SIGONELLA, Italy (Reuters) - NATO will receive its second U.S.-made Global Hawk drone on Thursday and aims to have all five unmanned aircraft of its $1.5 billion (1.17 billion pounds) surveillance system operational in 2022, alliance officials said on Tuesday.
After years of delays, the drone system, which NATO says will be the world’s most advanced, will give the alliance 24-hour, near-real time surveillance of land and sea beyond its borders and provide greater visibility than satellites.
“It’s been a very, very long road,” said Brigadier General Volker Samanns, a senior manager at the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone system, which was first discussed three decades ago and was scheduled to operate from 2017.
Having resolved contractual disputes over cost with manufacturer Northrup Grumman, the first drone was delivered last month to the Sigonella air base in Italy.
Following Thursday’s delivery of a second drone, three more will come by next summer, Samanns said.
“We are basically creating a small air force,” he told reporters at the air base in Sicily, where NATO showed off the drone, which can fly for up to 30 hours at high altitude in all weather, seeing through clouds and storms to produce detailed maps, photos and data for commanders.
Fifteen NATO allies have funded the acquisition of the aircraft, including Germany, Poland, the United States and Italy, as well as ground stations built by Airbus.
All 29 allies will have access to the intelligence they generate, which could include missile sites in Russia, militant activity in the Middle East or pirates off the coast of Africa.
The drones will be piloted remotely from Sigonella and will fly within NATO airspace, but could be flown more widely in a conflict. Drones are increasingly a feature in modern warfare because of their long flying times and intelligence-gathering.
The delivery of the NATO drones marks a breakthrough for European allies after Germany cancelled plans to buy its own Global Hawks due to cost and certification issues, while a Franco-German project for a Eurodrone has been delayed.
They also help underpin Western efforts to remain more technologically advanced than Russia and China, officials said.
Brigadier General Phillip Stewart, a former Global Hawk commander in the United States, said he did not believe Moscow and Beijing had the sophistication of the NATO system.
“This is a quantum leap forward,” Stewart told reporters.
The delivery comes as NATO is spending $1 billion to modernise its 14 AWACS reconnaissance planes, which along with the drones, are the few military assets owned by NATO.
Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Giles Elgood