„Global Hawk“: New NATO drones fly over Italy, France and Germany

In the next six months NATO will launch its first unmanned surveillance programme. Yesterday, the second of five drones arrived in Sicily. For the first time, it is known where the aircraft are to fly.

NATO’s five „Global Hawk“ are to fly in Italian, French and German airspace. The HALE class drones will use a corridor that was originally set up for the US Air Force’s identical „Global Hawk“. This is confirmed by the Ministry of Defense in response to a parlamentarian question. The corridor leads from Sicily to the Baltic Sea and is located at an altitude of 15 to 20 kilometres. Besides Italy and Germany, the high-flying NATO drones also cross France.

As part of the Alliance Ground Surveillance Programme (AGS), NATO is stationing five „Global Hawk“ at the Italian Air Force base in Sigonella, Sicily. Seven years ago, the countries participating in the AGS programme signed a contract to this effect with the US defence contractor Northrop Grumman.

The drones are under the authority of the NATO Allied Air Command in Ramstein. The US Air Force has also stationed two „Global Hawk“ at Sigonella. They operate over the Baltic Sea and Ukraine within the framework of the European Deterrence Initiative.

Delays due to certification process

The handover of the first NATO drone took place on 21 November, yesterday the second „Global Hawk“ arrived in Sigonella. The aircraft weighs about 15 tons, its payload is about 1,400 kg. The maximum flight time is stated as 24 hours, the speed as 570 kilometres per hour. The drones bear the call sign „MAGMA“. For international air traffic, they will receive a final Italian designation next year.

Originally 15 NATO states wanted to participate in the AGS, but Denmark and Canada dropped out because of the high costs. The USA (42 per cent), Germany (33 per cent) and Italy (15 per cent) will bear the largest share of the costs of around 1.5 billion euros. The program has already been delayed by three years. The reason for this is the cumbersome approval process by the Italian aviation authority.

The „Global Hawk“ did not receive type certification and traffic certification until 25 October this year. The drones now operate under the model designation „RQ-4D Phoenix“. They fly without an aviation-standard avoid system or an assistance system to evade collisions. Approximately two million pages of technical manuals are said to have been produced for the certification process.

Start in the first half of 2020

The corridor in Germany explained by German MoD.

The aircraft carry optical and radar-based surveillance equipment. According to media reports, a side-scan radar has a range of at least 200 kilometres. It can also detect and track moving targets on the ground. Once the entire fleet has been delivered, the „Global Hawk“ should be able to operate in at least two operational areas simultaneously. Two drones can alternate between them, while the fifth can be maintained in the meantime. A mission can last up to 30 hours.

NATO is now checking whether the drones meet all the requirements of the sales contract or whether the manufacturer has to carry out rework. This testing and verification process takes about three months. The initial military capability is then to be established before the end of the first half of 2020. Most of the ground stations for controlling and receiving reconnaissance data have also been delivered and are being tested. The mobile and stationary ground segments are being built by the defence companies Leonardo and Airbus.

In total, the AGS will comprise around 600 soldiers and civilian personnel. They will work in a mission centre, a training centre and in the hangars for housing and maintaining the „Global Hawk“. Almost a quarter of the staff is from Germany. According to the latest information, the Bundeswehr intends to fill a total of 129 service posts in the AGS, 122 of which are at Sigonella and seven in Germany. The German Air Force is providing 14 pilots for the „Global Hawk“.

Project PEGASUS delayed again

In the PEGASUS project, the Bundeswehr itself intends to acquire four „Global Hawk“ drones. They are to continue the „Euro Hawk“ project, which was halted in 2013, and carry interception technology. The tender was planned for this year, but according to the Ministry of Defence, it will be delayed again due to the lack of funding.

The only prototype of the „Euro Hawk“ delivered to Germany in 2011 is no longer capable of flying. After the US military has removed sensitive technology, spare parts, tools and testing equipment are to be sold to the NATO AGS. The purchase price remains secret, so the losses for the abortion of the drone project cannot be finally quantified. So far, the German government has spent more than 700 million euros on the „Euro Hawk“.

It remains unclear what will eventually happen to the cannibalized „Euro Hawk“ and the ground stations. Canada withdrew a purchase offer. According to the German Defence Ministry, the US government now wants to check whether there is „interest in the purchase“. An „inspection of the material“ should take place this year. So far, nothing is known about an American resulting interest to buy.

Image: In Germany, the „Global Hawk“ flies over the federal states of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Bremen, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (all rights reserved NATO).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.