At NATO’s Chicago Summit in May 2012, the organisation signed a $1.7 billion agreement with Northrop Grumman to acquire the RQ-4 Block 40 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned air vehicle under its Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme.

Now, some three years later, the first of five systems is due to be rolled out in California on 4 June, marking the start of a series of expected milestones for the HALE UAV, which will be operated from Sigonella air base in Sicily, Italy.

The AGS system – to be owned and operated by NATO – will provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the alliance once operational. Of the 28 NATO members, 15 have funded the development, while all will be involved in supporting the programme.

“NATO needed what was essentially a long-endurance, stand-off intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform that was already operationally proven, and that was key,” Jim Edge, general manager for the NATO AGS Management Agency (NAGSMA), tellsFlight International. “So when SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] and the NATO nations began looking, the Global Hawk aircraft developed by Northrop Grumman in the United States was the only aircraft that fitted that bill.

“There was a considerable need for ISR during Operation Unified Protector in Libya, and that absolutely demonstrated just how compelling NATO’s need really was.”

“From one perspective, this is a preview of the vision that NATO has had for having an airborne ground surveillance capability,” Bob Zeiser, NATO AGS business development director at Northrop, toldFlight Internationalahead of the roll-out. “It’s the first opportunity to see that aircraft – it is a real system now.

“Following the roll-out, first flights for the programme and testing of the system in California will take place later on this year, and in the middle of 2016 will be the ferry flight – the delivery of that first aircraft – to the main operating base at Sigonella,” he says.

Four of the five Global Hawks – and soon all five – are in final production now, so they will roll out very quickly, Zeiser says. After the first delivery, the other four will follow very quickly behind it.

“We certainly know that the world situation demands: the earliest introduction, and we are striving to provide the earliest fielding of this capability to NATO,” he says.

NATO AGS Global Hawk rollout preview - Northrop Gr

Northrop Grumman

Following the acquisition, an in-service support (ISS) programme will be introduced, and it is expected that the industrial team that is currently involved in AGS will once again team together to bid for this separate contract.

In the meantime, training is being offered under the acquisition contract to fill the gap until the ISS comes to fruition. A request for proposals is due to be released towards the end of 2016 or at the beginning of 2017, and the contract will have to overlap with the current arrangement for continuity purposes, Zeiser notes.

At Sigonella, NATO is working with host nation Italy and contractors it has selected to establish the main operating base infrastructure. There are two phases to this: a bridging infrastructure element, which allows the delivery of systems from industry; and then the main operating base element, the infrastructure for which will arrive later.

“This has been a very successful risk mitigation strategy – all of the players are working well to make sure that this happens,” Edge says. “We expect to be able to take ownership of these facilities probably by the middle of July, and our first entities from industry will begin arriving with the ground systems late this summer.”

Parts of the tactical and mobile ground stations will be the first AGS elements to be delivered, and then the first aircraft will fly over in “late spring” 2016.

“We should have everything on the ground side delivered in time for us to do the system-level performance verification, but not until we get the airplanes over there as well,” Edge adds. “So the ground systems start arriving before the airplanes, but we’ll have the entire system in place probably in mid- to late 2016, and we’ll begin the system-level performance verification at that time.”

All segments – the aircraft, tactical ground station, mobile ground station, satellite infrastructure and the mission support system – will have their own individual tests at this stage, and then they will all have to work together to deliver an integrated and executable system, Edge says.

“Each entity will go through a series of individual level performance testing and then will undergo the system level performance verification testing where we’ll have aeroplanes in the air and test sensor control of the aircraft and transmission of data.”

This data will then be analysed and disseminated as it would be in a real operational situation, which Edge says is key to the system. “If we collect the data and then can’t push it to decision makers we have failed in one of the critical elements of ISR,” he says.

Initial operational capability (IOC) is expected to be achieved in December 2017, with full operational capability (FOC) to follow late the next year.

“At this point it’s a very complicated programme and we have a lot of hurdles to overcome, but it’s looking good,” Edge notes.

NATO is expecting a force of some 600 personnel to eventually operate and maintain the AGS system when it becomes fully operational, taken from all 28 nations that have pledged to support it.

