Nato’s purchase of five surveillance drones is “the first concrete sign” the military alliance is moving away from its dependency on the US, a security expert has said.
The new aircraft, unveiled by Nato Secretary General at a ceremony last week in Sigonella air base, Italy, are designed to look for moving objects over large areas of the ground and sea.
They will initially be used to track Russian movements in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as migrants crossing from North Africa.
Designated the RQ-4D Phoenix by Nato, the drones are a version of the US Global Hawk aircraft, one of which was shot down by Iran last year in the Gulf.
Justin Bronk from the Royal United Services Institute says the purchase is “quite a significant acquisition” and a “big departure” for the alliance, although he lamented the time it had taken.
“It is the first concrete sign of Nato taking serious steps to make a dent in the enormous dependency the alliance has on the US,” he said.
“What normally happens is most [alliance members] turn up with some fast jets, maybe [an air to air refuelling] tanker, and the Americans have to do all the target finding, classification, intelligence processing, battle-damage assessment, command and control and so on.”
The RQ-4D is designed to look for moving objects over large areas of the ground and sea. It has very sophisticated surveillance capabilities, such as signals intelligence, radars and a defensive-aid suite.
Mr Bronk says the aircraft, which are unarmed, will be tasked to track Russian movements in the Eastern Meditteranean as well as migration and smuggling from North Africa; a great concern to the southern member states of the 29-nation alliance.
A spokesperson for Nato denied the purchase of the drones meant Nato was becoming its own army, saying it was about “creating the glue that brings and keeps allies together”.
“Nato doesn’t aspire to be all things to all men," Oana Lungescu told the Telegraph, adding the alliance prefers to focus on “key enablers” like command and control systems and surveillance assets, as not all members have the full suite of capabilities.
She said Nato is an inter-governmental organisation where all decisions are taken by consensus and the purchase does not indicate the alliance is seeking to become a military entity in its own right.
"Nato is a platform for North America and Europe to sit down, decide and act, on areas of common security interest," she said. The aim is not for Nato to replace any of the allies, “because the allies are Nato”.
The drone purchase came after the paucity of airborne surveillance assets available to the military alliance became obvious in the Libyan campaign in 2011.
A decision was taken at the 2012 Nato summit in Chicago to buy the Phoenix aircraft.
The drones were paid for from the Nato common funding pool, a collective fund for projects of use to all member states. At around two billion euros a year, it is less than one per cent of the defence spending of all the allies.
About half of that goes on infrastructure such as airfields or the $260 million investment in Powidz, Poland; a forward base for American armoured vehicles, to be used in the event of a confrontation with Russia.
What remains of the budget can be spent on equipment to be shared by the alliance. “This is not the sort of funding that would buy you the full spectrum of capabilities...that an ally like the United States can provide,” Ms Lungescu says.
The aircraft based at Sigonella had flown 22 hours non-stop from California (they have the ability to fly for up to 30 hours). The remaining three are due to arrive by the end of 2020, with an initial operating capability of one aircraft available for tasking expected to be announced this summer.