Germany is the largest contributor to five Nato “Global Hawk” drones in Sicily. The military alliance has been using them to monitor its “eastern flank” for two years.
The crash of a US “Reaper” fighter drone off the coast of Crimea throws a spotlight on Western military surveillance in favour of Ukraine. The US Air Force, for example, also stationed two large “Global Hawk” aircraft in Sicily after the Crimean crisis in 2014. From the Italian airbase Sigonella, they regularly operate on Russia’s maritime borders, using corridors via France and Germany to the Baltic Sea or via Bulgaria to the Black Sea.
The “Global Hawk” is the largest drone ever built in the world, its wingspan of 40 metres significantly exceeds passenger aircraft such as the Airbus 320. The aircraft weighs around 15 tonnes, and the maximum flight time is given as 24 hours. Unlike the “Reaper”, a “Global Hawk” cannot be armed, but with a payload of 1.4 tonnes it carries extensive surveillance technology.
Since 2021, NATO has also had a total of five Global Hawks in Sigonella. They are designated as “RQ-4D Phoenix” and belong to the “Alliance Ground Surveillance” (AGS). The programme, which costs around 1.5 billion euros, was decided by the Nato members at their summit in Chicago in 2012, and 24 countries are currently participating in it. It is under the control of the NATO Command for European Air Forces in Ramstein; the two largest contributors are the USA and Germany.
With the surveillance technology on board the “Global Hawk”, the Western military can spy at least 200 kilometres into Russian territory. An AGS commander therefore praises the programme as NATO’s “elite intelligence and reconnaissance”, which gives the alliance an unparalleled “decision-making advantage”. During the flights, “valuable information about the situation in Ukraine” would be gathered, which would also be evaluated by “intelligence analysts”.
The NATO drones are equipped with optical and radar-based technology for “Image Intelligence” (IMINT). This includes a high-resolution ground surveillance radar that can observe fixed and moving targets. All five “Global Hawk” are currently being equipped with new radar technology to automatically distinguish between military aircraft, civilian aircraft or missiles.
The US drones often switch off their transponders. In contrast, however, the flights of NATO drones can be largely tracked via tracking websites. According to this, they fly in the same corridors requested by the US Air Force from the governments in Paris, Berlin and Sofia. Missions are sometimes made as far away as Georgia, perhaps to spy on ground targets in Russia there as well.
With the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Nato’s Global Hawk missions over the Black Sea have been conducted on average more than once a week. Thereby, they alternate with the US drones. One day before the start of the Ukraine war, aircraft observers even claim to have documented a triple mission. Also on Monday, one day before the crash of the “Reaper”, a NATO “Global Hawk” together with two manned aircraft of NATO members were on the move for hours off the Crimea.
The evaluation of these “reconnaissance flights along the eastern flank” takes place in Ramstein, among other places. There, NATO tested a mobile ground station for the first time last November; this technology comes from the defence companies Airbus and Leonardo. The German government is also closely involved in the AGS programme outside the US base in Germany. Of the approximately 600 soldiers and civilian personnel, a quarter come from Germany, the Ministry of Defence had explained in answers to parliamentary questions. This also includes up to 14 drone pilots.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: The first of the five “Phoenix” in a hangar in Sigonella (Wikipedia).