Alan Dron assesses the growing air power capabilities that NATO Member States are introducing – from fifth-generation fast jets and their precision-guided munitions to state-of-the-art maritime patrol platforms

After years in the doldrums, defence budgets among NATO nations are showing signs of inching upwards again, and major new weapons systems that will improve the Alliance’s capabilities are on the verge of entering service.

In terms of air power, among the most significant of these capabilities is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft, initial examples of which are undergoing operational testing in Italy and the United Kingdom. So far, the aircraft has been chosen by no fewer than seven NATO Member States – Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the UK – and it looks set to become the mainstay of NATO air forces in the same way that the F-16 Fighting Falcon did during the 1970s and 80s.

There is no denying that the F-35 has had a long, expensive and troubled gestation. However, as the first examples start to reach Alliance nations, the pilots who fly them are starting to experience their remarkable sensor fusion capabilities and the advantage this gives them over opponents.

Pilots are discovering what amounts to a quantum leap over previous generations of fighters. Additionally, an increasing number of weapons are being developed for the aircraft. Norway, for example, is helping to fund an adaptation of its Naval Strike Missile, a long-range cruise missile.

The US Marine Corps announced the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the F-35B carrier-borne jump-jet variant of the Lightning II as far back as July 2015. This was followed by the US Air Force, which declared the F-35A to have achieved IOC in August 2016, with the head of the F-35 programme, General Chris Bogdan, declaring that the aircraft “will form the backbone of air combat superiority for decades and enable war fighters to see adversaries first and take decisive action”.

In April 2017, the type made its first operational deployment in continental Europe when two US Air Force F-35As arrived at Amari airbase in Estonia to take part in exercises. The F-35 is due to hit full production rate in 2019.

A further advance in NATO capabilities will come with the introduction of the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, which will give commanders a comprehensive picture of the situation on the ground. A group of 15 NATO nations is acquiring five Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 unmanned aerial systems and their associated ground command and control stations. Once acquired, NATO will operate and maintain them on behalf of all 29 member countries.

The aircraft will become available to the Alliance in the 2017-18 timeframe. They will be equipped with a multiplatform radar technology insertion programme (MP-RTIP) ground surveillance radar sensor, as well as a comprehensive suite of line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight, long-range, wideband data links.

GLOBAL HAWK

The Global Hawk is one of the largest unmanned aerial systems in existence, with a wingspan of 130ft (40m). Designed for high-altitude, long endurance sorties, its on-board sensors can cover huge swathes of territory from altitudes of 60,000ft. Once fully operational, the AGS will be capable of providing support for a wide range of missions covering both land and sea, such as border control and maritime patrol, surveillance of enemy ground forces and anti-terrorism missions, as well as crisis management following natural disasters. The AGS Main Operating Base (MOB) will be located at Sigonella, Italy.

AIR-TO-GROUND MISSILES

December 2016 saw the NATO Support and Procurement Agency sign an agreement with the US to acquire Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition, on behalf of a multinational cooperation framework that brings together eight NATO nations – Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain. With the initial batch of missiles arriving this year, this multinational project will allow participants engaged in operations to be loaned PGMs from the stocks of fellow nations that have a less urgent need for them. Such cooperative programmes help NATO nations pool resources and make the most of still limited national defence budgets.

One area in which more needs to be done is the provision of maritime surveillance solutions. The number of maritime patrol aircraft has dropped sharply since the end of the Cold War, but the need for them has escalated in recent years as the Russian navy – particularly its sub-surface component – has benefitted from substantial modernisation.

Some new maritime patrol assets are in the pipeline, notably the nine Boeing P-8A Poseidons ordered by the UK, but more are needed. Potentially, a pooling arrangement among NATO nations would allow the Alliance to make the most of European nations’ defence funding.


Projecting Stability | ATA special publication for the Brussels Summit 2017

For the occasion of the NATO Special Meeting in May 2017, ATA has published a dedicated monograph where high level policy makers and experts tackle the strategic issues of the summit. This publication was distributed to all the delegations and representatives that were taking part to closed-doors discussions and parallel meetings that took place before and during the Summit.

The publication is available in its entirety here:  Projecting Stability | ATA special publication for the Brussels Summit 2017