NATO Drones - the 'game-changers'

By Nigel Chamberlain, NATO Watch

Surveillance drones – for now

In a speech at the Carnegie Europe Event in Brussels on 18 September NATO Secretary General Rasmussen urged European allies to acquire more surveillance drones. This appeal supports a call in June by three aerospace companies - France's Dassault Aviation, EADS Cassidian and Italy's Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi - for Europe to launch its own independent drone programme.

International Relations and Security Network (ISN) has published a timely article by Executive Editor of Air Force Magazine, Michael C. Sirak, in which he reviews NATO 's plans for the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system - a fleet of five Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft which can carry a sophisticated radar capable of monitoring what is happening at ground level from high overhead. They will, according to Sirak:

Transmit synthetic aperture radar images—which look like photographs—and tracking data on the moving objects down to NATO intelligence analysts. These specially trained personnel will then create intelligence products for the Alliance’s political leadership and military commanders, down to the tactical level, quickly enough to be relevant. This information will provide insight into topics such as the position of combat forces, battle damage sustained by a target, or devastation caused by a natural disaster.

Currently, NATO relies on national assets of its members for this capability, especially the United States. A NATO official said in June: “AGS is indeed a kind of game changer. It changes the dynamic within the Alliance to have access to that kind of information.”

While only fourteen Member States are contrinuting to the collective procurement of AGS (the United States, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia – shortly to be joined by Poland), all Alliance members will contribute to AGS operations and support costs—or provide some 'assistance in kind' in the case of Britain and France. Over its life cycle, AGS is expected to cost Alliance members some 2.2 billion euros.

AGS will be operated from NATO Base Sigonella (NASSIG) - 'The Hub of the Med' - a US Navy installation on Sicily, Italy. NASSIG supports operations of the US 6th Fleet and other US military units as well as collective NATO operations. Member States will contribute around 600 military and civilian personnel who will operate and maintain AGS as well as running the training school there. According to a NATO official: “If you want to be part of the network, there are some rules to be respected here, both in terms of security, but also in terms of interoperability.” NATO members have shared information in Afghanistan and AGS will provide access to national databases across the Alliance once fully operational. NASSIG already hosts the US Global Hawk operations for the region.

US defence contractor Northrop Grumman signed a $1.7bn contract to supply NATO with the Global Hawk Block 40 in May 2012. Each carries a Multiplatform Radar Technology Insertion Programme (MP-RTIP) radar sensor. The Hawk can be airborne for extended periods and operate from 60,000 feet in all weather or light conditions. Imagery and data will be fed via satellite, processed at NASSIG and transmitted through the NATO command chain. There will also be mobile AGS systems to support the NATO Response Force in the field. The first AGS Global Hawks will be in place in 2016 and be fully operational in 2017.

NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) will determine AGS operations and NATO Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany will oversee them. Germany’s EADS Cassidian, Italy’s Selex Galileo and Norway’s Kongsberg have secured contracts to supply the mobile and transportable ground elements and provide the mission operations support at NASSIG.

Armed drones – later, perhaps

British MP Caroline Lucas recently asked the UK Secretary of State for Defence a Parliamentary Question about drone missions undertaken by British Armed Forces in Afghanistan. On 5 September, answering for the Government, Andrew Robathan MP said that:

UK forces in Afghanistan operate unmanned aircraft systems to provide Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), with Hermes 450, Desert Hawk III, T-Hawk, Black Hornet and Reaper systems. Reaper is the only armed system; the following table demonstrates that the majority of flights are also wholly in the ISTAR role, with only a small proportion resulting in one or more weapons being fired.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has highlighted the information he gave, stressing the key role played by British unmanned aircraft in the Afghan conflict. British-piloted drones carried out 22% of all drone strikes in the conflict between 2008 and 2011. In 2011, the last year for which comparison was possible, British-piloted drones launched 30% of all drone attacks in the theatre.

The Bureau added that the United Nations is said to believe that US-operated drone strikes pose a growing challenge to the international rule of law, perhaps referring to the UN Emmerson report, and last year a study conducted by the law schools of Stanford and New York University said that the US government's drone programme 'terrorises' local communities and kills large numbers of civilians.

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a report called 'Drone Wars' by Stephen Sackur on 25 September that addresses some of these issues. He suggests that increased use of drones raises all kinds of ethical as well as military questions as pilots flying drones remotely by computer link from thousand of miles away are replacing pilots flying aircraft over combat zones.

BBC Radio 4 also broadcast a challenging play by Robert Myers on 16 September called 'Drone Pilots'. It depicts the work of two US night shift operators who fly a drone from a trailer in the American desert. He is a decorated fighter pilot (going back to Vietnam) from rural Georgia, who has come out of retirement to make ends meet – and voices his disquiet at the extra-judicial executions he is required to perform. She is a superstar gamer from New Jersey, who has recently been recruited to the job of sensor – and expresses no such qualms.

On 19 September, Reuters reported that NATO had launched an investigation into an attack by a drone aircraft on an al Qaeda member on 7 September which killed eight women and children, according to a senior Afghan official. NATO initially claimed that "10 enemy forces" had been killed and it had no reports of any civilian casualties. Afghan security officials said that NATO special operations forces had launched the drone to attack an al Qaeda operative.

In a televised interview on 31 May, available on YouTube, Secretary General Rasmussen clearly blurs the distinction between unarmed drones for surveillance purposes and armed drones for attacking suspected terrorists in Pakistan. One might reasonably ask how long it might be before NATO drones will be seen to blur the distinction in practice, just as US and UK drones have already been doing in co-ordination with ISAF troops in Afghanistan?