Libya and Russia: NATO spy drones fly first missions

Western military forces have stationed seven GLOBAL HAWK on Sicily. Unlike US Air Force drones, NATO switches off their transponders during missions

A drone stationed in Sicily as part of NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme has completed its first missions. Flights were made towards Libya and Russia, reports ItalMilRadar. The internet portal evaluates the data from transponders that large aircraft must have installed. However, the devices were switched off over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. So it is unclear how close the aircraft flew to the territory of the two countries. Depending on the altitude, NATO drones can perform reconnaissance up to 200 kilometres inland.

As part of the AGS, NATO is stationing five GLOBAL HAWK at the Italian airbase Sigonella in Sicily. The NATO member states agreed on the programme, which costs around 1.5 billion euros, at their summit in Chicago in 2012. The two largest contributors are the USA and Germany. Of the personnel, comprising around 600 soldiers and civilian staff, a quarter come from Germany. At present, this includes 8 drone pilots for the GLOBAL HAWK; at a later date, this could rise to 14. The programme is under the control of the NATO Command for European Air Forces in Ramstein.

The GLOBAL HAWKs belong to the high-flying HALE class, which is the largest unmanned aerial vehicle in series production with a payload of around 1.4 tonnes. The manufacturer is the US defence company Northrop Grumman. In November, the last of the five GLOBAL HAWKs was delivered to Sigonella, and in the same month, according to the German Ministry of Defence, the tests required for each drone were also successfully completed. The drones are equipped with optical and radar-based „Imagery Intelligence“ (IMINT) technology. This includes a high-resolution radar for ground observation, which can observe stationary and moving targets. Ground stations for analysing the data come from the arms companies Airbus and Leonardo.

The US Air Force has also stationed two GLOBAL HAWK at Sigonella. Within the framework of the „European Deterrence Initiative“, which was started by the military alliance after the Crimean crisis in 2014, they have been making organisational and technical preparations for NATO drone missions since 2015. Various countries, including Germany, have opened their airspace for transits. Following the US drones, NATO’s GLOBAL HAWK are also to use a corridor over Germany towards the Russian Baltic Sea. Another corridor leads over Bulgaria to the Black Sea. In contrast to the NATO drones, the transponders of the US drones usually remain switched on. For example, it could be traced that the last flight went as far as Georgia, presumably to spy on ground targets in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Originally, the German government had planned for the Bundeswehr to procure more high-flying drones for the NATO AGS. They were to be stationed at Jagel Air Base in Schleswig-Holstein. According to earlier information, this „national provision“ would have cost over half a billion euros. The German Ministry of Defence now says the project is no longer being continued.

Image: NATO AGS.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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