Since 2009, the EU Border Agency Frontex has been hosting training events on drones and inviting manufacturers to regular demonstrations. There, border police from Schengen member states were presented market-available unmanned systems for the surveillance of land and maritime borders. The basis for this is the first Frontex Regulation, adopted in 2004, which contains the mandate to “follow up on the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of external borders”. The agency’s remit therefore includes continuous exchange with “cross-sectorial partners” in order to “transform operational requirements into innovative operational solutions”.
In the case of the introduction of these technologies, Frontex is to coordinate with European standardisation institutes as appropriate. In 2010, small drones were the initial focus in Finland. A year later, high-flying MALE-class aircraft were unveiled in the Greek port city of Aktio. Prior to this, Frontex had issued a call for the event to explore the integration of drones into the EU border surveillance system EUROSUR. Subsequently, aircraft such as the Israeli “Heron 1”, the American “Predator”, the French “Patroller” as well as the “Euro Hawk” (which at the time was in the procurement phase for the German Armed Forces as a spy drone) were presented in lectures. Some drones were demonstrated live; in the case of the Spanish offshoot of the French arms company Thales, the latter touted the suitability of its “Fulmar” against irregular migration.
In its 2012 work programme, Frontex announced its intention to “identify more cost-efficient and operational effective solutions for aerial border surveillance in particular Unmanned Aircraft Systems”. Under the name “All Eyes”, the agency then wanted to identify cheap and effective solutions, including also so-called Optional Piloted Aerial Vehicles (OPV). Within nine months, an initial study on this was to be carried out, followed by “practical field tests and an evaluation”. The budget was 450,000 euros.
Pilot projects in Italy, Greece and Portugal
Since 2016, Frontex has been preparing to introduce its own MALE-class drones. In a first call for tenders, the border agency initially sought a provider to carry out “aerial border surveillance services” in maritime areas of Greece or Italy as part of a pilot project for 2.5 million euros. This was also to test the necessary communication equipment. However, Frontex had to postpone the planned award due to a lack of bids.
In 2018, a call for tenders followed for flight tests over 120 calendar days with two different-sized models for “long endurance maritime surveillance”. The contract was awarded to the company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) with a “Heron 1” and the Italian company Leonardo with a “Falco Evo”. The main contractor for the “Heron 1” was the company Airbus, which also provides some “Heron 1” for the Bundeswehr in Mali and Afghanistan, where it takes off, lands and maintains them. Airbus received 4.75 million euros from Frontex, and a total of 600 flight hours were agreed. The drone was stationed on Crete; flights were mainly carried out as part of the joint Frontex operation “Poseidon” in the Aegean. According to IAI, the “Heron 1” spent an average of 14 hours in the air per mission. Greek aviation authorities ensured that the drone could fly in non-segregated airspace. Out of visual range, it was controlled via satellite communication.
The deployment of the “Falco Evo” started from 18 October 2018 to 19 June 2019 on Lampedusa; Frontex paid 1.7 million euros for that. Flights took place in two phases north and south of the island in Italian and Maltese airspace. The drone was piloted by Leonardo technicians and remained in the air for up to 17 hours. Similar to the “Heron 1” in Greece, it received a certificate from the Italian Civil Aviation Authority, according to which flights with satellite communication were allowed to be carried out in civil airspace. The Italian air traffic control organisation was a part of this process. According to a communication from Leonardo, Frontex used the drone in real missions. Their coordination was carried out under the direction of the Italian Ministry of the Interior by the Financial Police, which also performs border tasks.
On 20 June 2019, the “Falco Evo” reportedly detected a fishing boat from which 75 people were transferred to smaller vessels that then went ashore in Lampedusa. In addition, the “Falco Evo” supported a financial police operation against two vessels in the waters near the Pelagic Islands. Frontex conducted a third drone trial in Portugal for two months in 2018. There, the border agency cooperated with EMSA, which provided its “AR5 Evo” leased from the Portuguese company Tekever in the North Atlantic, as well as with the National Guard, the Navy and the Air Force in Portugal. The payload included an AIS receiver and a receiver for distress signals from ships or life rafts. It was also controlled via satellite communication. With the information transmitted in real time, Frontex wanted to “react more quickly to cross-border crime, especially drug smuggling” with national authorities.
