ROME — NATO is due to have all five of its Global Hawks delivered by year end to a Sicilian air base where 600 personnel will keep them flying, officials said as they detailed for the first time how the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system will be set up in Italy.
NATO's first Global Hawk, which is based on the Block 40 version of the Northrop Grumman UAV, made its debut flight in December in the US when its flight controls were tested, and further flights to test its radar are now underway.
But work is also ongoing at Sigonella Air Base in Sicily to get ready for the arrival of all five planned AGS Global Hawks and their ground components this year, with 30 NATO staff already on base, ahead of a performance review before a full handover to NATO in 2017.
That marks a real delay for program managers who originally spoke of basing UAVs at Sigonella by 2012.
As the program has slowly picked up steam, Global Hawks have flown in two NATO exercises, including Unified Vision in 2014, when an aircraft flew across civilian airspace from Sigonella to Norway, and Trident Juncture last year.
"We practiced data links and spreading data across the AGS architecture," said Rob Sheehan, Northrop's deputy program manager.
The Global Hawks heading for NATO service have 95 percent commonality with US Air Force Global Hawks, which have now reached 150,000 flying hours, 75 percent of which have been in combat zones. The NATO Global Hawks offer the same MP-RTIP ground surveillance radar sensor and are able to fly for more than 30 hours and reach 60,000 feet.
The setup differs on the ground, where Northrop Grumman, plus European firms Finmeccanica and Airbus, all have provided ground stations.
The US firm is supplying a ground station at Sigonella to analyze incoming radar data and transmit it on a secure NATO network.
While 15 NATO nations, including the US, Germany, Italy and Norway have contributed to the program, all 28 members will be able to access the data.
Northrop Grumman is also providing the antenna which will receive data as well as transmit navigation instructions to the Global Hawks. The ground station will contain 22 operator stations as well as 11 trainee operator stations, a program source told Defense News.
The 22 stations are split into two operational elements of 11, each controlling one Global Hawk. "You need 11 operators because there is so much data arriving," said the source.
Roles taken by the operators include mission director, mission planner, sensor service requests management, imagery analyst, surveillance operator/controller, fusion analyst and geospatial intelligence.
Although operators take different roles, the desks they occupy are all the same and interchangeable, the source added.
Navigators are based in the same building at the NATO compound. "Sensor service requests will be sent to navigators when missions are being planned," said the source.
Sigonella is home to Italian aircraft but also a U.S. Naval Air Station and hosts USAF Global Hawks, and is also due to host US Navy Triton-version Global Hawks. Asked if there would be synergies between NATO and USAF Global Hawks, even if they are based on different compounds, Northrop's Sheehan said, "There are smart things we can do, and there are proven examples already."
Sigonella is evolving into a key Mediterranean hub for UAVs, with Italian Predator UAVs recently based there while their home base in Italy was undergoing infrastructure improvements.
The European input to AGS at Sigonella involves mobile ground stations and represents workshare which has been beefed up to compensate for the early decision in the program to use Global Hawks instead of manned Airbus aircraft.
Through its electronics division, which was known as Selex until Jan. 1, Italy's Finmeccanica is supplying two so-called Transportable General Ground Stations (TGGS), which are smaller, deployable version of the Sigonella ground station, and can be set up in a tent.
Designed for missions where the Global Hawk is deployed to a theater of operations, the TGGS can receive data thanks to a so-called Mobile Ground Station provided by Airbus, which is truck-based and relies on a satellite connection as well as an alternative Wide Band Data Link, supplied by Finmeccanica, for line-of-sight communication with the Global Hawks. Six trucks will be supplied.
Able to transmit in downlink at 44Mbit, the Wide Band Data Link is able to connect from the Global Hawks to 16 receivers on the truck, thereby multiplying the data capacity. Although its use is limited by the restricted range of LOS links compared to satellite links, the source said the feature was "unique."
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.