NATO rolls out new drone for Europe

The first of five new surveillance drones designed for NATO’s European operations by defense manufacturer Northrop-Grumman was unveiled in Palmdale, California last week, marking a major milestone for 28 countries, including Latvia, which helped fund the multinational project.

The NATO-1 Global Hawk aircraft, a derivative of the Block 40 Global Hawk operated by the US Air Force, is the radar-carrying airborne ground surveillance (AGS) component of a far larger intelligence-gathering apparatus. The new system will be compatible with each member state’s existing observation systems, thus improving the coordination of joint response to threats and challenges.

Latvian Radio’s foreign correspondent Uģis Lībietis reported from the June 4 ceremony for the so-called “Eye in the sky”, which is already envisioned for uses beyond its military reconnaissance capability, including disaster relief and refugee tracking.

As Bob Zeiser of HALE Systems told LR: “These planes fly longer than 24 hours, up to a record of 34 hours. They fly at an altitude of about 15-16 kilometers, way above commercial airliners. This gives a much wider picture of the earth, as one mission can cover more than a million square kilometers without using much fuel. Moreover, they can handle all kinds of weather and their radar can gather the data in any situation.”

NATO-1 will move across the Atlantic in 2016 to its main operating station at Sigonella air base in Sicily, Italy. The system should be operational by 2017, and full operational capability is expected the following year as the programme transitions to operations, sustainment and upgrade.

The countries funding the AGS programme are: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States. The original contract was signed by 13 nations, with Poland and Denmark joining in October and December 2012 respectively. Although purchased by 15 nations, the AGS programme will provide ISR to all 28 members of the alliance. The programme is overseen by the NATO AGS Management Agency, with Northrop Grumman acting as prime contractor.

According to NATO AGS officials, the 4 June aircraft unveiling is just the start of a complex integration and certification effort that represents the hardest remaining 10% of the procurement and delivery process.

The first flight of NATO-1 is due in August or September, says Jim Edge, general manager for the NATO AGS Management Agency. He says airworthiness certification will be a challenge and will not be granted automatically, since some of the equipment on the aircraft differs from what is onboard the USAF's Global Hawks.

NATO established a requirement for a joint airborne ground surveillance system in 1995 and at one point had a requirement for enhanced Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft – a plan that that never materialised.

The requirement for a Global Hawk-based system was established in 2008, and at the 2012 NATO Chicago Summit a $1.7 billion programme was established and a contract awarded to a global industrial team lead by Northrop that includes Airbus Defence & Space (Germany), Selex ES (Italy) and Kongsberg (Norway).

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