Stationing in the central Mediterranean
Frontex then launched procurement for regular operations with large drones. The responsible department was the Research and Innovation Unit (RIU), which defined the technical requirements for the aircraft based on the final report of the previous pilot projects. In autumn 2019, Frontex finally launched a European call for tenders. The legal framework was provided by the Frontex Regulation, renewed in 2016, according to which the agency may acquire or lease its own technical equipment by decision of the Executive Director. It may also act as co-owner together with a Member State. According to Article 38, these vehicles, vessels, aircraft or surveillance equipment are used for joint operations, rapid interventions or pilot projects.
Frontex was looking for a company to conduct operations within a radius of up to 250 nautical miles (~ 463 kilometer) from either Malta, Italy or Greece. Requirements include flying in all weather conditions and at all times of the day and night. Frontex demands a payload of at least 230 kilograms. With the sensor technology on board, the asset should be able to read the lower-case name of a ship from a maximum distance of ten kilometres. It should also be possible to see the number of people on a dinghy from a distance, day and night. For sea rescue, the drones are to receive signals from distress transmitters. The contractor is also to provide ground stations to receive the reconnaissance data. The tender also provided for a “Remote Information Portal” to share with situation centres in other EU member states. Frontex said the total cost of the contract was 50 million euros. The duration of the contracts is two years, renewable up to two times for a further year.
In awarding the contract, Frontex chose two companies. As in the previous pilot project, one framework contract went to Airbus for flights with drones of the type “Heron 1”, whose manufacturer IAI acts as subcontractor. Frontex has concluded a second contract with the company Elbit, also from Israel. The UK-based company UAV Tactical Systems Ltd (U-TACS), a joint venture between Elbit and the French Thales Group, is responsible for carrying out these tasks. As of June 2021, Frontex had not yet specified when and where such missions are to begin. Frontex also does not name the aircraft used by U-TACS, which is presumably a “Hermes 900”. U-TACS was originally founded to introduce the “Watchkeeper” drone to the British military. This is the smaller “Hermes 450” from Elbit, which Thales has equipped with sensor communication technology and an automatic take-off and landing system.
According to Frontex, a total of three providers applied for the drone flights in the Mediterranean. Among the requirements was a minimum flight duration of 20 hours. Presumably for this reason, the company Leonardo, which also bid, felt disadvantaged and applied to Frontex for the judicial annulment of the tender. The required endurance was “completely unnecessary, disproportionate, excessive and non-functional for the purposes of the service”. However, the European Court of Justice dismissed the application.
Airbus is currently stationing a “Heron 1” at the international airport in Malta; on 30 April 2021, the company carried out a first test flight there. Airbus technicians from Germany are responsible for the control system, presumably benefiting from their previous training on behalf of the German Bundeswehr. Shortly afterwards, the first deployment took place as part of a Frontex mission. Since then, the drone has been flying with a steadily increasing flight duration, which was up to 17 hours in the first weeks of deployment in the central Mediterranean. According to Frontex, the unmanned asset is equipped with a “High Definition Multi-Sensors Optronic Stabilized Payload” including a Laser Range Finder and a with Laser Pointer and a “Airborne Maritime Patrol Radar”, both manufactured by IAI. They do not carry equipment for localizing mobile and satellite phones, but a Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. Flights take place mainly in the Libyan sea rescue zone. Sometimes the aircraft also causes obstructions. For example, on 2 June 2021, Maltese air traffic control stopped all other air traffic until the “Heron 1” finally landed at Valetta International Airport.
Order for quadrocopters
In the meantime, Frontex is also looking for companies that offer quadrocopters and provide training on how to operate them. For two million euros, the agency wants to procure 20 devices. Their payload is to be around seven kilograms; they will be deployed at the external land and sea borders of the European Union. Frontex wants to use them to support the authorities of individual member states. It is still unclear who won the tender. The award criteria fit systems such as those now offered by the Chinese company DJI for authorities with security tasks.
Aerostat on Samos
In 2019, Frontex, together with the Greek Coast Guard, tested a blimp for the first time to monitor the EU’s external border off the island of Samos. It was attached to a 1,000 metre long tether. The pilot project was part of Frontex’s Operation “Poseidon” and lasted one month. The main contractor was the German company in-innovative navigation GmbH. The 35-metre-long asset came from the French manufacturer A-NSE, which specialises in civil and military observation from the air. The airship can stay in the air for 40 days and withstand wind speeds of up to 110 km/h. It can carry a payload of 200 kilograms. In “Poseidon”, the Aerostat monitored irregular border crossings across the Mycale Strait, which is only two kilometres wide at its narrowest point. The recorded videos were received and analysed by a mobile sensor station of the Portuguese National Guard. During the operation, the system “detected a number of illegal immigration events”, according to the European Commission. The information was also passed on to maritime authorities in Turkey. The first phase of the pilot project was supposed to cost 482,000 euros. Now the tests are to be continued, for which Frontex spends a further 3.01 million euros. The main contractor here is also the German company in-innovative navigation GmbH, while the French company CNIM Air Space was awarded a further framework contract.
