During much of the 1990s, NATO members mulled the fielding of a ground-surveillance system, how to spend money more efficiently, and ways to assuage Russian concerns over U.S. missile defense plans.

So what topped the armaments agenda during the May 19-20 Chicago summit of NATO heads of government? Fielding a ground-surveillance system, spending more efficiently and assuaging Russian concerns about missile defense. NATO's plodding may frustrate many, but progress made on the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) program shows that tangible results can follow years of talk.

Almost two decades in the making, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has finally awarded a contract to field the AGS capability. NATO has signed a $1.7 billion contract to acquire five Northrop Grumman Global Hawk Block 40s to address an operational shortfall identified years ago and a need validated during last year's air campaign over Libya.

Advocates of a more-expansive NATO approach to missile defense will take heart from the milestone, seeing it as a sign that the complex decision-making maze within the alliance can be navigated to produce concrete results.

In addition, NATO announced it had fielded an interim missile defense capability covering part of Southern Europe, including a forward-based early warning radar in Turkey. The system, which is expected to reach initial operational capability by mid-decade and extend to territorial defense of all NATO countries in Europe by 2020, is based on voluntary national contributions, including interceptors and sensors and hosting arrangements, and on the expansion of a command and control backbone capability dubbed Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD).

“The decision that was made here is to enable NATO to have the command and control of national assets that individual countries can contribute,” Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO, told reporters in Chicago May 20. Daalder said under the interim missile defense system the U.S. would contribute its radar and, in times of need, an Aegis-capable ship.

“Right now we [the U.S.] have only one ship deployed that is possibly dedicated to NATO,” he said, declining to identify countries protected under the missile shield. “By 2014 we should have about four ships into the Mediterranean. That footprint for the defense will extend to larger and larger parts.”

Daalder said the mobile nature of the missile defense system gives NATO the ability to protect different countries across the alliance.

“We have looked at rules of engagement and a defense design for a wide variety of places that could be protected by the fact that the ship could be moved,” he said, adding that the system would “operate under NATO rules of engagement, NATO agreements on how the command and control system is supposed to operate, and formally under the operational control of a NATO commander, as opposed to a U.S. commander.”

Daalder said the interim NATO missile shield will evolve to an initial operational capability by 2015, at which point the alliance plans to field land-based Aegis SM-3 interceptors in Romania followed by additional interceptors in Poland by 2018. But that would leave little time for allies to grapple with the issue of political control over military actions taken in response to an attack.

“Given the short flight times of ballistic missiles, the [NATO] Council agrees [to] the pre-arranged command and control rules and procedures including to take into account the consequences of intercept compatible with coverage and protection requirements,” the alliance said in a declaration issued during the summit.

But there are still areas of tension as NATO tries build up its missile defense capability. Newly elected French President Francois Hollande acknowledged the logistical difficulty of having to make a political decision in the short time between the launch of a threatening missile and the time needed to pull the trigger. Command and control authority should not lie solely with the U.S., he said.

“There obviously needs to be a decision-making authority, and it is to establish this procedure that we want it clearly understood [by NATO] that this will be done in partnership,” Hollande said during a May 21 news conference in Chicago following the summit. “In this context [it] will not be solely the United States that makes the decisions.”

Hollande said NATO has made enough progress to allow France to support continued development of a missile defense shield, “with necessary vigilance.”

In the meantime, the declaration calls on the NATO Council to review implementation of the interim missile defense system and report on issues to be addressed in future developments by the alliance's next summit.

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the partial defense capability reaffirms the Obama administration's commitment to missile defense in response to its assessment of the ballistic missile threat to the U.S. and its allies, which he says most likely stems from the Middle East and Iran.

“What we've demonstrated as an administration is not just talk on missile defense but action,” Rhodes said. “We have concrete commitments and plans to move forward with the deployment of this system, with four countries already stepping forward to play their part in hosting part of the architecture.”

Meanwhile, the alliance continues to have differences with the Russians over the fielding of a NATO missile shield in Europe, which Moscow has opposed on the grounds that it could be aimed at Russia's strategic arsenal.

Hollande said NATO should take Russia's concerns into consideration as development of the missile shield moves forward, although NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen argues that the decision to deploy the system “cannot be blocked by Russia.” Speaking to reporters attending the summit May 21, Rasmussen said the alliance continues to explore the potential for cooperation with Moscow.

“I hope at a certain stage Russia will realize it is in our common interest to cooperate on missile defense,” Rasmussen added.

For AGS, an initial operational capability is due to be reached in November 2016. The deal was signed during the meeting of NATO members' heads of government in Chicago.

The contract marks the first export order for the Global Hawk Block 40, which marries the high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk with the Multiplatform Radar Technology Insertion Program. The U.S. Air Force is the lead customer for the system.

NATO's five air vehicles should allow the alliance to sustain two permanent operational orbits in up to two theaters. The Sigonella air base in Sicily will serve as the home for NATO's Global Hawks.

The contract to purchase all five Global Hawks is due to be finalized this year. A system requirements review is due in November, followed by the system preliminary design review in December 2013 and critical design review in June 2014, says Northrop Grumman's vice president and AGS program manager, Dan Chang. Full operational capability is due in May 2017.

The AGS program has morphed repeatedly because of budget constraints and as the list of core alliance states involved has shrunk. Once envisioned as a mix of manned and unmanned assets, the program was reduced to only the UAS element which, over time, has been cut back from eight air vehicles to the five now in the plan.

To cut costs, NATO also opted for a largely off-the-shelf purchase of U.S. equipment. European countries will see their industrial share realized through work on a data link and the ground equipment with Selex Galileo working on the tactical ground station, Cassidian on the mobile ground system, and Kongsberg on the hardware and software for the main operating base.

The off-the-shelf purchase of Global Hawk Block 40s also means the main development items are associated with the ground system. Integrating all the elements should not be a high-risk task, Chang says, but it will be something that needs to be watched.

Testing of the first key developmental items should begin in 2014. Full system- level performance validation will take place at Sigonella. The first air vehicle is due to arrive there around 2015.

The deal is the latest NATO capability enhancement funded by only some members—a subset of NATO states also is behind the alliance's Boeing C-17 operation. The AGS program has backing from 13 governments (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the U.S.); others will co-fund the in-service support, in some cases directly and others, such as the U.K. and France, with in-kind intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance contributions. Integrating those outside inputs into AGS is not part of the baseline contract.