May 24, 2012: After over a decade of planning, debating, modifying, and revising NATO has finally signed purchase agreements for the AGS (Alliance Ground Surveillance) system. Using five American Block 40 Global Hawk UAVs, equipped with powerful sensors, NATO will now have a radar aircraft that can minitor ground activity like the American JSTARS. AGS also includes several dozen fixed and mobile ground stations and ground support facilities. While an American firm (Northrop Grumman) will provide the Global Hawks, European firms will provide most of the electronics and support gear. All this will cost about $1.7 billion.
The NATO AGS project has gone through a lot of changes in the last decade. The original plan was to have five Airbus A321 aircraft fitted out with ground radar similar to that found in the U.S. E-8 JSTARS. In addition, there would be four American RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs, also equipped with ground radar. Five years ago it was decided that the A321 aircraft and its special radar would be too expensive and time consuming to proceed with. It was then decided to go with eight RQ-4s. But three years ago money shortages led to AGS being cut back to just four RQ-4s. AGS was supposed to be operational by now but there were delays caused by disagreements over cost.
Three years ago NATO nations agreed to contribute about a billion dollars to establish the AGS system. This version would consist of four U.S. built Global Hawk UAVs, equipped with spy satellite grade surveillance equipment (cameras and radar), fifteen ground stations, and software to get the data to any NATO member quickly. The late model (Block 40) Global Hawks will be able to get to any part of the globe quickly
(the U.S. has flown them across the Pacific, on automatic) and put eyes on the trouble spot. Since then there have been a few changes, and now the deal is finally set and contracts signed.
The U.S. JSTARS gave NATO the idea that this kind of investment would be useful. What really convinced them was the experience with JSTARS in Iraq. It was seven years ago that JSTARS radar aircraft were first used to track down terrorist bombers in Iraq. This was done by using the JSTARS radar to track where the attackers go after an attack. Many of the attacks take place in sparely populated places and at night. JSTARS could track vehicles on the ground over a wide area. For example, a single JSTARS can cover all of central Iraq, although its ground radar can only track a smaller area. The JSTARS radar has two modes: wide area (showing a 25 by 20 kilometer area) and detailed (4,000 by 5,000 meters). The radar can see out to several hundred kilometers and each screen full of information could be saved and brought back later to compare to another view (to see what has moved). In this manner operators could track movement of ground units over a wide area. Operators could also use the detail mode to pick out specific details of what's going on down there, like tracking the movement of vehicles fleeing the scene of an ambush. JSTARS is really good at picking up trucks moving along highways on flat terrain. JSTARS can stay up there for over 12 hours at a time, and two or more JSTARS can operate in shifts to provide 24/7 coverage. There has always been at least one JSTARS operating in Iraq.
Eventually, JSTARS was being used to detect potential attacks. The post mission analysis of the collected data during an IED attack provided information about the scheme of maneuver before the attack was launched. These collected movement patterns are used to predict such attacks and, therefore, protect U.S. troops against their effects. In addition, the persistent wide area coverage enabled U.S. troops to track down the infrastructure behind those attacks. This information helped to destroy the insurgent networks behind the IED attacks.
The AGS radar will have higher resolution (30 cm, versus 380 cm feet for JSTARS) and thus able to track even more detail on the ground. This would be very useful in peacekeeping, as well as combat situations. It was the lack of something like the AGS in last year's NATO air campaign in Libya that finally convinced NATO members to get AGS built.