“Right now each nation is bidding on positions: maintainers, analysts, system operators, pilots, command, security – specialists in all fields that will support the system; and the nations right now are building their own commitments to that initial cadre that will at FOC – in December 2018 – number approximately 600 people,” Edge says. “SHAPE will slowly build up personnel to get to IOC with about 250 people and then build up personnel.

“The nations are looking at what they can do for NATO, and SHAPE is looking at what it needs from the nations to fill its empty billets.”

It is understood that personnel will be based at Sigonella on three-year rotations in support of the AGS effort. While UAV pilots are potentially going to be provided by all NATO nations, Edge suspects that initially only a handful of nations will be able to do so.

“But then again SHAPE and NATO are building a capability to organically train UAV pilots,” he adds. “The pilots themselves are a relatively small part of the 600 personnel that will be stationed there under the SHAPE AGS force.”

NATO AGS Global Hawk rollout preview - Northrop Gr

Northrop Grumman

Zeiser notes that while the roll-out of the aircraft is indeed significant, “it’s important to realise... AGS is really a system of systems, of which the aircraft is one component”.

Airbus Defence & Space, Kongsberg and Selex ES will deliver the ground segments that they are developing straight to NATO, and testing due to take place on the first system in California will use a communications centre that has been developed for the test programme.

“This ground segment is wholly developed by European industry – a great benefit for those nations that want to re-use it for national purposes, but also it demonstrates the ‘team NATO’ philosophy that we’ve had throughout this programme,” says Zeiser.

The Northrop RQ-4 and the Northrop-Raytheon multi-platform radar technology insertion program (MP-RTIP) sensor are US-developed, but although the AGS system will benefit from this technology, the European involvement in the programme is significant.

Selex ES is providing a transportable ground station and the mission operations support centre at Sigonella; Kongsberg the system master archival/retrieval facility (SMARF); and Airbus Defence & Space the mobile ground segment deployable ground station.

Industries from all 15 funding nations are involved, which has allowed national capabilities from each to have been developed and invested in to feed into the AGS programme, meaning it is an off-the-shelf system.

“Principally the concept of NATO was to buy a system that needed little to no development money,” says Zeiser. “We realised that all of our defence budgets have pressures and buying what I’ll call an ‘off-the-shelf Global Hawk Block 40’, missionised to NATO standards, is what is required. Also, NATO required a maritime mode in the radar that is being developed as well, but it is essentially a Block 40.”

This precedes the maritime capability of the radar being developed for Northrop’s MQ-4C Triton variant of the UAV, Zeiser notes.

“This will provide a maritime mode in missions that are very useful, like counter-piracy in the Mediterranean,” he adds. “Triton will have a maritime capability as well, and this will be very complementary and interoperable with NATO AGS and will be useful in places like the Arctic, where prolonged, sustained endurance is needed for military and non-military applications.”

Because of the ability of Global Hawk to fly at 60,000ft for 30h, AGS will have a higher endurance than any other NATO assets, Zeiser says, and will be able to transmit near real-time data to anywhere in the world while operating for these long durations.

“The aircraft that we’re buying will certainly support 24/7 operations; a single aircraft can fly up to 30h unrefuelled, so you can do a tremendous amount with one aircraft in one sortie,” Edge says.

“NATO, I’m sure, looking at that capability, is able to project its communications and intelligence capability to support any mission that they may undertake,” Zeiser adds. “We can envision the full range of missions here for NATO AGS: certainly for military missions and supporting the multinational forces of the coalition – but there’s also the ability to do non-military missions. For every military mission that you can envision, I anticipate a non-military application.”

Edge adds that NATO will use the system “across the full spectrum of operations”, so the imagery it gathers will readily support crisis response operations such as natural disasters.

The ability of the MP-RTIP sensor to track moving targets with its synthetic aperture radar (SAR) capability is ideally suited to provide crisis managers with a tool that helps it find survivors, as it can loiter for hours for search and rescue tasks, he says.

“Obviously military commanders will exploit the system’s stand-off capabilities, gathering ground moving target indication [GMTI] signals and SAR imagery – a unique ability of the system is to playback that GMTI history, and we can show with very high certainty where vehicles such as tanks, trucks and artillery are sitting, and more importantly, where they came from.

