Ukraine war: NATO spy drones work overtime

The Western military alliance is stationing five Global Hawks in Sicily. Germany is the main contributor, provides a quarter of the personnel and opens a flight corridor. The drones were even seen in a triple mission with US Global Hawks.

For three years, NATO has been stationing long-range Global Hawk drones at the Italian airbase Sigonella in Sicily. The five aircraft are part of NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme. Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, regular missions have been conducted along the eastern flank of the military alliance.

Now NATO reports the conclusion of an „intense Surge Week“. Every other day, a drone took off in the direction of the Ukrainian borders. A general is quoted as saying that the aircraft maintenance and communication technicians worked overtime.

More flight hours were completed during the „Surge Week“ than in a comparable period in 2021, giving „intelligence analysts a tremendous opportunity“ to provide detailed analysis. During the flights, „valuable information on the Ukrainian situation“ was gathered.

Flights at 15 kilometres above the ground

The Global Hawk is manufactured by the US company Northrop Grumman in the RQ-4D Phoenix version. It is the largest drone ever constructed and belongs to the high-flying HALE class (High Altitude Long Endurance).

The aircraft weighs around 15 tonnes, and the maximum flight time is given as 24 hours. The NATO drones carry the numbered call sign „FORTE“.

The unmanned aircraft flies at an altitude of over 15 kilometres above civilian air traffic along a pre-programmed route with waypoints. In a restricted airspace, the drone spirals up to the mission altitude in a spiral manoeuvre.

Imagery Intelligence

All drones are under the command of the NATO Command for European Air Forces in Ramstein. The missions are coordinated there. For each flight, technicians at the Mission Operations Support Centre at Sigonella Air Base determine when data acquisition should be activated.

For NATO, the Global Hawk flies with Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) technology. On board are electro-optical sensors and a radar unit that is supposed to have a resolution of 0.3 metres and a range of at least 200 kilometres. This can be used to map buildings and detect moving vehicles.

The recorded information can be transmitted to stationary and mobile ground stations. In the Ukraine war, the AGS Force Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) centre in Sigonella is responsible for this. There, the data is evaluated and processed in analyses. These are forwarded to NATO headquarters and the Allies.

Corridor over Germany

On 15 May, an RQ-4D flew a particularly long sortie over the Black Sea and then over the Baltic Sea, according to NATO. NATO’s two Combined Air Operations Centres in Torrejón and Uedem are responsible for the two airspaces.

On its way to the area of operations, the drone can use two different corridors, one of which leads over Greece and Bulgaria to the Black Sea. The Federal Ministry of Defence has cleared second corridor over Germany.

Not only NATO has stationed Global Hawk on Sigonella, the US Air Force has also had two large drones there since 2015. Missions sometimes take place simultaneously, for example in mid-April two RQ-4Ds from NATO and the US flew from Sicily to the Black Sea. One day before the start of the Ukraine war, aircraft observers claim to have observed a triple mission.

Also German pilots in Sicily

Around 550 forces are stationed at the Sigonella airbase for the NATO AGS. The German Armed Forces are currently participating with a total of 88 soldiers. The Air Force wants to train a total of 14 pilots for flights with the Global Hawk; in April, threewere deployed in Sigonella.

The NATO AGS programme dates back to the Chicago Summit in 2012, not all NATO countries are participating, the contract to Northrop Grumman to produce the system was awarded by 15 governments. An RQ-4D made its first flight for NATO in the US in December 2015. The first aircraft was delivered in 2019 to Europe.

The programme was initially budgeted at the equivalent of €1.4 billion. The two largest contributors to the AGS are the USA and Germany.

Originally, the Bundeswehr was also to procure HALE drones for the NATO AGS and station them at Jagel Air Base in Schleswig-Holstein. This „national provision“ was to have cost over half a billion euros. According to the German Ministry of Defence, however, the project is no longer being pursued.

Image: NATO AGS in Siginella (NATO).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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