Frontex drones (since 2017):
|4.75 million €
|1.7 million €
|50 million €
|in-innovative navigation GmbH (DE)
CNIM Air Space (FRA)
|CNIM Air Space
|3.1 million €
|2 million €
Frontex Aerial Surveillance
The EU border agency’s new long-range drones are part of the “Frontex Aerial Surveillance Service” (FASS), which until now consisted only of service contracts for manned charter planes. With these, Frontex uses aircraft to observe activities at a member state’s external EU borders after being invited to do so. The agency had carried out a first pilot project in 2013 with the British company Diamond Executive Aviation (DEA) and spent 270,000 euros on it. Tests took place in the joint operations “Poseidon” in Greece and “Indalo” in Spain. Two years later, contracts with various European service providers for a total of ten million euros for Frontex to charter twin-engine aircraft followed with DCI (Défense conseil international, France), Vigilance and EASP Air (both Netherlands), MIKC (Latvia), DEA (UK), Indra Sistemas (Spain) and CAE Aviation (Luxembourg). In 2018, Frontex spent 14.5 million euros on further contracts with four of these operators. According to the award notice, the French company DCI withdrew from the contract itself, while Vigilance was terminated because of the company’s “prolonged and persistent lack of response to Frontex inquiry”. In 2020, Frontex doubled its spending on FASS, awarding 38 million euros. In addition to the already known companies, Airborne Technologies GmbH (Austria) and Fly4Less (Hungary) benefit from the contracts. Currently, the twin-engine aircraft “DA-42”, “DA-62” and “Beech 350” fly on behalf of Frontex; they bear the call signs “Osprey1”, “Osprey3” and “Tasty”.
Operations for Member States and Agencies
In 2017, FASS began regular operations, with Italy being the first to make use of it. On 748 operational days, 1,960 people had been spotted on boats in the Mediterranean during 36 “detections”, according to Frontex. The agency had at that time only informed the Italian Maritime Rescue Centre (MRCC) about the incidents. In the same year, the aircraft also flew in Frontex’ Joint Operations “Indalo” (Western Mediterranean), “Triton” (Central Mediterranean) and “Poseidon” (Eastern Mediterranean), as well as for the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) after signing a Memorandum of Understanding. In 2018, the first FASS deployment at a land border followed in Croatia. In total, the aircraft were in the air for 1,800 hours that year, 169 of which were for the EFCA. According to the Frontex annual report, 4,924 refugees were sighted in the central Mediterranean and 635 people in the interior of the Western Balkans. Reports were then made to the relevant European and North African coast guards and Croatian border authorities respectively. In 2019, a total of seven charter aircraft flew and together completed 1,074 operations with 2,754 flight hours. Areas of operation included the central Mediterranean, the Western Balkans, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Adriatic, the Baltic Sea and the Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian land borders. In the Mediterranean, the aircraft detected 92 boats with refugees in distress. In 72 more cases, the air service spotted irregular border crossings of a total of 985 people at the Croatian and Slovakian borders. EFCA was in that year assisted again, with Frontex reporting 149 sightings to the agency. FASS aircraft also took part in exercises over the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Baltic Sea. In 2020, more than 1,000 FASS flights with over 4,700 flight hours took place for authorities in Romania, Malta, Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Italy, as well as for the EFCA in Cyprus. In addition, support was provided to Joint Operations “Themis” (Central Mediterranean) and “Poseidon”, as well as the mission in Montenegro, which also started in 2020. Frontex also carried out further flights as part of the “Rapid Border Intervention Team” (RABIT) in the Aegean. For 2021, Frontex recorded 118 missions with more than 730 flight hours by the end of March. In the meantime, the budget capacity for FASS flights has been almost completely exhausted, according to the Frontex director. However, in 2021 the agency wants to achieve at least the same intensity of flight activity as in 2020. A call for tenders is therefore being launched to find charter companies to operate additional flight services for two years. The new contracts are worth around 101.5 million euros and are divided into four lots. Flights are to be either for “Land/Coastline Range Surveillance Missions”, as “Mid-Range Maritime Surveillance Operations” or “Long-Range Maritime Surveillance Missions”. Frontex is also preparing helicopter operations for the first time in FASS.