As a result, it meets all the requirements of what NATO calls its “smart defence initiative”, and “the North Atlantic Council has repeatedly revalidated and reconfirmed NATO’s commitment to getting this system in the field,” says Edge.

The Global Hawk has also had previous experience in aiding disaster relief efforts, Zeiser says; the US Air Force sent the system to support the disaster relief effort following an earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Furthermore, Edge says that the fact this will be a NATO-owned and -operated sovereign capability will provide an operational advantage to the alliance.

“That is a very unique capability, because even in operations that NATO does today, many of the systems are brought by the individual nations,” he says. “They unfortunately – and for good reasons inside the nations – carry restrictions on what can or cannot be released from nation to nation.

“When NATO owns and operates a system there will be no question of what can be released and what cannot be, and I think there is a very big reason that NATO chose to purchase the system outright.”

Zeiser notes that the AGS concept could be a “model acquisition for NATO”, with all nations coming together to acquire the system, but with all 28 nations benefiting from it and contributing to its long-term support at Sigonella.

“That said, it’s a benchmark acquisition programme because it realises that there are defence pressures in each of the alliance nations, and it is a capability that only a few nations could afford by itself,” he continues. “But by pooling their resources and harvesting and taking full advantage of national investments already made in operationally fielded and proven systems for the whole alliance, it becomes the model that NATO will want to carry forward in future acquisitions.”

Meanwhile, the European operation of Global Hawk could lead on to business deals with other nations, Zeiser believes.

The Royal Australian Air Force has pledged to buy Tritons, South Korea is to buy Global Hawks, and there is also an emerging requirement for HALE UAVs in Japan.

Global Hawk has previously had a foray in the European market – it was contracted to be the base system for Germany’s Euro Hawk signals intelligence HALE offering.

Although the programme came to an early end as the cost of development escalated, some testing of one delivered Euro Hawk took place, and some further testing with the Airbus Defence & Space-developed payload is expected to occur as Germany explores its requirements for a replacement for the Breguet Atlantics it retired in 2010.

Euro Hawk Manching - Northrop Grumman

Euro Hawk

Northrop Grumman

“I foresee emerging requirements in both Norway and the UK as well," Zeiser says. "I think there are a lot of emerging requirements.”

The UK is awaiting its Strategic Defence and Security Review later this year, which is expected to indicate requirements for a maritime patrol capability, be it manned, unmanned or a mixture of both – the last of these akin to the US Navy and Australia, which have both chosen Triton and Boeing 737-based P-8 combinations for this role.

Norway, meanwhile, also has an interest in acquiring a HALE UAV, and is entering into a defence review that is expected to address its concerns regarding the threat from Russia and monitoring of the Arctic.

In addition to the acquisition of the Global Hawk, for AGS France has offered its Israel Aerospace Industries Heron TP UAV in kind, while the UK has offered its Raytheon Sentinel R1 manned ISR aircraft.

These, Edge notes, are not under NAGSMA's remit at the moment, but SHAPE and the nations that are providing those contributions in kind have a set of NATO standards to which they should adhere. This, at least in theory, means they should be interoperable with the NATO AGS and the joint ISR network being built, although Edge is not currently required to test the Global Hawk AGS system against any of those.

“What we hope to be able to do in the future through NATO’s joint ISR level of ambition is to bring all of the information gathered from all sources into a data fusion centre that could be at Sigonella – and imagery and a tremendous amount of signal intelligence can go into the data fusion centre,” he adds.

“This is a transformational capability for NATO,” Zeiser continues. “Coming together as partners to provide a global capability for a global NATO. Seeing this roll-out of the actual system and the realisation that it is no longer a dream but a reality for collective defence for the alliance and its member nations is a tremendous accomplishment for Northrop Grumman and the entire team.

“Our focus now becomes the site testing and delivery of the system to NATO.”

Edge says that when the contract was signed during the Chicago summit, all nations were behind the effort, and this is just as true now that the first aircraft is due to be rolled out.

“During the 2014 summit in [Newport,] Wales, there was an absolute reconfirmation of the nations’ commitment to delivering the system, and indeed they revalidated the urgency of the system particularly in light of discussions on the Ukraine crisis,” he says. “One of the key issues is that NATO can do NATO operations without relying on individual national assets – that is an absolute key as to why NATO is acquiring this system.”

Source: Flight International