PALMDALE, Calif.Northrop Grumman [NOC] on June 4 rolled out the first of five Global Hawks specially built for the NATO alliance.

The milestone is the culmination of a program that began 20 years ago when NATO developed requirements for a high-altitude ground surveillance capability. The first aircraft is scheduled to fly in August and will then be ferried to Sigonella, Italy, where it will be based alongside U.S. Air Force and Navy versions of the Global Hawks.

The Global Hawk is one of the Pentagon highest profile unmanned system. Photo: Northrop Grumman.
The Global Hawk is one of the Pentagon’s highest weapons programs. Photo: Northrop Grumman.

Initial operational capability (IOC) is set for midyear 2017 and the system will become fully operational in 2018.

Jim Edge, general manager of the NATO AGS Management Agency, said the complex political and industrial coordination necessary to complete the AGS program would be a blueprint for future programs.

“This will be the foundation of any future transatlantic ventures,” he said, during an unveiling ceremony at Northrop Grumman’s production facility here. “A tremendous amount relies on the single program.”

At Sigonella the aircraft will undergo a full flight test and evaluation campaign before being declared operational. At least 600 uniformed and civilian NATO personnel will be stationed there to operate and maintain the fleet.

The aircraft is designed to fulfill NATO’s ISR requirements for multinational theater operations, peacekeeping missions, and disaster relief efforts. Its primary payload will be the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor and supporting ground elements.

A group of 15 NATO countries signed a $1.7 billion contract in 2012 for the design, development, demonstration and production of the eight aircraft. When operational, they will be co-owned and operated by all 28 NATO countries.

The NATO requirement for a ground surveillance capability originated inn 1999. At the time the requirement was defined as a fleet of 62 joint STARS aircraft. NATO originally wanted to purchase eight Global Hawks that would allow two aircraft to stay on constant orbit for 30 days.

“The path has been neither easy nor fast,” said Erling Wang, chairman of the NATO AGS Management Organization board of directors. Much work remains before declaring IOC in 2017, he said.

The ground control system will roll out in the fourth quarter of this year followed by the mobile versions in 2016.

“We have finished 90 percent, but the last 10 percent are the hardest to accomplish.”

The NATO AGS will not be capable of gathering signals intelligence like the U.S. versions. It will primarily be used as a ground moving target indicator, Edge said. The fleet will have a permanent ground control station in Sigonella and two portable systems that can be fielded to combat zones. All of the ground components are under development in Europe by Kongsberg in Germany and Selex in Italy.

Edge said there are complications with achieving European flight certification surrounding the NATO-unique sensors the aircraft will carry.

“With every system that is tried and true, such as the Global Hawk, you would think things would go like clockwork and everything is going to just be normal. It’s not,” he said. “There are things going on the NATO AGS birds that are not on the United States Air Force birds.”

Systems like Link 16, certain radios and a wideband datalink will be integrated on the NATO version and are not included on the variants currently flying, he said. The specific NATO configuration therefore requires a separate air worthiness certification.

“That means the air worthiness certification process is not automatic,” he said. “We have to make sure those systems are compatible with the rest of the aircraft from a safety of flight standpoint…A few challenges remain but we’re confident of IOC.

NATO AGS is an unrelated follow-on to the now-defunct Euro Hawk program in which Germany tried to purchase a high-altitude long-endurance ISR platform–also based on the Global Hawk.

Euro Hawk failed because of Germany’s unilateral approach and because it was based on flying the aircraft under commercial regulations, said Matt Copja, Northrop Grumman’s NATO AGS program manager. Neighboring countries had issues with the aircraft flying in commercial airspace.

“The national system that Germany was looking at, they had a completely different process than we did,” Copja said. “We are leveraging a lot from what the U.S. Air Force has already done as a proven system. Between the Italian [Ministry of Defense] and us there is already an agreement about how we accept each others’ certification processes.”

NATO AGS was a cooperative effort among all the member nations, which was critical to its success, Edge said.

“NATO believes that this is crucial to the success to these types of ventures,” Edge said. “A single country cant bring in a weapons system.”

To achieve airspace integration, NATO has hitched onto multi-national military exercises to gather data from Air Force Global Hawks, Copja said.

An Air Force Global Hawk Block 40 already has flown from Italy to Norway during a 2014 NATO exercise called Unified Vision, though the sensors were inactive and all overflown nations were alerted to its presence as it made the transit, Edge said.

“It wasn’t nearly as painful as we thought it would be,” he said, referring to operating the aircraft in various sovereign airspaces.”

There is no specific NATO requirement for the aircraft to have a sense-and-avoid anti-collision system, Copja said. When the U.S. Air Force integrates such a capability onto its Global Hawks, it will become available for the NATO version as well.

“NATO will be watching the USAF,” he said “They and Navy are working on the other side of the runway with AGS.”