NATO’s 2011 air war over Libya was fresh on the minds of NATO officials in Chicago when they signed a $1.7 billion agreement with Northrop Grumman for five radar-equipped Global Hawks to be known as the Alliance Ground Surveillance system.
The unmanned AGS planes will carry radars for tracking vehicles and producing cloud- and dust-free terrain images — capabilities that were valuable in the Libya operation, which called for protecting civilians from Moammar Gadhafi’s ground forces. In Libya, ground surveillance was provided by American Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft and Global Hawks, supplemented by a single British Sentinel-R1 plane.
Even before the Libya operation, advocates were working to convince NATO members to kick in funds to buy radar-equipped Global Hawks that would be maintained and flown directly by the alliance. Advocates of AGS saw the reliance on the U.S. as risky because the country’s planes could be needed elsewhere.
Most of the attention was on procuring the airframes as one of the flagships of the alliance’s Smart Defence initiative, which aims to get more out of available defense spending through multinational cooperation. Fourteen of NATO’s 28 members have signed on to fund AGS: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States. The planes will be owned and operated by the entire alliance, however.
Signing the agreement for AGS was seen as one of the breakthroughs at the summit.
“I think Chicago showed that we can deliver,” said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, senior director for Europe on the U.S. National Security Council, speaking at the Atlantic Council May 24.
Given the airframe focus, though, NATO ISR specialists were concerned that the alliance could end up buying fantastic planes but without the expertise on the ground to parse complex moving targeting indicator data and synthetic aperture radar imagery.
At The Hague, ISR technologist Joe Ross said he was reassured by a passage in the summit’s defense declaration voicing support for the alliance’s Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance initiative, which is meant to ensure that expensive new programs like AGS come with adequate data standards, training and analysis staffing.
“The next time we have a Libya, we won’t have to scramble around looking for how we do this. We’ll just say, ‘Could you flip that switch over there?’Ÿ” said Ross, who is technical director for the alliance’s Multi-intelligence All-source Joint ISR Interoperability Coalition, known as MAJIIC. The coalition has been mostly focused on producing intelligence in common data standards for the allies in Afghanistan, but Libya showed the need to broaden the initiative.
During the run-up to the summit, a group of NATO ambassadors lobbied NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to highlight the need to embed the AGS aircraft in a Joint ISR initiative.
When the defense declaration was released May 20, it said: “We are deploying a highly sophisticated Alliance Ground Surveillance system, so that our forces can better and more safely carry out the missions we give them; in this regard, a number of Allies have launched an important initiative to improve Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance more broadly.”
Because of the complexity of radar data, the standards alone won’t be enough, Ross said. Members need to make sure the AGS processing cells are staffed with enough analysts — possibly as many as 300 in total at four sites.
“That’s quite a lot of staff. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to find 300 analysts that are available in the world right now. So there’s a lot of training that has to go on,” he said. “Most of them that are capable of doing this kind of job are doing it already for the U.S. and U.K.”
By buying the AGS planes and backing them with adequate training and analysis, the alliance is taking a step toward liberating itself from near-total reliance on U.S. planes, observers said.
The Libya air war illustrated “too much dependence on U.S. capability,” and that “more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets are needed to increase the precision of target engagement, and to assist with avoiding civilian casualties,” a NATO official had said on the eve of the summit.
France and the United Kingdom remain outside the AGS initiative, but the countries nevertheless have said they are planning to contribute data from other planes to supplement AGS.
The U.K. plans to retire its Sentinel-R1 radar aircraft in 2015, after it finishes its Afghanistan commitment, but it could choose to share radar imagery from the medium-altitude, long-endurance planes it is developing and procuring with France.
Advocates are glad to have the exploratory AGS phase behind them. It was a slog to get countries to agree to the capability and then commit funding, said Stephen Flanagan, a defense and security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“After Libya, the French were claiming that we didn’t need this long-dwell, high-level surveillance, but that we needed something more tactical,” Flanagan said. “I think what they've done is agreed to go ahead with this, but say that we need both.”
In March, the AGS initiative suffered something of a blow when Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay announced that Canada would pull out of the AGS program to save up to $40 million per year. On the other hand, in late February Romania announced that it would contribute $33.4 million to the AGS program, to be paid in installments concluding in 2016. Still, Romania’s contribution represents around 1 percent of the AGS acquisition and operating costs.
In service, these aircraft will be located at Sigonella Naval Air Station on the Italian island of Sicily in the Mediterranean.
The AGS includes three components: air, ground and support segments. The air segment comprises the five RQ-4B aircraft and their ground control stations. The ground segment consists of both mobile and transportable ground stations, which will be able to obtain radar imagery transmitted by the Global Hawk’s communications links and the analytical tools that can be used by intelligence experts to interpret the radar imagery. The support segment will be based at Sigonella and will be responsible for performing maintenance, repair and overhaul for the aircraft.
The acquisition of the AGS is being overseen by the NATO AGS Management Organization, which is responsible for acquiring the complete AGS system on behalf of the 14 member nations funding the initiative. Once the AGS has been acquired, the responsibility for the program will move to the AGS Implementation Office, based at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, which will be responsible for placing the AGS in operation.
Once in service, NATO will operate and maintain the aircraft on behalf of the member nations. Staffing for the AGS will be provided by rotating personnel supplied from NATO’s member country armed forces, in much the same way that the staffing of NATO’s Boeing E-3A common airborne early warning aircraft is performed. The RQ-4B aircraft themselves represent a high level of commonality with the Global Hawks flown by the U.S. Air Force. The only key difference is the addition of a new wideband data link to transmit the radar imagery from the aircraft to the ground.
Kate Brannen contributed to this report.