By Eric Watkins
LOS ANGELES, May 21 – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization took a major step forward in international maritime energy security with the signing of an agreement for delivery of the Alliance Ground Surveillance system.
“Today is a big day for the Alliance Ground Surveillance program,” said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the NATO Summit held in Chicago over the weekend.
“The signature of the procurement contract for the AGS system is an important step towards the delivery of this key capability to the Alliance,” Vershbow told NATO Defense Ministers at the meeting.
According to NATO, the AGS Core will be an integrated system consisting of an air segment, a ground segment and a support segment.
NATO said the air segment consists of five Global Hawk Block 40 high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) equipped with “a state-of-the-art, multi-platform radar technology insertion program (MP-RTIP) ground surveillance radar sensor.”
The UAVs will also be equipped with an extensive suite of line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight, long-range, wideband data links, NATO said, adding that the air segment will also contain the UAV flight control stations.
The ground segment will provide an interface between the AGS Core system and a wide range of command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C2ISR) systems.
These C2ISR systems will “interconnect with and provide data to multiple deployed and non-deployed operational users, including reach-back facilities remote from the surveillance area.”
The ground segment component will consist of a number of ground stations, which NATO said will provide “data-link connectivity, data-processing and exploitation capabilities and interfaces for interoperability with C2ISR systems.”
The system will have its main base at Sigonella in Italy and at several associated command-and-control base stations.
Earlier this month, NATO announced plans to acquire an AGS system that would give commanders “a comprehensive picture” of the situation on the ground.
It said that “contributions-in-kind” provided by France and the United Kingdom will complement the AGS with additional surveillance systems.
“The composition of the AGS Core system and these contributions-in-kind will provide NATO with considerable flexibility in employing its ground surveillance capabilities,” it said.
“NATO’s operation to protect civilians in Libya showed how important such a capability is,” the organization said, referring to its operations over the oil-rich, war-torn, North African country in 2011.
Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman will be the prime contractor for the NATO AGS program, and will construct the Global Hawk UAVs, the supporting systems and the payloads.
When announcing the agreement in February, NATO said it planned to buy five Global Hawk unmanned aircraft capable of countering Afghan insurgents, monitoring arms embargoes and “hunting pirates off Somalia.”
NATO made clear in a news broadcast that the Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles would be used in maritime operations off the coast of Somalia, a hotbed of piracy.
In March, NATO allies agreed to extend their counter piracy naval operation Ocean Shield, operating off the Horn of Africa, for a further two years until the end of 2014.
THREAT OF PIRACY
“This decision reflects NATO’s enduring commitment to counter the threat of piracy that exists in the Gulf of Aden and in the Western Indian Ocean,” the alliance said.
But that brief may extend even farther.
The location of successful pirate hijackings has grown from a relatively concentrated area in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, into the larger Indian Ocean, according to a report by the One Earth Future Foundation.
“The changing geographical spread of piracy attacks also alters the countries, industries, and trade routes most impacted by piracy,” the report said, adding that piracy “has increasingly impacted” India, Pakistan, and the Gulf countries.
More to the point, the report – The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy, 2011 – said that, “This transformation in the location of piracy attacks also indicates that there may be an escalating impact on the oil-supplying industries and nations within that region.”
“Over the course of 2011, emerging trends in the Somali piracy business model ushered greater concern about its potential impact on oil trade,” the report said.
It noted that that pirate attacks in 2011 increasingly moved northeast towards the Gulf and Middle East, “where oil trade is heavily concentrated.”
With deployment of the Global Hawks not planned until 2015 at the earliest, NATO clearly will not be using the UAVs in its current anti-piracy program which will run until 2014.
But into the future, the alliance will clearly be well positioned to guard the international oil lanes from East Africa to the Gulf of Hormuz, regardless of who may be seeking to interfere with them, whether pirates from Somalia or naval vessels from hostile states such as Iran.
© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012