents. For example, the airspace structures covering the electronic warfare range at RAF Spadeadam, in Northern England, include Danger Areas D510 and D510A, as well as Area of Intense Aerial Activity B, and Operational Training Area E. Thus each designated airspace has a unique signifier, the iteration and citation of which enacts that specific airspace.

The process of naming these spaces in NOTAMS reinforces Rose-Redwood’s (2008) notion that governing bodies inscribe dominant toponymic systems onto specific spaces and through this affect control over their performance. This occurs at a variety of sites, and illustrates the multiplicity of airspace performance. Every NOTAM is produced through the act of naming the relevant airspace by the AUS staff responsible for its production. It is then read and the coordinates will be marked on air charts. In RAF squadrons a member of the flight operations staff is tasked with continually updating a large wall chart with all active airspaces using the NOTAMs.12 Those tasked with controlling these spaces (i.e. the ABMs at RAF Boulmer, or military ATC) also utilise these designators to describe these spaces (see Gregson and Rose 2000; Rose 1999). Pilots are also required to read NOTAMs before flying. Thus the production and promulgation of these documents enables the current status of these airspaces to be rendered visible to the flying community.

The second body tasked with providing level 2 ASM functions in the UK is MABCC (see RAF 2009a; MABCC 2009). The unit, which is again staffed by both military and civilian personnel, is the central booking facility for UK military airspace use (RAF 2009a; CAA 2007). To this end, its main task is to produce and promulgate the daily Military Airspace Usage Plan (Mil AUP). This descriptive document lists the squadron numbers, airspace grid references, alpha-numeric designations and times of activity for all the following day’s activated airspaces. This is produced through the collection of pertinent information from UK military squadrons who contact MABCC to book airspaces, and from AUS. The production of the Mil AUP performs airspaces in a similar way to the actions of AUS, in that it enacts specific airspaces through a process of naming specific spaces, giving them an identity as an active military airspace volume between set times (Rose-Redwood 2008). This illustrates Kuus’ (2007) argument that identity is ontologically empty; here airspaces are generated through their citational and iterative performance, bringing them into being at the point of explication and generating their materiality within this process (also see Weber 1998).

Enacting airspaces

AUS and MABCC personnel performatively name UK military airspaces through their discursive citation and reiterative practices. However, it is the people working in the ASM level 3 organisations that enact these spaces as technologically enabled matter, creating ontogenetic understandings of space (Dodge and Kitchin 2005; Mackenzie 2002). This is achieved through their use of documents such as NOTAMs or the Mil AUP, the visual rendering of these spaces on radar screens, and through their active control of aircraft within these delimited airspaces. Thus, level 3 ASM practitioners do more than simply perform a discourse of military airspaces; they actively enable their materialisation as spaces inhabited by military aircraft. The performative actions of the people working within these centres ‘bring these [air]spaces into being’ through a focus not on the subject, but on their deeds (Gregson and Rose 2000, 441).

As described above, RAF Boulmer is home to the Air Surveillance and Control Systems (ASACS) headquarters, and to one of its two Control and Reporting Centres (CRC). The CRC is located in an underground bunker. Operators sit in a windowless room, in front of rows of computer screens, looking not unlike a civilian call centre (excepting the uniforms). It is very easy to lose an awareness of the outside world within this ‘unreal’ space of air defence and UK airspace control. Thus, the performance of these airspaces takes on an even greater importance for the operatives encased within the CRC’s concrete environs, becoming no more ‘unreal’ spaces than those in which they sit. The CRC is equipped with advanced computer systems that pull information in from the RAF’s static radar sites located across the UK (as well as from airborne RAF reconnaissance aircraft, Navy ships, and NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Finderup, Denmark, if necessary). This UCCS computer system plots the location and trajectory of every aircraft flying in UK airspace onto a screen in front of each ABM operative.13 Here a variety of Dodge and Kitchin’s (2004) code/space can be seen in action as the information creating the picture of the screens dominates the ABMs view of the ‘airworld’ that they enable (Budd and Adey 2009).

The CRC receives a transmission every day containing all the NOTAMs that will be active on the following day and the Mil AUP, which lists all squadron exercise activity. This provides a descriptive list of all the airspaces that will be de/activated for military and civilian use, and those airspaces that have had their use altered from their usual status, overtly naming and describing these volumetric spaces creating airspace matter. ABMs are responsible for inputting these data into the UCCS system, practically naming and bringing these spaces into being through their visual representation on computer screens.14 It is in the user-interface for the UCCS system that the operation of code/space, as an ‘embodied practice within a coded regulatory environment’ occurs (Dodge and Kitchin 2004, 205). UCCS stations comprise two computer screens; one provides a textual listing of all UK Temporary Segregated Areas (in tabular form) while the other provides a visual rendering of these spaces, as two-dimensional geometric shapes, on an interactive radar-map. Following Thrift and French (2002), the software creating this map ‘automatically produces space’ (Budd and Adey 2009, 1367). Indeed, here the multiple, imagined, geographies of airspaces can be seen clearly as the sweep of the radar continually produces new insinuations of the airspaces activated across the UK. These mappings provide the insinuation of aerial power projection across the UK.

