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Diplomacy Wins the Day for Alliance Ground Surveillance System

February 10, 2012
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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A flurry of diplomatic activity in recent months and the intervention of high-level Pentagon officials helped the NATO nations to move forward on the Alliance Ground Surveillance system. The surveillance system is designed to provide commanders with a more comprehensive picture of the situation on the ground.

NATO announced recently that 13 countries will purchase five unmanned aircraft and the associated command and control base stations to provide comprehensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data. NATO will maintain and operate the system on behalf of all 28 allied nations. The nations purchasing the system are Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States. Canadian defense officials have announced they will not participate in the program.  

The Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system is expected to be available in the 2015-2017 time frame. The oft-troubled program has been in development for about two decades with countries continually withdrawing or rejoining. NATO nations were unable to reach agreement on common funding for the infrastructure and operations costs at the October defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels. But “intensive diplomatic exchanges during November, December and January” helped “seal the deal,” at the February defense ministers’ meeting, says Joseph Collins, the Defense Department’s acting director for NATO policy.

Operations in Libya demonstrated the need for AGS and solidified support for the program, according to U.S. and NATO officials. “Success in Libya was dependent largely on the U.S. filling the role that AGS is designed to fill, and would have been better done by NATO at NATO,” Collins says. “Moreover, recent operations have highlighted that NATO does not have an integrated approach to ISR. Commanders and nations should be praised for their ad-hoc approaches to fill these gaps, but more is needed.” 

The NATO-owned and operated AGS will enable alliance forces to conduct persistent surveillance from the high-altitude, long-endurance drones. Using advanced radar sensors, the system will continuously detect and track moving objects on the ground as well as provide radar imagery of wide surface areas, Collins explains. The collected surveillance data will be transmitted to ground stations and distributed to NATO headquarters, including joint command and tactical operations centers. “AGS provides the core for NATO joint ISR,” Collins says. “The ability to perform wide area surveillance is critical to coordinate and cue other nationally owned assets. The personnel, training and processes that are put in place for AGS will also facilitate integration of other assets.”

The United Kingdom Sentinel system and the future French Heron TP system will be made available as a national contribution-in-kind, partly replacing financial contributions from those two allies, according to the NATO announcement. The main operating base will be located at Sigonella Air Base in Italy, which will serve as a NATO Joint ISR deployment base and data exploitation training center. “NATO nations are now working through some final contracting issues with the Northrop Grumman-led contracting consortium. Once that is complete, and given that allies have confirmed that NATO can and will fund AGS operations and support, the acquiring nations will be able to move forward with national processes to finalize and sign the acquisition contract,” Collins says. “The U.S. is also working in close cooperation with the government of Italy and the NATO commander to find cost-effective approaches—leveraging existing infrastructure where possible—to ensure that Sigonella is prepared to support AGS when it is scheduled to enter the force.”