Northrop Grumman has unveiled the first of five Block 40-standard RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles for NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) program amid growing company hopes of additional sales to individual member nations.  

To be based at Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, Italy, the aircraft will provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to 15 participating nations, as well as supplying broader sensor capability to all 28 NATO members. Flight tests of the first AGS, all of which will be configured with the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor, will begin as early as August, with initial operational capability expected in late 2017.   

The first aircraft, NATO 1, will be initially flight tested iat Edwards AFB, California, before making a ferry flight to Sigonella in 2016. In addition, the airframes for NATO 2, 3 and 4 are in final assembly at Northrop Grumman's Palmdale site. The fuselage for the fifth aircraft will be delivered to Palmdale later this year.

The rollout marks a key milestone on what has become a very long procurement road for the NATO program. Initial discussions over the requirement began more than 20 years ago, although the final $1.7 billion deal was signed relatively recently in 2012. The five aircraft have been acquired through collective contributions from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the U.S. The aircraft will be available to all 28 NATO members, which will contribute to the day-to-day operational costs. Ground stations, command and control systems, training and logistics support services are currently being established at Sigonella with support from Northrop Grumman and its main industrial partners, Airbus Defense and Space, Selex ES and Kongsberg, as well as additional companies from all participating countries.

Northrop Grumman believes the introduction of the AGS fleet will help open the door to additional sales in Europe of Global Hawk and the Triton maritime patrol derivative, particularly in countries such as Norway which is looking to replace its aging fleet of P-3 Orions. Despite the increasing number of maritime patrol options becoming available as the P-3 is phased out, Northrop is optimistic that others, potentially including the U.K., will follow the U.S. Navy, and most likely Australia, in procuring Tritons in combination with a manned platform such as Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon.

For nations such as Norway, involvement in AGS provides "good exposure" to the capability of the unmanned air system, says Northrop Grumman AGS Program Manager Matt Copija. "We are working extremely closely with Norway on this," he adds.

"There is growing interest across Europe," says George Guerra, Northrop Grumman Vice President High Altitude Long Endurance programs. "Norway is expressing genuine interest and we understand the U.K., as part of its defense policy looking forward, is also reviewing options. Most of these nations are looking at Triton rather than Global Hawk."

Northrop Grumman is also under contract to refurbish the sole Eurohawk aircraft which was delivered to Germany in 2011. The revamped Block 30 standard vehicle will be used as a risk reduction demonstrator for a potential follow-on maritime surveillance fleet of up to four Tritons. This effort is being managed as a foreign military sales program through the U.S. Navy rather than as a direct commercial sale as was the case with Eurohawk.

The original Eurohawk effort foundered under a combination of technical and political issues, most of them associated with the German-provided surveillance systems payload package. However, Northrop officials say potential challenges with airspace integration, also cited in the demise of  Eurohawk, have also been overcome. Operations in civilian airspace was demonstrated on several occasions when Global Hawks flew from Sicily to Norway and back at altitudes of more than 55,000 ft. under joint Eurocontrol and NATO air traffic control.