This level of information is required to enable the two main processes through which the ABMs enact UK military airspaces to take place. These are conducted through the work of the surveillance specialists and the weapons specialists within the ABM role. The surveillance specialists’ role is primarily concerned with identifying aircraft flying into and through UK airspaces, ensuring the airspace volumes are being used correctly and identifying potential threats to UK security. In this role the ABM has a very specific remit and as such they iterate airspaces through their continual conformance to the legal descriptions of these spaces, ensuring that ‘divergent events are constantly filtered out’ (Mackenzie 2002, 39).

The role of the weapons specialists is perhaps more pertinent to the performance of military airspaces and their power projection aspect, in that their job is to verbally describe the aerial environment to the fighter pilot they are controlling and through this to guide the pilot to their target.15 This requires both the ABM and the pilot to be cognisant of the alpha-numeric system of airspace identification as only through mutual recognition can airspace be performed. A lack of this knowledge would render the airspaces null and void; without the explicit linguistic structures in place to identify and produce these spaces they simply cannot be materialised. Here, as Nash has suggested, practices and representations of space are brought together. This enables the generation of ‘a performative theory of spatial politics [that] takes into account the performativity of spatial representation as an embodied practice’ (Nash 2000, 661).

No. 1 Air Control Centre

The vignette at the beginning of this paper describes the work of the RAF’s ABMs and their role in providing a continual vigilance to enable UK air defence, creating aerial matter as spaces of military power projection. The complexities and competing pressures placed upon the finite volume that is the UK airspace system requires its close management and the use of a flexible planning and booking scheme that enables multiple users to access defined airspaces. Engagements with these vertical geopolitics are increasingly significant because, as authors such as Graham (2004 2010), Kaplan (2006), Weizman (2002 2007) and Williams (2007 2010a) indicate, we are increasingly living in a world that is controlled through the ability of military forces to project their power down from aerial positions. The deployment of a framework that blends geopolitical, technological and performative concerns provides another avenue through which we can excavate and critique the complex geographies of our ever more militarised world (see Graham 2010).

The various air-to-ground attacks analysed by these authors, and others, illustrate the omnipotence of aerial fire power. It is vital that we understand how this power is enabled, through analysis of the processes and practices that enable military airspaces to be produced in which military air forces can practice these power projection roles. The ABMs at RAF Boulmer have been described in this paper as being tasked with providing UK air defence. However, they are also deployed on operational tours of duty to Afghanistan. Based in No. 1 Air Control Centre (1 ACC) at Camp Bastion, Helmand, they perform the same role as at RAF Boulmer, performatively enacting airspaces. These same officers and airmen [sic] use the same visualising technologies as they use at RAF Boulmer to view their radar screens at Camp Bastion, using similar textual sources to plot active airspaces, and similar verbal performances with pilots. The airspaces that they are enabling, however, are not the relatively innocuous Danger Areas above the Otterburn Army training range, in Northumberland, or out over the North Sea; they are the air-to-ground attack ‘kill boxes’, the Restricted Operating Zones (ROZ) and the artillery’s mortar firing zones that spread across the UK’s Helmand area of operations. These spaces are dynamically activated when UK group troops ‘encounter’ and ‘engage’ the enemy and require aerial fire power to support their attacks. Thus, while their position in the UK, as the point of action within a long bureaucratic line of staff tasked with materialising airspaces, is important for the defence of the UK, it is the skills honed there that are put to use in the combat theatre of Afghanistan that illustrate the real significance of the performance of airspaces. It is in these performances that the true importance of uncovering the geopolitical performance of airspaces of power projection can be identified. And it is only through excavating and explicating the banality of these actions within the UK that the practices of UK forces in combat theatres can be more fully understood and critiqued.

As Ueno and Kawatoko state, ‘space is continuously organised, described, and made visible by people who are also in space, with various technologies’ (2003, 1529). This paper has sought to illustrate how numerous strands of what we might term geopolitical practice, from the actions of airspace management discourse through to the active verbal description of airspaces to front-line pilots training for combat, coalesce through the concept of performativity to enable a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of UK military airspace enablement. This approach has wider ramifications for a host of inter-related areas of research; specifically those concerned with the relationships between militarisation, computer technologies, performativity, discourse, geopolitics, and power projection. The purpose of the paper has been to utilise the example of the enactment of UK military airspaces to illustrate the interconnectedness of these concepts and issues.

This paper has followed the direction taken by Gregson and Rose (2000) and others that seek to go beyond Butler’s (1993) gender- and identity-centred performativity to acknowledge the viability of employing a performative agenda to engage with the production and enactment of specific spaces. However, this is not the first foray into the realm of geopolitical performativity, and as has been illustrated, the work of Bialasiewicz et al. (2007), Müller (2008) and Weber (1998) are at the forefront of a growing exegesis of the ways in which discursive acts actively perform geopolitical spaces. Indeed, through the employment of Bialasiewicz et al. (2007) and their ilk, this paper has sought to reinforce the utility of employing a performatively inspired approach to investigate the enablement and enactment of specifically geopolitical space. To this end, it enables us to consider all militarised space in this vein, encouraging us to uncover the less obvious, mundane, everyday, practices of power projection (Bernazzoli and Flint 2010). These spaces of military control and power projection are all too often hidden from our view, thus this is a vital project to pursue if we are to enable such spaces to be illuminated, brought into focus, and critiqued as places of implicit militarisation and militarism (see Woodward 2004 2005).

