Reuters has reported an announcement from German government lawmakers which declares that NATO will receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter of 2019 after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time.
NATO plans to use this derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. These all weather drones have the capability of remaining airborne up to 30 hours at a time while providing near real-time surveillance data.
According to Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defence Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.
Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said. He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.
While NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery, talking about the delay Silberhorn told media that Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later however, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program.
All 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support however, as of now fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system.
Germany is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiralling costs and certification problems and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.
Warning of spiralling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program saying, “The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said adding, “they stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”
In a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, Silberhorn had said that NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion Euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.