NATO’s new military drone arrives in Europe  

21 November 2019, Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy – NATO’s first RQ-4D has arrived in Europe.

Ahead of its summit in London next month, NATO has announced that the first of the massive Global Hawk drones that make up the ‘Alliance Ground Support’ (AGS) system has arrived in Europe.

The clumsily named Alliance Ground Support system will eventually comprise five specially upgraded Northrop Grumman Global Hawk Block 40 drones, a permanent ground station at Sigonella Airbase, Sicily, and several mobile ground control stations, to be used among NATO allies.

NATO’s Global Hawk, the RQ-4D, is a high-altitude, long endurance drone, weighing over 6,500 kilograms. It is 14.5m long with a wingspan of 39.8m, can fly at 18,288km and has a range of 16,113km with a max speed of 575km/h. NATO does not specify how long this particular model can remain airborne, but Northrop Grumman advertise the endurance as 30 hours.

The drone is the same basic type that was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile near the Strait of Hormuz in June 2019 and just this week the Pentagon announced that it was considering cutting two-thirds of the USAF’s own fleet of Global Hawk drones.

According to NATO, the drones will provide “all-weather, persistent wide-area terrestrial and maritime surveillance in near real-time” and “will be able to contribute to a range of missions such as protection of ground troops and civilian populations, border control and maritime safety, the fight against terrorism, crisis management and humanitarian assistance in natural disasters.”

Back in February 2012, NATO announced that a group of 15 allies had agreed to fund the acquisition of the AGS. The UK elected not to join the programme arguing that the UK’s Sentinel surveillance aircraft was already contribution enough to NATO’s surveillance capability.  The system was originally supposed to be introduced between 2015-2017. However, as a result of ongoing testing in the US, where the Global Hawks were adapted to serve NATOs interoperability needs, as well as difficulties in obtaining certification to fly in Italian airspace, the project has been repeatedly delayed. The adjusted date was set for the first airframe to arrive in Sigonella in the third quarter of 2019.

As for the rest of the infrastructure and systems needed for AGS, a steady trickle of announcements from various defence companies working with NATO and Northrop Grumman since 2016 show that it is likely be in place now. In 2016, telecoms company SES, in conjunction with the Luxembourg government won a contract to provide the SATCOM segment of AGS. The satellite, GovSat1, was launched into orbit in January 2018. In 2017 a contract was signed for Logistics and Information Support with Leonardo and another with Airbus for systems support in 2019. Meanwhile, an AGS Command Handover ceremony took place in September 2018, with responsibility passing from interim to Permanent Ground Command personnel.

Perhaps most significantly, system integration is underway for Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) and Automated Target Identification (ATID) software for AGS. Designed and developed by Terma, a Danish defence and aerospace manufacturer, the systems were installed in Sigonella in June 2019 and it was reported that full integration will be complete by the end of 2020. Terma state that the systems will support, and make more efficient, processing the data from surveillance of large areas.

The final hurdle was the certification of the AGS drones by the Italian aviation authorities. This was one of the major reasons that the earlier deadline for the system to become operational was missed. In 2014, a test flight was carried out from Sigonella to Norway, to demonstrate the systems capability in unsegregated airspace, but, analysts said, this was achieved by flying above other air traffic and deliberately plotting the route to spend as little of it over land. The Italian authorities continued to resist certification but in October 2019, the AGS was awarded military type certification, allowing the Global Hawks to fly in Italian airspace. When it flew over the UK in 2014, it flew in segregated airspace at 50,000ft, above the cruising altitude of commercial flights.

The development of AGS has not happened without concerns being raised about the costs of the system and its utility. Germany, who is paying for about a third of the AGS system, scrapped its own acquisition of a version of the Global Hawk – dubbed the Euro Hawk.  After losing $700m on their national program, some German politicians are understandably hesitant about paying for the RQ-4D. Moreover, political opposition to an entry into a new arms race has also surfaced in Germany, centred on concerns not just of spiralling costs but of escalating tensions in the Ukraine.

An escalation of tensions is, of course, a real concern as more weapons systems are deployed on the borders of NATO members, particularly in eastern Europe. Furthermore, Drone Wars notes with concern that inclusion of Automated Target Identification and Automatic targeting systems in the AGS. Whilst AGS is not itself armed, it can be used for target acquisition for armed drones or manned aircraft. NATO set out in a paper, ‘Autonomous Systems: Issues for Defence Policymakers’, that it is not adverse to such developments as long as the decision-making prior to the choice of weapon is done within the scope of international law and autonomous systems are deemed to be the most appropriate choice.

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