The acknowledgement and active problematisation of the technologies involved in the production of these militarised spaces also need to be confronted. The inclusion of Mackenzie (2002 2003 2005) and Dodge and Kitchin’s (2004 2005) work within a wider framework that seeks to explicate the significance of technologies in the performance of space is useful. The latter’s explicit engagement with airspaces, in conjunction with Budd and Adey’s (2009) analysis, provides a useful position from which to consider these software-inundated spaces. However, this paper has shown that we need to go beyond simply focusing on the technologies that they argue are generative of spaces. Instead, it has sought to illustrate that it is the work done by human actors, and their comprehension and utilisation of textual source materials in conjunction with their rendering of spaces using visual technologies, that needs to be unpacked in order to more fully comprehend the relationships between technologies and human actors in the performance of these technologised spaces. This blending of an approach that considers space as ontologically empty (Mackenzie 2002) with one that considers identified and performed spaces as the location of power projection provides a useful way of considering the performative nature of all militarised spaces. Thus, this blending of geopolitical, performative and transductive approaches enables us to uncover the ways in which military spaces are made and performed in the contemporary networked environment. Given the explosion of communications and plotting technologies within our military forces (and other security-related organisations) it is vital that we develop ways through which we can seek to uncover the hidden spatialities of power at work to enable us to develop insights into the gamut of how military battle plans are created and enacted, and how contemporary battlespaces are visualised and performed (see Croser 2007).


  • 1

    The information on RAF Boulmer comes from official sources but primarily from the author’s personal experience of interviewing the Station Commander in December 2008 and visiting the CRC bunker/talking with ABMs in February and May 2009.

  • 2

    There are three specialisms within the ABM role: surveillance, the former Identification and Surveillance Officers involved in aircraft identification and monitoring; weapons, the renamed Fighter Controllers; and space, the newest role concerned with surveillance in/from outer space.

  • 3

    Of course, the vast majority of these threats come in the form of ‘friendly’ aircraft playing the role of ‘threat’ in RAF or multi-agency exercises.

  • 4

    The term deconfliction refers to the practice of ensuring legal vertical and horizontal separation minima between aircraft to maintain ‘safe’ flying spaces. For this reason, military ATC and ABMs are trained to spot and provide a deconfliction service to aircraft.

  • 5

    ABMs do not control military aircraft that are simply flying from A to B (known as Defence Air Traffic); this is done by either civil or military Air Traffic Control.

  • 6

    During the course of this research the author made three visits to RAF Boulmer (during 2008–09), met with key personnel from the CAA and MOD at the CAA headquarters in London (during March 2009), and spent time in the Air Traffic Control room at a UK regional airport (during May 2009).

  • 7

    The Eurofighter Typhoon has different space requirements due to its turning and climbing capabilities that are more extensive than previous RAF aircraft (see CAA 2007, Ch. 2 Annex A).

  • 8

    Also see Wylie (2009) for illustration of cultural engagements with the sky from within the terrestrial landscape.

  • 9

    FUA was designed in two stages (see Eurocontrol 2003a). The first phase sought to begin the process of ‘progressively establish[ing] flexible airspace structures and to set-up, where necessary, Airspace Management Cells’ that would enable the concept to be fully realised (Eurocontrol 2002, 12). Phase two, which began in 1998, and is ongoing, is concerned with the ‘widespread application of the concept’ (Eurocontrol 2002, 12). The operation of the concept is monitored through an implementation review to which all signatory states subscribe (see Eurocontrol 2008a 2008b).

  • 10

    The author interviewed a number of ORAS staff during a visit to the CAA, and a meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne in March 2010.

  • 11

    The author met with the AUS section head, and spent time in AUS, during a visit to the CAA.

  • 12

    The author saw two occasions of NOTAMs being used to draw airspaces onto air charts at operational RAF stations that were visited for research purposes during spring 2010.

  • 13

    UCCS stands for UKADGE (United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment) Command and Control System. It is planned that it will eventually be replaced by a NATO-wide Air Command and Control System (ACCS) that will ensure interoperability throughout the NATO Air Defence zone (see NACMA 2009).

  • 14

    The inputting of these data is a key operation for the CRC; incorrectly inputting a latitude or longitude coordinate could misplace an airspace and cause potentially serious air safety issues.

  • 15

    This is usually an enemy aircraft, with military Air Traffic Control controlling air–ground operations if necessary.


I would like to thank Rachel Woodward and Stuart Elden for their invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this paper, and Alison Blunt and the three anonymous referees for their insightful comments and suggestions for its improvement. The research upon which this paper is based was conducted as part of an ESRC Research Fellowship, RES-063-27-0154.