Construction of the (manned) FASS since 2013:
|0.27 million €
|CAE Aviation (LUX)
DEA EASP Air (NLD)
Indra Sistemas (ESP)
|10 million €
|14.5 million €
|Airborne Technologies (AUT)
|38 million €
|101.5 million €
Flights without transponders
The European Commission does not want to make public which specific aircraft are used within the framework of FASS – this information is “commercially confidential” because it contains personal data and “sensitive operational information”. The secrecy is surprising because the companies that monitor the EU’s external borders on behalf of Frontex are known through the tenders for services. Online platforms such as “Flightradar” or “FlightAware” can also be used to draw conclusions about which state and private aircraft are on the move for Frontex. For real-time positioning, a worldwide community of volunteers uses data from the ADS-B transponders that all larger aircraft must have installed. Via radio, the devices regularly transmit data on aircraft type, speed, altitude, planned direction of flight and time. These are picked up by receiving stations on the ground or via satellite and fed into the Internet. After take-off, the pilots of the FASS aircraft switch off the transponders. Frontex states that the visibility of the aircraft undermines operational objectives. However, the agency denies reports that it has urged tracking website providers to suppress the display of their aircraft.
Aerial reconnaissance for pushbacks and pullbacks
Manned and unmanned aerial reconnaissance by FASS services can enable refoulements in violation of international law. According to the Frontex annual report of 2018, only the manned FASS flights in Croatia had ensured an immediate “operational response” by the border authorities there. In the same year, numerous media and organisations had reported on illegal pushbacks by the Croatian border police. Hundreds of refugees were pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina with clubs, irritant gas and the use of dogs. It can therefore be concluded that the Libyan coast guard will also be informed to an even greater extent about boats with refugees in their SAR zone as part of drone operations, so that they can be intercepted and returned to shore. The Regulation establishing rules for the surveillance of the external sea borders from 2014 stipulates that the competent Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) must be notified immediately of a sea rescue case. It was only with financial support from the EU that the Italian Coast Guard began to set up such an MRCC in Tripoli from 2017. A year later, Libya designated a 74-nautical-mile-wide Maritime Rescue Zone for its international waters. From this point on, Italy and Malta, as well as the EU missions in the Mediterranean, started to notify the Libyan MRCC or the coast guard there of incidents. However, it is unclear whether the MRCC actually exists as described and whether the accompanying international obligations, as laid down by the IMO, are being complied with. When asked, neither the Council nor the European Commission could say where it would be located. In a follow-up project, the EU is now funding the establishment of a makeshift MRCC that can be stationed in a container along the coast.
Fusion in EUROSUR
Frontex’s aircraft and drones transmit their captured video data and still images to the border agency’s headquarters in Warsaw. In 2017, the agency worked on improving this real-time transmission as part of the “Frontex Compatible Operational Image” project. Some of the deployed aircraft, vessels or vehicles are also equipped with GPS transmitters so that Frontex is aware of their location at all times. In Warsaw, the information is analysed by 42 employees of the “Frontex Situation Centre” (FSC). Six of them work there in the “Multi-Purpose Aerial Surveillance Service” (MAS or MASS) department, which was established on 8 June 2017. Those member states in which Frontex flights are carried out send further experts from the fields of law enforcement, sea rescue or fisheries control to the MAS. In 2020, these were five officials from Italy, two from Portugal and one each from Latvia, Greece and Croatia. In the FSC, they are referred to as the “European Monitoring Team” (EMT). All information collected by Frontex at the EU’s external borders is fed into the border surveillance system EUROSUR, which became operational in 2014. Among other sources of information, EUROSUR complements the “European Situation Picture” (ESP) and the “Common Pre-Frontier Intelligence Picture” (CPIP) kept by Frontex. In the Mediterranean, according to the European Commission, this zone is more than 500 square kilometres in size; it can extend far into the African continent. There, Frontex aims to identify places and activities of interest to the agency. The specific locations are decided on a case-by-case basis by a “Frontex Risk Analysis Unit”.
