On September 13, 2023, a NATO surveillance drone concluded a flight over Finland, the Alliance’s newest member. The unmanned aircraft, traveling at high altitudes above Allies’ territories and in international airspace, collected data for Allies to support their collective deterrence and defence. The mission was the first time a NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force (NAGSF) RQ-4D drone flew over Finland. This mission came as NATO Air Forces continue to step up their reconnaissance missions on the Alliance’s eastern borders in the wake of Russia’s full-fledged war against Ukraine. Since 2022, NATO’s fleet of Alliance Ground Surveillance drones has conducted multiple missions on the Alliance’s eastern flank, predominantly in the Black Sea region.
The flight on September 13 also helped NAGSF operators to familiarise themselves with the new terrain. Nicknamed “Phoenix”, the RQ-4D remotely piloted aircraft are among the world’s most advanced drones, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over a wide area. The NATO-owned and operated aircraft are based in Sigonella, Italy and can stay in the air for more than 30 hours at a time. Surveillance and reconnaissance data collected by the aircraft and analysed by NAGSF experts are made available to all Allies to inform Alliance decision-making processes.
Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) is a NATO programme to acquire an airborne ground surveillance capability (Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program on the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk). The NAGSF was activated in September 2015, after it was formally agreed on the configuration of the unit responsible for operating the remotely piloted aircraft. In a similar fashion as with Strategic Airlift Capability the program is run by 15 NATO member states: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States.
The NAGSF comprises five RQ-4D Phoenix remotely piloted aircraft and the associated European-sourced ground command and control stations, and is based at AGS Main Operating Base in Sigonella, Italy. A number of 400 AGS personnel is deployed at Sigonella. Additionally, a small number of AGS staff elements are based at Allied Command Operations in Mons, Belgium and at Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany. The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft introduced in 2001. It was initially designed by Ryan Aeronautical (now part of Northrop Grumman), and known as Tier II+ during development.