NATO's surveillance and reconnaissance forces are adopting new ways to support allied peacekeepers policing the region

Tim Ripley / Skopje

At dusk a US Army TRW/IAI RQ-5A Hunter unmanned air vehicle (UAV) races down the main runway of Skopje's Petrovec Airport. It is soon airborne, heading for the high mountains that straddle the Macedonia/Kosovo border in its search for signs that small groups of ethnic Albanian rebels are bringing supplies southwards to fuel their war against Macedonia's government. This rebel activity is the latest challenge facing NATO's airborne surveillance and reconnaissance forces in its nine years of air operations over the Balkans.

Today, there are still more than 60,000 international peacekeepers in the region. The six-month-old conflict in Macedonia may see this number grow, further increasing requirements for airborne surveillance and reconnaissance support from NATO.

The complex political situation in the Balkans and the region's imposing geography mean airborne surveillance and reconnaissance support is essential if thinly stretched NATO-led peacekeepers are to enforce successfully the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia, provide a secure environment in Kosovo and prevent the supply of arms to rebel groups in Macedonia.

Boeing E-3A Sentry aircraft of NATO's Airborne Early Warning Force (NAEWF) bore the brunt of early missions to monitor compliance with the UN arms embargo and then the no-fly zone. This summer, a range of airborne reconnaissance assets have been deployed to Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia. USAF General Atomics RQ-1B Predators and US Army Hunter UAVs have been based at Petrovec in Macedonia. British Army BAE Systems Phoenix UAVs, French army Bombardier/Dornier CL-289 UAVs and German army EMT Luna X-2000s have been deployed to Kosovo. The US Army has supported its forces in Bosnia with the Raytheon C-12 and Cessna 337 surveillance aircraft contracted from Florida-based AirScan have been deployed to Macedonia.

At the hub of all NATO air activity in the region is the alliance's Balkan Combined Air Operations Centre (BCAOC) at Dal Molin AB in northern Italy. From here, the NATO Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Cell (ISRAC) produces a daily ISR plan in response to tasking requests from NATO ground components in Bosnia and Kosovo; the alliance's southern regional command in Naples; and from alliance nations wanting to conduct their own operations over the Balkans.

The BCAOC produces the daily air tasking order for Balkan airspace, so any surveillance and reconnaissance platform to be flown in the region must be put on the tasking order's ISR element by ISRAC staff. This is not just a case of simple flight scheduling. Instead, the mission planning involves scheduling imagery and signals intelligence assets, passing on and overseeing taskings, conducting proper sensor correlation, co-ordinating and tracking missions, ensuring that platforms have the required support and sometimes re-tasking platforms in flight when ground commanders request it.

Force mix

NATO's complex planning system sets the force levels and mission requirements of its peacekeeping forces in the Balkans to meet the changing situation on the ground and the willingness of nations to make resources available. The strong pressure exerted by NATO nations to reduce the cost of forces committed to the Balkans has significantly affected the assets at the ISRAC's daily disposal, although rapid reinforcement would be possible in a major crisis, says a senior NATO source. Many of the platforms present during the 1999 air war over Yugoslavia remain at Italian air bases to support the ISRAC, but they now are only available in small numbers or for a few sorties a week.

The two USAF Lockheed U-2S aircraft based at NAS Sigonella are only available for three 7h sorties a week because of a US national requirement to fly missions over the Middle East. UK BAC Canberra PR9 aircraft also find themselves being drawn away from the Balkans to other tasks. In the same way, a drawdown in fastjet tactical aircraft based in Italy from just over 40 in 2000 to around 20 this summer means the number of tactical reconnaissance aircraft is dropping to a handful available each day. NATO officers say this is likely to fall even further over the coming year.

For these reasons, the surveillance and reconnaissance burden is falling on different platforms. US Navy Lockheed P-3C Orion aircraft from Sigonella are taking up much of the real-time electro-optical surveillance requirements. This is because of their three types of sensors and their capacity to downlink imagery via datalinks direct into allied headquarters in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as the BCAOC. Staffers at the BCAOC say the Orion is a popular and robust asset because of its ability to stay on station for more than 6h at a time. The large number of available aircrew means illness does not force missions to be cancelled, as is the case with the single seat U-2S or tactical jets.

UAVs and other aerial assets based in the Balkans are taking on more surveillance and reconnaissance tasking, BCAOC officers say. These systems are under direct tactical control of ground commanders in the Balkans, are far cheaper to deploy than large fixed-wing platforms and their operations are not as limited by the return of Balkan airspace to civilian control. Activity of high-flying platforms is limited now because large blocks of Bosnian airspace are off limits to NATO aircraft unless complex approvals procedures are followed.

Tactical control

Many assets have remained under national tasking control, passing greater tactical control to local ground force commanders. For example, when US troops were dispatched in late June to escort rebel forces away from the Macedonian capital Skopje, Hunter UAVs were ordered to provide real-time surveillance for the commander of US Army forces in Kosovo and Macedonia, Brig Gen William David. He controlled the action from a command post inside nearby Petrovec airport.

The UK has been using its Phoenix UAVs inside Kosovo to observe ethnic hot spots and cue the landing of helicopter-borne or ground rapid-reaction forces to calm tension or apprehend suspects. They also monitor Kosovo's north-eastern boundary with Serbia.

Since March, NATO has been conducting a major operation to interdict the supply lines of ethnic Albanian rebels into Macedonia from Kosovo - a demanding operation because of the rugged terrain along the border and the limited number of troops available.

At first no UAVs were available and NATO commanders had to rely on the P-3C and AirScan's Cessna. Soon, however, Luna X-2000s came on-line in the German-controlled sector of south- western Kosovo, flying 175 missions, and USAF Predators of the 11th Recon-naissance Squadron were temporarily deployed in Macedonia until Task Force Hunter arrived in mid-May.

The task force now conducts nightly surveillance missions along the border, observing areas of interest to NATO ground commanders. Suspect activity identified by Hunter air vehicles is then investigated by NATO ground troops. A steady stream of suspected rebels has been apprehended.

Civilian aircraft control at Petrovec provides deconfliction during take-off, then the Hunters climb to 9,000ft (2,700m) before crossing into Kosovo. "We're given a block of altitude by BCAOC, which steers all manned aircraft away from us," says a Hunter mission planner. "Deconfliction is done for us. That's why identification-friend-or-foe is important."

For two months from March, the German army deployed an experimental combined UAV/ground surveillance radar unit along its sector of the Macedonia-Kosovo border. The deployment was necessary because mountains there rise to 8,200ft and could not be observed efficiently from the ground, says German army Lt Jan Dallheimer. Integrated surveillance plans were developed with overlapping coverage from armoured vehicle-mounted Thales RATAC radars and the airborne Luna X-2000s.

NATO announced its readiness in July to deploy a peacekeeping force to Macedonia to oversee the disarmament of rebel groups. If the so-called Operation Essential Harvest is launched, UAVs could play a key role monitoring disarmament and protecting the 3,000 NATO peace-keepers taking part. Task Force Hunter's success has already led to extending the US Army's stay in Macedonia beyond its originally scheduled mid-August end of tour date.

Source: Flight International