For First Time – NATO’s Drones Flying Over Mediterranean

For First Time – NATO’s Drones Flying Over Mediterranean

An RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft like the one shown is currently flying non-military mapping missions over South, Central America and the Caribbean at the request of partner nations in the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bobbi Zapka)

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The first of five new NATO surveillance drones began test flights over the Mediterranean Sea this month. For the first time, the Alliance Ground Surveillance program has incorporated Global Hawk drones in what is usually a crowded airspace on a permanent basis.

The flights took off from Sigonella airbase in Sicily, Italy, the future headquarters of the Northrop Grumman-made Global Hawks of the Alliance Ground Surveillance program. The planes are owned by a collective of 15 NATO members.

The first two drones arrived late last year. Officials expect the rest of the fleet to make the trip from the manufacturer’s facilities in Palmdale, California, throughout the summer.

Earlier this spring, travel restrictions spurred by the spread of the novel coronavirus had raised the possibility of a delay in getting the initial plane approved for its flight schedule. But the Italian government allowed a team of Northrop specialists into Italy in late May for acceptance testing, a key step in obtaining an airworthiness certificate for the drone.

Officials have been tight-lipped about exactly where they intend to use the aircraft once they are fully operational. However, Camille Grand, NATO’s assistant secretary-general for defense investment, told “You can imagine missions of looking into the situation on NATO’s borders.” “Both in the south, in the Middle East or the east. The drones enable you to collect intelligence beyond your airspace.”

While the initial aircraft has already completed at least one nine-hour flight over the Mediterranean Sea, it remains to be seen if the aircraft can get clearance from Italian regulators to fly over land, where air traffic is more crowded and a mishap could be catastrophic.

The general idea is to use the Italian airworthiness approval to fly anywhere. “The beauty of the European airspace is that once you are certified in Italy, you can fly across the European airspace,” Grand said. He noted that the certification currently in effect is provisional, and that the scope of the process is “likely to expand over time.”

For now, high-flying military surveillance drones traversing the continent must obtain permission from national airspace authorities for a restricted flight corridor to protect nearby civilian traffic. Such is the case, for example, when U.S. unmanned aircraft fly reconnaissance missions close to the Baltics.