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Sep 29 2020

The Phoenix has risen


NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system centres on the capabilities of a remotely piloted aircraft, based on the Northrop Grumman Block 40 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The first of five of the type, commonly known as 'Phoenix', arrived at the AGS main operating base at Sigonella, Italy, on 21 November 2019, followed by the second in December 2019. The aircraft are only one element of the AGS system, which also comprises ground and support segments consisting of static and deployable ground stations, as well as simulators and pilot/crew trainers. Equally important is its space segment, which is vital to delivering the capability. The NCI Agency plays a critical role in all these segments.

This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of NITECH Magazine. Read the full magazine here.

SATCOM Support

The Agency designed the satellite communications (SATCOM) architecture that supports AGS operations. Through these satellites, the Force has 'command and control' over the Phoenix, which means it can fly the aircraft, and is also able to recover the data during flight. This data is then analysed by the AGS Force, or by experts around the Alliance, and turned into intelligence 'reports', which go back to the Commander or NATO and Allied leaders, so that they can make well-informed decisions in a timely manner.

These 'reports' are accessible on the NATO secure network, maintained by the NCI Agency. Meanwhile, the Agency's team of 25 communications and information systems (CIS) experts in Sigonella support the AGS Force to ensure that the AGS is connected at all times to the rest of the Alliance.

Laryssa Patten, AGS Portfolio Manager for the NCI Agency's Joint Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (Joint ISR) team, explains how this will develop as AGS comes on stream: "The first two roles will remain as part of what we call 'steady-state' operations. We will, therefore, always retain people in Sigonella, supporting the AGS Force and ensuring connectivity and that all the other services are being provided. The project to integrate the AGS into the NATO enterprise will close once we hand over to steady-state operations. We have been transitioning to our own NATO SATCOM from the contractor's service since November 2019."

In early 2020, the first two aircraft underwent a final acceptance testing period, which included a flight to collect imagery over an area of Italy using the contractor's SATCOM service. "After the flight, the collected imagery was put into the system and then moved to the NATO Secret Wide Area Network to be verified for interoperability," says Patten. "There was a follow up flight in which we flew the Phoenix on NATO SATCOM systems alone. That was another big milestone."

Once management of AGS has been handed over to the NATO Supply and Procurement Agency (NSPA), the organization responsible for maintaining the AGS, it will receive regular enhancements, as Patten explains: "NATO is always looking to keep its edge, so there are plans for continuous improvement and the integration of additional capabilities. One of the first things we want to do is to connect it to the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft using the Link 16 [military] data link system."

The Space Domain

With vehicles such as the Phoenix relying on satellites for communication, data transfer and, to a lesser extent, control, the space domain is becoming increasingly important. According to NCI Agency systems architect Ramon Segura, "The reliance on space for joint intelligence and reconnaissance has been there for more than 50 years. It's been a domain of operations ever since GPS signals began to be transmitted and the first commercial and military reconnaissance satellites were placed into orbit. NATO has manned aircraft, like the E-3 AWACS and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that have relied on satellites for over two decades, but the amounts of data they transmit are several orders of magnitude smaller than the volumes AGS will generate."

Moreover, several AGS can be airborne at any one time in support of one or more missions, adding to the bandwidth requirement. "The AGS, like many other remotely operated military vehicles, relies on commercial satellites, the kind that deliver internet to remote places and high-definition television," explains Segura. "There is no difference, it's the same type of payload – there is nothing  AGS-specific on those satellites." 

Ensuring bandwidth

The bandwidth is funded through the Luxembourg government and delivered through assets owned and operated by companies based in the country. "Satellite bandwidth is always expensive," explains Segura, "but in this case, a nation stood up and decided to contribute with that bandwidth. It is still our rule that we make the most efficient use of it, that no bandwidth is wasted, but when we talk bandwidth with critical military assets of this nature, we have to make sure that it's always available when you need it, where you need it, and you really have to eliminate any chance of it not being available.

"So, you have to sign a contract for a long period of time to make sure that bandwidth is reserved and dedicated to your mission. In that sense it is different from buying satellite bandwidth on the so-called spot market, where you may or may not get it because there are other people competing for it. The bandwidth for the contracted years is pre-allocated, dedicated and guaranteed at all times."

To help guarantee bandwidth supply, there are three satellite systems involved with AGS, which can serve different purposes, including redundancy (fail-safe back-up). AGS doesn't only use commercial satellites for delivering sensor data to the ground; it can also rely on the Inmarsat constellation to relay Air Traffic Control (ATC) voice communications from the ground controllers to the pilots in Sigonella, so it is effectively like having the pilots on board the aircraft. As a fall-back, AGS can also use military Ultra High Frequency (UHF) satellite communications at very low data rates, sufficient to allow command and control of the aircraft and the sensors, in case something goes wrong during flight or if the flight path needs to be changed.

After a long gestation, the AGS is now contributing to NATO operations and two further aircraft are expected to arrive in Italy in the coming months. Segura confirms, "The certification of air-worthiness has been the responsibility of Italy, as the nation receiving the mandate to be the Military Air-worthiness Authority from the NATO AGS programme. To that end, Italy committed its Directory of Air Armaments and Airworthiness (DAAA) over a number of years to do a very deep analysis of all the attributes that would make AGS airworthy. That process was completed successfully and that is the reason why AGS can fly today."

Patten concludes: "NATO has the first Global Hawk that has flight certification, certified under the Italian aviation authority. This marks a major milestone in the development of a critical Alliance capability."

This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of NITECH Magazine. Read the full magazine here.