BRUSSELS, Feb 3 (Reuters) - NATO agreed on Friday to implement a drone-based high-altitude surveillance project after two decades of wrangling over how to share the funding.
The Alliance Ground Surveillance project (AGS) project, which is scheduled to come into use from 2015, will have its main base at Sigonella in Italy and several associated command-and-control base stations.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that under an agreement reached at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels, a group of nations would acquire five Global Hawk RQ-4B reconnaissance drones produced by U.S. firm Northrop Grumman and powered by Rolls-Royce engines.
Northrop Grumman ISS International is the main contractor, while the German arm of EADS, Italy’s Galileo Avionica — a unit of Finmeccanica — and the Canadian arm of General Dynamics are also involved.
The 13 countries participating in the project are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta welcomed the deal.
“It’s good deal, big deal, done deal,” he was quoted as saying in a Twitter message posted by the U.S. ambassador to NATO.
Rasmussen, who has been a champion of such cooperative defence projects, said NATO’s operation in Libya last year had shown the need for such a capability.
“This will give our commanders the ability to see what is happening on the ground, at long range, over periods of time, around the clock, in any weather,” he said.
The drones fly at 60,000 feet and can stay aloft for over 24 hours.
The U.S. Air Force recently decided to scrap its Northrop Grumman drone programme and keep its Cold War-vintage U-2 spy planes flying into the 2020s, according to a government official and a defense analyst.