Maritime surveillance systems
In 2014, the European Commission had called for a “cross-sectoral approach” in its “Maritime Security Strategy”. Following on from this, six months later the Council seconded for mutual support of civilian and military “maritime surveillance initiatives” in an action plan. In the maritime domain, the data collected via EUROSUR has since flowed into various other platforms. These include EMSA’s “Vessel Traffic Monitoring and Information System” (SafeSeaNet), the “Common Emergency Communication and Information System” (CECIS) managed by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) to facilitate communication in the event of maritime incidents and disasters, EFCA’s “Vessel Monitoring System” (VMS) in support of the EU Common Fisheries Policy, and the “Maritime Surveillance Network” (MARSUR) run by the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSDP). All these systems in turn form the “Common Information Sharing Environment” (CISE), which aims to interlink national and EU systems using a common data model.
Observation from space
EUROSUR also processes information from space. The imagery comes from the satellites of the EU’s “Copernicus” Earth observation programme, which is used for security, civil protection, environmental management as well as for studying climate change. It is managed by the “Copernicus Committee”, in which all EU Member States are represented. To date, the EU has launched seven optical and radar-based reconnaissance satellites for the programme. A new generation is currently following, producing high-resolution images. The space data is received and processed by the EU Satellite Centre (SatCen) in Torrejón, Spain, which has the status of an agency. In the first years of its existence, “Copernicus” operated under the name “Global Monitoring for Environment and Security” (GMES). After the European satellite navigation system “Galileo”, the European Commission described the platform as the “second flagship” of European space policy, tailored to “increased security needs”. While the purpose of GMES in public was emphasised to be the monitoring of climate change and natural resources, there was rather silence about the “S” for “security”. The first security-oriented GMES offshoots were LIMES (“Land and Maritime Monitoring for Environment and Security”), G-MOSAIC (“GMES Services for Management of Operations, Situational Awareness and Intelligence for Regional Crises”), MARISS (“European Maritime Security Services”), GMOSS (“Global Monitoring for Security and Stability”).
For “crisis monitoring” and “conflict prevention”, Frontex also requests data from other member states, including the French-Italian-Spanish-Belgian-Greek “Helios II” system based on radar satellites and the German “SAR-Lupe”. Suppliers of space data also include the defence companies Leonardo and Airbus with images from their radar satellites. Optical satellite images are purchased by the border agency from commercial providers such as the German GAF AG, which most recently received an order from the agency worth over four million euros.
For earth observation for border surveillance, Frontex and the European Commission signed a delegation agreement in 2015, according to which the agency received a total of 47.6 million euros. These are part of the “EUROSUR Fusion Services” (EFS) that Frontex offers to Member States. In the project “Creating a European Coast Guard Function”, which lasted several months, the three agencies Frontex, EMSA and EFCA aimed to improve surveillance from space and make it accessible to all relevant users. According to the final report presented in 2017, space-based reconnaissance data was generated on 111 days and passed on to the coordination centres of the member states. The report states that ships and boats with a length of eight metres or more could be detected from space “with high reliability”. In 33 cases, further measures were then taken by the coast guards there, and in 45 further cases the EU military mission EUNAVFOR MED became active off Libya.
In the meantime, Frontex has perfected migration control within the framework of “Copernicus”. In the maritime sector, for example, the platform can detect and report “irregularities” in ship behaviour on the basis of all available data. Anomalies are, for example, a conspicuous proximity to other ships, a change of lane, a particular draught or transhipments on the high seas. In this way, Frontex wants to track unusual ship movements off the coasts of Libya and Turkey. “Ships of interest” can be tracked over a longer period of time – a “Maritime Simulation Module Service” based at EUROSUR makes predictions about their position.
“Space data highway”
Satellites orbiting the Earth can only transmit data to the ground within visual range. For this reason, Frontex uses the European Data Relay Satellite System (EDRS) of the Airbus Group within the framework of “Copernicus” to ensure communication at all times. Three laser satellites of this “space data highway”, as it is called by its manufacturer Airbus, can establish a connection between lower-flying observation satellites with a ground station over distances of 80,000 kilometres. This allows their images to be transmitted almost in real time to anywhere on Earth. The system can also be used to transfer reconnaissance data from distant drones. The “space data highway” cost at least 520 million euros and is subsidised with large public sums as a public-private partnership between Airbus and the European Space Agency (ESA). Several countries are participating in the financing, including Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Belgium and the UK. The development of the laser terminals for receiving the data, located in the German State Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, was supported by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), for example. (DLR). However, the owner of the “space data highway” is Airbus, so the company markets the services alone. Frontex was the first customer; in the meantime, the EDRS is also used by EMSA.
