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NATO has signed a $1.7 billion contract to acquire five Northrop Grumman Global Hawk Block 40s, marking a key milestone as the alliance works to address a long-standing operational shortfall.

For NATO, this is a major event. An initial operational capability is due to be reached in 2016. The deal was signed during the meeting of NATO members' heads of government that is taking place 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 Multi-Platform 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. Full operational capability is due in 2017.

The off-the-shelf purchase of Global Hawk Block 40s also means that the main development items are associated with the ground system. Integrating all the elements should not be a high-risk item, says Dan Chang, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and general manager for the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) program.

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 to arrive there around 2015.

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