The announcement that late last week the first NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) aircraft executed a comprehensive range of test points on a first flight from Palmdale, California US Air Force Plant 42 base before landing at Edwards Air Force Base is not only an important milestone for project leader Northrop Grumman and the various other industry partners involved but also for the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Management Organisation and the NATO AGS Management Agency. The development of NATO AGS capability and the flight of the first aircraft should also in my view be considered as yet another significant achievement in the growth of highly specialist unmanned military aircraft capability.
Born from a commitment made during the 2012 Lisbon NATO Summit NATO AGS brings a much needed system of advanced and critical persistent core ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability to the Alliance for the first time. The NATO AGS aircraft itself is a derivative of the wide-area surveillance Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft system that has already notched up well over 100,000 hours of combat and operational flying in US Air Force service. Built at the San Diego plant of Northrop Grumman the NATO AGS aircraft that flew over the weekend is the first of five currently under construction for NATO.
NATO AGS is part of a broader system solution aimed at significantly advancing NATO’s evolving ISR needs covering a full range of mission requirement that may include protection of ground troops and civilian populations, border control and maritime safety, the ongoing fight against terrorism, crisis management together with humanitarian assistance requirement following natural disasters.
With the first NATO AGS flight having now successfully executed a comprehensive range of test points including the observation of flying characteristics at various altitudes and in differing flight conditions the aircraft will now conduct a comprehensive six-month long programme of ground and airborne testing and evaluation at Edwards Air Force Base before it is then despatched to Sigonella Air Base in Italy. The Italian base is intended to be the main NATO Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) operating deployment base that will be used by NATO AGS. It will also be used for data exploitation and training.
Equipped with Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program sensor (MP-RTIP) which is designed to provide critical data to commanders during both day and night operations in all weathers NATO AGS marks a giant step forward in unmanned ISR and command and control capability. Using the MP-RTIP sensor, the NATO AGS system will be able to fuse sensor data and detect and track moving objects and provide imagery of selected objects on a continuous basis. In its final delivered form the capability is intended to be used primarily for collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.
Just as Global Hawk does, NATO AGS has the ability to fly for up to 30 hours at a time. This is high-altitude long-endurance capability that has from the outset been designed to perform all-weather, persistent wide-area terrestrial and maritime surveillance in near real-time. A collaborative trans-Atlantic programme that is NATO-owned and operated the core C2ISR system will, as already mentioned, provide a wide range of command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to support and interconnect with a wide range of NATO missions and applications providing data to multiple deployed and none deployed operational users including reach-back facilities that are remote from the actual surveillance area.
For the record the primary characteristics of the RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 Remotely Piloted Aircraft are as follows:
Power Plant – Rolls-Royce North America AE 3007H Turbofan
Thrust – 7,600 lbs
Wingspan – 130.9 feet
Length – 47.6 feet
Max take-off weight – 14,950 lbs
Payload – 3,000 lbs
Speed – 357 mph
Range – 10,112 miles
Ceiling – 60,000 ft.
Following six-months of testing at Edwards AFB the first NATO AGS aircraft is planned to be ferried by Northrop Grumman to Sigonella Air Base some time during the second half of 2016. My current understanding is that the intention is to have the capability fully operational and available to Alliance members during a 2017/2018 timeframe.
NATO AGS is intended to provide five unmanned aircraft together with the European-sourced mobile/transportable ground stations that will provide data link connectivity, data processing and the various exploitation capability to multiple deployed and non-deployed NATO operational users. While the capability is only being procured by 15 NATO members (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the US) it is understood that all 28 members of the NATO alliance will take part in the long-term support of the program.
While Northrop Grumman has been responsible for build and programme delivery the NATO AGS system is a truly European based programme that includes a large number of European-sourced ground based assets. Airbus, Kongsberg and Finmeccanica are examples of European based companies that are involved on the programme. Selex ES, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, is providing the Mission Operation Support (MOS) systems together with the two Transportable General Ground Stations (TGGS). Selex ES will also supply the Wide Band Data Link (WNDL) used to provide line-of-sight communication between the ground segment and the systems unmanned aerial vehicle capability.
Airbus Defence and Space in Germany will supply the six Mobile General Ground Stations (MGGS) systems have been developed
CHW (London – 21st December 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS