In February 2021, after close to 20 years of planning, Nato’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC). Developed in response to a recognised deficit in Nato’s capacity to provide effective and persistent ground surveillance, the system is now at the stage where its five unmanned aircrafts can fly regular missions to monitor ground operations, collecting information via state-of-theart radar technology. This data is then processed and disseminated by analysts and passed on to decision makers within Nato command and its member nations.

AGS is only the second project of its kind in Nato’s history, whereby the alliance itself decided to use its collective fiscal investment to acquire a certain capability. The first was the Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS), a fleet of Boeing E-3A aircraft, which provide the alliance with air surveillance, command and control, battle space management and communications, Nato’s ‘eyes in the sky’.

As its land-based equivalent, AGS was originally envisaged as a mixed fleet of manned vehicles, where operators could exploit the information gathered on board, complemented by unmanned systems that would provide additional coverage. But this solution was deemed unaffordable by the group of Nato nations who ultimately agreed to purchase the capability. As such, it was decided to go down the route of procuring five high-altitude, remotely piloted Global Hawk surveillance aircraft.

While the hardware has been provided by Northrop Grumman, a number of other European companies partnered within an industrial joint venture to provide complementary elements of the overall AGS capability, including Airbus and Kongsberg. The IT backbone of the system is the responsibility of the Nato Communications and Information Agency (NCI Agency).

“Essentially, we provide the communications environment that allows the AGS to operate, including the satellite communications medium via which the aircraft is both flown and controlled from the ground and the mechanisms by which the data is taken from the platform and brought back down to the ground,” explains Matt Roper, chief of joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the NCI Agency. “We are also responsible for providing much of the ground-based network and infrastructure to carry that data around the Nato force and command structure and, in time, connect the nations to the AGS core.”

Capture and package the data

The two primary sources of data that are gathered by the platform are Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which creates 2D images or 3D reconstructions of objects such as landscapes, and Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) radar, which provides continuous wide area surveillance coverage of ground moving vehicles.

“It’s a very flexible system focused on providing meaningful information to support decision makers at all levels within the Nato force and command structure.”

Matt Roper


High-altitude, remotely piloted Global Hawk surveillance aircraft make up the air segment of the AGS platform.


Captured by sensors, and digitally passed through a series of data links and satellite communications back to the AGS’s main operating base in Sigonella, Sicily, they provide a rich picture of what is happening on the ground.

When the information arrives at AGS HQ, it’s the analysts’ job to make sense of it, normally in response to a request, which could be anything from a geo-political question about a specific location or activity from, say, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) to a specific tactical question from a small tactical unit in the field who need a better understanding of a particular situation. Analysts may also bring other intelligence feeds into the mix to help produce collated reports that commanders around the alliance are asking for.

As Roper explains, there are different timelines that come into play: “Some pattern of life analysis takes a little longer and can run into days and weeks because it’s not so time critical, but some of the tactical information could be very urgent and need much more rapid analysis,” he says. “In some cases, they may just need the image itself if there is a tactical activity which has got a very short time fuse. It’s a very flexible system focused on providing meaningful information to support decision makers at all levels within the Nato force and command structure.”

Connect AGS to the Nato environment

One of the most important roles NCI Agency plays is protecting the data as it flows through the Nato cyber environment, where it covers substantial distances and moves across multiple countries and commands, all with different points of vulnerability. The key, according to Roper, is to ensure that the various nodes of the information flow are properly protected. For this reason, a great deal of effort is being put into ensuring the communications network is resilient to intrusion and attack.

That has included vulnerability assessments, specialised penetration testing and cyberresilience testing, all to ensure the system can meet the requirements of the formal accreditation process that all new Nato systems and capabilities must go through. “It’s not an easy task,” Roper says. “Often systems won’t pass first time around and the testing will reveal vulnerabilities that have to be rectified and corrected before a subsequent test can be achieved, which hopefully gives us the green light to connect these systems and capabilities into the Nato secure environment.” At present, the NCI Agency is going the final tactical mile to help connect the AGS core to that wider Nato environment. “The idea is that the AGS core isn’t just an island of information and we start letting that crucial information flow all over the Nato network and into the nations,” Roper says.

While the AGS is a fantastic asset – the “jewel in the crown” as Roper puts it – it’s not the answer to all Nato’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) needs. The AGS core, which is owned and operated by Nato, needs to be buttressed by vital contributions from the nations, with everything connected in a secure and robust way.

A recent workshop at the NCI Academy in Oeiras, Portugal, saw representatives from the nations, command structure and industries get together to begin a discussion on what this information flow will look like. “How do we move all this important data in and out of the AGS core, how do we use it, have we got the systems, standards and protocols in place to ensure everybody can access it and can use it in an appropriate manner? It’s a pretty thorny exam question,” Roper admits. “The next big step is to realise those final bits of detail.”

Fully operational

Reaching IOC has required a massive team effort, not just from Nato HQ and the NCI Agency. “Before we flew our first mission, this unit had no experience with doing any piece of full spectrum ISR,” says Brigadier General Houston R Cantwell, commander of the Nato AGS Force (NAGSF), who is in charge of the operational side of things. “We came here together with a vision but getting the team together, getting everyone the appropriate training and getting everyone to understand where they fit in the big team, we’ve had to take it one step at a time.”

At the same time, the Nato AGS Management Agency (NAGSMA) – set up to procure all the capabilities needed for the system – was working tirelessly in the background, while the Italian Aviation Administration was going back and forth with Northrop Grumman to figure out the required paperwork and authorisations to declare the system airworthy. The AGS aims to reach full operating capability by 2024, which means the system will be able to cover any threat or any area of interest and sustain operations for days at a time, taking hundreds of SAR pictures in a single mission, at day or night and in any weather conditions, and covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres with GMTI radar. On top of getting the security and connections right, there are three other key steps that needs to be taken to reach full operating capability, according to Cantwell. First, they need to take ownership of their final infrastructure, a brand-new HQ facility being built near the current temporary facilities, which will house hundreds of people.

“We have some tactical mobile ground stations, which will eventually have the ability to deploy to other HQ units and provide direct ISR support to those HQ units.”

Brigadier General Houston R Cantwell


Nato allies that are acquiring the AGS platform – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the US.


This in turn will allow the team to bring in the people needed to surge operations for up to a full month of flying operations. And finally, they need to reach deployment capability. “We have some tactical mobile ground stations, which will eventually have the ability to deploy to other HQ units and provide direct ISR support to those HQ units,” Cantwell explains. “We need to be able to prove that capability within the next year or two.” The NCI Agency will continue to work on building an AGS that is not just an island in itself, but an ISR hub. Ultimately, data will be provided both from the AGS platform itself and from other nations who can contribute complementary ISR data to the Nato mission.

“It’s very easy for me to describe but it’s very complicated to do,” Roper says. “It’s quite a delicate ballet of information in, and reports and meaningful analysis out in a timely manner – and to the right level of detail for the respective requestor. This information could be very valuable if it found its way into the wrong hands, while the intrusion and disruption of this capability in an operational context could also be very damaging. It’s critical that we ensure this system is resilient to both electronic warfare and cyberintrusion and attack.”