Paris Special

Despite no lack of interest, acquiring a dedicated platform to detect ground moving targets on radar has eluded NATO for 20 years.

Casualties in the quest among NATO's European partners lay strewn across the historical records like the bombed-out tanks of Iraq's III Corps along the highway from Kuwait City to Basra in February 1991. France mothballed the Horizon, a radar-equipped Eurocopter AS532 Cougar, in 2008.

Italy developed the CRESO radar for the AgustaBell 412 helicopter, but that project also fizzled. Perhaps the most successful project - the Royal Air Force Sentinel R1 fleet equipped with the airborne stand-off radar - is to exit service post-Afghanistan campaign.

Each of these projects was launched in the aftermath of a failed push by the US government in the mid-1990s to persuade NATO to acquire the Northrop Grumman E-8C JSTARS airborne ground surveillance system. JSTARS pioneered the application of ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar and spotted Iraq's III Corps en route to Basra through a sandstorm.

 

Global Hawk
 © Northrop Grumman
 A Global Hawk mock-up at the UK's Royal International Air Tattoo in 2009

 

NATO is as close today as it has ever been to finally awarding a contract for a GMTI system, now defined as the RQ-4 Block 40 with the Northrop/Raytheon multi-platform radar technology insertion programme sensor.

Northrop submitted its proposal in March. A contract for six aircraft is to be awarded in October, to fulfil a vision nearly 20 years old.

In the interim between the JSTARS proposal and the Global Hawk-based Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, NATO's European members have decided that they cannot afford the expense of a national GMTI capability. Instead, NATO has approved a system based exclusively on the RQ-4 Block 40 already in service with the US government.

 

Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet
 © Northrop Grumman
 

"The airframe and the sensor are identical to the US Air Force. The only thing we've done is we've added a European wideband datalink to the system to allow unfetterred flow of information," says Matthew Copija, director of Northrop's AGS programme. "There are no [export control] issues associated with getting the data down. We made it cleaner from an export standpoint approach."

Allowing the GMTI data to flow among all of NATO's members is critical for preserving its support as defence budgets tighten. The alliance has been making progress on interoperability over the past 15 years.

 

NATO RQ-4 AGS
 © Northrop Grumman
NATO AGS

 

The first step was setting up a NATO command, control and communications agency (NC3A) testbed in 1996. That led to development of coalition aerial surveillance and reconnaissance (Caesar), establishing protocols for exchanging classified data generated from the synthetic aperture radars of member countries. The next step - developing software to facilitate that exchange - brought the advent of the multi-sensor aerospace-ground joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance interoperability coalition (MAJIIC).

"NC3A started out as a testbed, it turned into Caesar," Copija says. "Caesar now has MAJIIC. [That system is about] how do they deal with interoperability within NATO on GMTI data and it's becoming a key backbone system for NATO as we go forward."

That is not to suggest that NATO has overcome the budget and operational challenges that have delayed the GMTI programme for decades. Even as member countries experimented with individual programmes, NATO tried to launch the transatlantic industrial proposed solution programme, which included the RQ-4 and the Airbus A321 with the Thomson-CSF applications radar (TCAR).

"The TCAR became the critical path for deployment of the system," Copija says. "The nations that weren't really benefiting from it, they all came away... [deciding] the return on investment and technology reuse just wasn't there for the risk and cost associated."

Instead, NATO has settled for an off-the-shelf system that includes six RQ-4s - down from eight air vehicles - based at Sigonella air base in Sicily. The system also includes an almost entirely off-the-shelf ground system. If NATO members object to GMTI this time, it will not be driven by the budget or schedule of the development phase. "This approach is a turnkey," Copija says. "It is designed to develop it, demonstrate it, qualify it and then produce it and then stand it up, all in one single contract."

For the ground station, the proposed offer calls for EADS to be responsible for the mobile system, including a communications truck and a trailer. Selex, meanwhile, is working with Romania and Bulgaria to develop a mobile operating base. "The [NATO] force commander stands up every day and says he needs it," Copija says. "It will save alliance lives and save troops on the ground and protect them. It makes them more efficient and effective at what they do. The reason it survives is operationally it has a need."

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