NATO and AGS: Its Impact on the German Airborne SIGINT Decision


By Robbin Laird

The remotely piloted solution (Pegasus) versus a manned aircraft solution (Global 6000) for airborne SIGINT should take into account the coming of AGS to NATO.

The NATO Air Ground Surveillance approach is built around a remotely piloted solution which dovetails nicely with such a solution for airborne SIGINT.

With the coming of the Global Hawk-based NATO AGS aircraft to NATO, the teaming of manned and unmanned systems to deliver interoperable data will be driven by working collaboration between NATO’s E-3A and AGS aircraft.

As Major Jay B. Vizcarra noted in a 2017 article published by The Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) the collaboration between the manned and unmanned assets delivering core information with regard to the air C2/ISR integration effort requires the further development of networks to manage fully the result of operating such a synergistic manned/unmanned teaming effort.

When combining manned and unmanned capabilities to produce C2ISR combined effects in multiple environments, NATO E-3A and AGS integration possesses the potential to provide the Alliance with an initial vector towards MDC2 operations.

However, to expand on MDC2 capabilities and secure an asymmetric strategic advantage into the 21st century, NATO must gear towards a new enterprise ‘system of systems’ approach, tap into ‘combat clouds’, and leverage the competitive advantages afforded from Joint ISR fusing and rapid information sharing.

 Additionally, technocratic ‘stove-pipes’ of proprietary intelligence data must be freed to induce fusion warfare and allow C2 and strike assets to hastily complete the F2T2EA ‘kill-chain’. As General (retired) Herbert J. Carlisle19 stresses, ‘if you don’t have the ability to do something with it [the intelligence data], then you’re missing half the equation’.

 Subsequently, smarter network architectures with automatic processes will ensure cyber domain integrity and the fluid transfer of crucial information to the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

While NATO E-3A and AGS may have provided a small glimpse towards a multi-domain operational concept, it is up to the Alliance to ensure a new foundation is set to adopt and nurture an MDC2 capability.

The arrival of the AGS solution set with the fourth aircraft  delivered to NATO this past July, sets in motion infrastructure to manage what a remotely piloted aircraft can do.

It also sets in motion a path ahead for shaping the infrastructure and the combat learning curve to manage the how data flowing from AGS  into NATO and individual national networks.

For several years, the USAF has operated U.S. Global Hawks from Sigonella Airbase with no major problems within Europe.

That experience laid the foundation for high confidence that AGS could do the same.

That is why it is puzzling that another HALE system, this time Triton/Pegasus would somehow be more of a problem.

In any case, Germany, as the second largest stakeholder in the AGS program, certainly will gain significant operational experience, and will have a large pool of trained personal, with regard to operating a HALE system similar to that of Pegasus.

Indeed, the industry team which worked the airworthiness side of AGS has built up significant data and working experience with the European authorities who have authorized the use of AGS in European air space.

Again, this is a significant down payment on shaping the way ahead for HALE remotely piloted air systems in Europe.

AGS will provide information through various networks, and be exploited on core bases and mobile ground stations to deliver actionable information on a timely basis to the alliance and to its member states.

Obviously, the commitment of different nations will vary in terms of their investments in exploitation capability and this will be translated into how effectively different national militaries will be able to exploit the information generated from the AGS system.

The AGS is a system, not simply a HALE aircraft.

NATO has described the AGS system as follows:

Just as NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control (NAEW&C) aircraft – also known as AWACS or “NATO’s eyes in the sky” – monitor Alliance airspace, AGS will be able to observe what is happening on the earth’s surface, providing situational awareness before, during and, if needed, after NATO operations.

The AGS core will be an integrated system consisting of an air segment, a ground segment and a support segment.

The air segment consists of five NATO RQ-4D aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flight control elements. The aircraft will be equipped with a state-of-the-art, multi-platform radar technology insertion programme (MP-RTIP) ground surveillance radar sensor, as well as an extensive suite of line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight, long-range, wideband data links.

The ground segment consists of a number of ground stations in mobile and transportable configurations, able to provide data-link connectivity, data-processing, exploitation capabilities and interfaces for interoperability. 

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. It will interconnect with multiple deployed and non-deployed operational users, as well as with reach-back facilities away from the surveillance area.  

The AGS core support segment will include dedicated mission support facilities at the AGS Main Operating Base in Sigonella.

Interoperable contributions in kind, such as national surveillance systems and data/communications, will also be made available to NATO and will complement AGS with additional surveillance capabilities.

The composition of the AGS core system and national contributions in kind will provide NATO with considerable flexibility in employing its ground surveillance capabilities.

This will be supplemented by additional interoperable national airborne surveillance systems from NATO member countries, tailored to the needs of a specific operation or mission conducted by the Alliance.

A key part of the AGS system clearly is the ground segment and the ability to process information and communicate that information to the forces and the decision-makers.

The ground segment system will be shaped to provide for inputs to national decision-making systems, or work the ISR-C2 dyad to shape ways to come up with more effective technologies, policies and procedures to deliver better and more timely information to national and collective decision making.

This AGS ground system clearly could be a foundation from which the Pegasus HALE system could work was well.

In other words, rather than looking at Pegasus ground system investments as program-specific, they are not; they would be part of a broader exploitation and data delivery system to the German armed forces, and would almost certainly flow through similar or the same data pipes to the German decision making community.

A key factor is that both the AGS and PEGASUS ground systems are or would be provided by Airbus Defence and Space.

When considering whether one would prefer a manned to a remotely piloted one for AGS, the ultimate decision was for a remotely piloted one.

I was a consultant to the USAF in the period of time when the manned option was rejected in favor of the remotely piloted one, and remember very well Secretary Wynne’s thinking with regard to why it was crucial to go ahead with the remotely piloted solution set.

With the coming of the F-35 and the already evident impact of the F-22 on the USAF, it was clear to Wynne that the role of specialized manned aircraft in the ISR and C2 role was going to diminish significantly.

The ability of the remotely piloted aircraft to have much greater endurance, an ability to operate at heights that provide for significant area converge, and the innovations in wave forms, would mean that the role of RPAs in the ISR world would rapidly grow.

And that solution has arrived for NATO in the form of its new AGS aircraft and system.

Its impact on the Pegasus/Global 6000 trade off seems obvious – why turn your back on the future?

Notably, why would you do so, when you have already joined the future in another program area related to the one where you are mimicking the past.

Featured Photo: 21 November 2019, Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy – NATO’s first RQ-4D arrived in Europe.