Processing with Artificial Intelligence
The assessment of information collected at the maritime external borders is now carried out using a computerised platform for “maritime analysis”. For this purpose, Frontex renewed a contract with the Israeli Windward in 2020. The company specialises in the digital aggregation and evaluation of vessel tracking and maritime surveillance data and advertises with the slogan “Catch the bad guys at sea”. Its investors include former CIA Director David Petraeus as well as former company heads of Thomson Reuters and British Petroleum. The ex-Chief of Staff of the Israeli military Gabi Ashkenazi is said to be one of its advisors. Initially, the agency procured a licence for around 800,000 euros; now the application has been put into regular operation for 2.6 million euros. The Frontex FSC thus gains access for four workstations. The software used is based on artificial intelligence methods. Maritime reporting systems, including AIS position data of larger ships and weather data, are used for analysis. These are enriched with information about the ship owners and shipping companies as well as the history of previous ship movements. In this way, a signature is created for each observed ship, which can be checked for suspicious activities. If their captain switches off the AIS transponder, for example, the analysis platform can recognise this as an anomaly and take over further observation on the basis of the recorded patterns. Windward uses the register of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which lists about 70,000 ships, as its database. The company reportedly has additional information on a total of 400,000 watercraft, including smaller fishing boats. According to the company, its clients include the UN Security Council, which uses the technology to monitor sanctions, and the Italian financial police, which uses the system to monitor Italian territorial waters.
Excursus: Military drones in EUNAVFOR MED
In order to counter irregular migration, unarmed drones of the type “Predator” are flying in the central Mediterranean, which the Italian military is stationing in Sicily. They are deployed as part of the Italian military mission “Mare Sicuro” and in EUNAVFOR MED. The main objective of the EU mission was initially to pursue “human traficking”, later the control of oil and arms smuggling from and to Libya was added. According to the official justification, the drones were to determine whether the members of the Libyan coast guard were correctly applying what they had learned after training by EU units. Initially, the “Predator” drones flew in SOPHIA as Italy’s national contribution, completing several hundred flight hours in several contingents. In the meantime, they are listed as permanent equipment in the follow-up mission IRINI. According to this, both Italian drones of the previous version “MQ-1C Predator A” and those of the more modern type “MQ-9A Predator B” (“Reaper”) fly for EUNAVFOR MED. The use of military drones entails the risk that their flights in neighbouring states will be understood as an encroachment on sovereignty. The 2019 crash of an Italian Air Force “Predator” far from the coast in Libya points to this. However, it is unclear whether the drone had an accident or was shot down in the midst of the civil war. According to the Italian Ministry of Defence, the aircraft had been deployed to combat smugglers as part of “Mare Sicuro”. The following day, a drone of the same type from the US Air Force crashed; here, too, there is speculation that it was shot down. On 5 June 2021, the French Air Force also deployed a “Reaper” for a first test as part of IRINI; the drone was piloted from Lyon.
Excursus: NATO drones in Sicily
As part of the “Alliance Ground Surveillance” (AGS) programme, NATO is stationing five “Global Hawk” drones at Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, Italy. The programme, which costs around 1.5 billion euros, was decided by NATO member states at their 2012 summit in Chicago; the two largest contributors to the AGS are the USA and Germany. It is under the control of NATO’s European Air Command in Ramstein. The drone, manufactured by the US defence contractor Northrop Grumman, belongs to the high-flying HALE class and, with a payload of around 1.4 tonnes, is the largest unmanned aerial vehicle produced in series. By November 2020, all Global Hawks had been delivered to Sigonella and the necessary tests successfully completed. Since January 2021, reconnaissance flights have been conducted in the direction of Russia and Libya. For NATO, the “Global Hawk” is equipped with optical and radar-based technology for “imaging reconnaissance” (IMINT). This includes a high-resolution radar for ground observation, which can observe stationary and moving targets. The necessary stationary and mobile ground stations for analysing the data are acquired from the defence companies Airbus and Leonardo. In 2014, NATO had published a video according to which the “Global Hawk” could also be used against piracy, terrorism or migration. Forecasts on refugee movements would then be made from Sigonella. Whether this will actually be implemented, however, is questionable. The US Air Force has also stationed two “Global Hawk” in Sigonella; this was done as part of the “European Deterrence Initiative” (EDI), which was started by NATO after the Crimean crisis in 2014. Italy, France and Germany subsequently opened their airspace for overflights of the US drones in the direction of the Russian Baltic Sea. NATO’s “Global Hawk” can also use this corridor; another cleared route leads over Bulgaria to the Black Sea.
Image: Israeli Heron 1 flown by Airbus (IAI).