NATO's long-running process to order an Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) capability could at last achieve a contract signature within the next few months, although the scale of its programme appears to have again been revised.
"We have the contract, and it's under negotiation," said US Air Force Maj Gen Steve Schmidt, commander of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force. A 13-nation deal should be signed before the next NATO summit, in Chicago from 20-21 May, he added.
"I fully expect to see the announcement that NATO has purchased AGS by that summit," Schmidt told the AEW and Battle Management conference in London on 17 January.
Schmidt valued the pending acquisition at about €1 billion ($1.3 billion) for five Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 40 unmanned air vehicles, each equipped with a Northrop/Raytheon surveillance payload. An associated 20-year operational support package is expected to total a further €2.2 billion, he added.
This assessment contrasts with a previous plan, which had called for the purchase of six Global Hawks, to be operated from NAS Sigonella in Sicily from later this decade. Northrop officials last October said a deal was expected to be signed in early November 2011.
Although NATO was able to access information from a USAF Global Hawk that flew a limited number of sorties during last year's Libya campaign, Schmidt said the availability of an Alliance-owned fleet "would have been a game-changer" during the seven months of Operation Unified Protector.
Beyond its application during such coalition operations in the future, Schmidt said additional uses for the AGS fleet would include crisis management and cooperative security tasks.