NATO has begun testing the first of five new RQ-4D Alliance Ground Surveillance drones through a number of flights over the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month, advancing the alliance’s implementation of the aircraft, which activists have argued is potentially dangerous for civilians in the area.
“It is a very interesting and fascinating challenge because it is the first time ever that we are incorporating those Global Hawks in what is usually a crowded airspace on a permanent basis,” Camille Grand, NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment, told Defense News.
The RQ-4D is a derivative of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and was first delivered to NATO at the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy, in November 2019. The second drone was received by the air base in December 2019, and the remaining three aircraft are slated for delivery throughout the summer, according to Defense News.
It was initially thought that delays related to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus would severely impact the test schedule for the first drone.
“COVID-related delays ended up only being a few weeks, but nothing that significant,” Grand said. “We are now moving to a pattern of regular flight to enable the force to use the drone.”
He noted that the aircraft was able to complete a nine-hour flight over the Mediterranean Sea. “You can imagine missions of looking into the situation on NATO’s borders,” Grand said. “Both in the south, in the Middle East or the east. The drones enable you to collect intelligence beyond your airspace.”
However, it remains unclear whether NATO will be successful in obtaining airworthiness clearance from Italian regulators, which would allow the aircraft to traverse the rest of Europe’s airspace.
“The beauty of the European airspace is that once [you] are certified in Italy, you can fly across the European airspace,” Grand explained.
Presently, operators of the RQ-4D and similar high-flying military surveillance drones must first secure permission from authorities of individual countries on the continent to travel through their airspace.
Earlier this year, Italian activist Pippo Gurreri spoke with Sputnik concerning the US’ Mobile User Objective System satellites and NATO’s RQ-4D. Gurreri warned that these decisions to carry out military objectives from Italy put the country’s citizens in danger.
“Furthermore, we are exposed to the risk of terrorism in particular. We are the Mediterranean border of the so-called West, and our region is often involved in conflicts,” he said. “Now that the [Daesh] no longer has its territory, if they want to declare war on the West, they will carry out terrorist acts, and from this point of view, we are particularly at risk of revenge attacks.”