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WASHINGTON – NATO's first Alliance Ground Surveillance aircraft, a derivative of Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, completed its first flight over the weekend, marking a major milestone for the international program.

The wide-area surveillance aircraft took off Dec. 19 from Palmdale, California, for a 2.5 hour mission, Rob Sheehan, Northrop's deputy program manager, told Defense News in a Dec. 21 interview. The aircraft completed a comprehensive range of test points, flying to 40,000 feet before landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, he said.

The successful flight proved out the control systems and air worthiness of the NATO-owned and operated AGS just six months after the aircraft was unveiled, Sheehan said.

"This flight demonstrated the flight control systems that allow NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance to operate semi-autonomously through a cooperative effort with the NATO [and] our industry partners," Sheehan said. "We couldn't be prouder of the entire team for this achievement."

The AGS is a derivative Northrop's Global Hawk, which has proven its ability to provide critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to commanders in Iraq and Syria during recent airstrikes against the Islamic State. The AGS, which is 94 percent common with the Global Hawk Block 40, will support a range of NATO missions such as protecting ground troops and civilian populations.

The AGS that took flight this weekend is one of five aircraft that will eventually be stationed in Sigonella, Italy, already home to US Air Force-owned Global Hawks. The system is being procured by 15 NATO partners — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States — and will benefit all 28 nations.

The main operating station at Sigonella is supported by two mobile and transportable ground stations, Sheehan said, which will provide data link connectivity, data processing and exploitation capabilities to multiple users.

The next step is to integrate the sensor systems, including an advanced radar and a new Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor, which allows the aircraft to fuse sensor data, continuously detect and track moving objects and provide imagery of the battlefield to commanders. This integration and ground testing will take place over the next few months, Sheehan said.

Northrop will transition the first NATO AGS to Sigonella in 2016, with initial operational capability expected in 2017, Sheehan said.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @LaraSeligman

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