June 16, 2011 Andrew White, SHEPARD GROUP
Brussels – NATO is threatened with a substantial shortfall in airborne surveillance should the UK retire its Sentinel Airborne Stand-Off Reconnaissance (ASTOR) fleet in 2013, a senior officer in the organisation has warned.
Referring to the forthcoming Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme which is due to come into service in 2015, Col Matt Anderer USAF, Force Command Requirements at Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe said NATO's airborne surveillance capabilities were currently 'stretched' and 'heavily tasked'.
Speaking at the UV Europe conference in Brussels, Anderer warned that such a shortfall would be exacerbated should the UK scrap the Sentinel as outlined in October's Strategic Defence and Security Review. The Royal Air Force (RAF) has already lost its Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft programme as part of the same review.
The Ministry of Defence said Raytheon’s ASTOR system could be ‘withdrawn once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan’. Two Sentinel R Mk I aircraft are regularly contributing to coalition operations in Afghanistan on a daily basis.
'AGS is one of the alliance's most pressing capability needs. Now, we only have this capability from two [UK and US] alliance members. Assets are heavily tasked and very scarce resources and this will be even more if the UK retires the Sentinel fleet in 2013. AGS is critical to NATO and at this point in time, we cannot fail,' Anderer urged.
Supported by 14 member nations, NATO's AGS programme comprises the procurement of six Block 40 RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs from Northrop Grumman as well as two transportable general ground stations (GGS), six mobile GGS, mission operations support installation and remote workstations. Anderer said he expected a contract to be signed by September this year with activation of the AGS main operating base at Sigonella air force base in Italy launched within the following 18 months.
It is envisaged that the Global Hawks will work alongside NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft or AWACS. 'The AGS core will be able to look at what is happening on the Earth’s surface, providing situational awareness before, during and, if necessary, after NATO operations,' according to officials.
Referring to current operations in Libya, Anderer said an AGS capability would 'provide a constant watch to help thwart Gaddafi's [military] attacks on civilians as well as supporting human relief efforts on land and at sea'.
The AGS programme will carry standard and high resolution SAR, GMTI and maritime moving target indicators for missions ranging from border control and humanitarian operations through to counter-IED and anti-piracy missions.