NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme has got off the ground at last, with 13 nations having agreed to fund the acquisition and initial operation of five MP-RTIP-equipped Northrop Grumman Block 40 Global Hawks.
Signed on the sidelines of NATO's Chicago Summit, the AGS deal is worth $1.7 billion. That's a major investment to make during tough economic times, but covers much less than the originally planned mix of unmanned air vehicles and Airbus A321 surveillance aircraft first talked about getting on for a decade ago.
To be based at NAS Sigonella in Sicily, the AGS fleet (Global Hawk image supplied by Northrop Grumman) and its ground infrastructure will start being delivered during 2015, and should achieve full operational status in 2017.
But that's not the end of it; under current plans all 28 of the alliance's member states will provide financial support for long-term operations, while its two leading European players, the UK and France, will contribute other surveillance equipment. The pair are due to sign a memorandum of understanding in 2017 to determine what that will entail, but have previously agreed to pursue a collaborative medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV project; Telemos.
Another option for the UK would be to retain part of its Sentinel R1 fleet, which is currently threatened with early retirement following the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan later this decade. It also has allocated funds for a "Crow's Nest" programme to replace the Royal Navy's current Sea King 7 airborne surveillance and control system helicopters (which have been used to great effect in Afghanistan and during last year's Libya operation), which would provide a more modest contribution.