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Jun 19 2021

NATO AGS Force training for sustained operations

SIGONELLA, Italy - For the first time, the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) Force launched three missions on three consecutive days this week, marking a major success for the multinational unit towards providing critical intelligence to NATO leaders.

"A year ago, the Force flew our first RQ-4D Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle flight here at Sigonella," says NATO AGS Force commander, Brigadier General Houston Cantwell. "We continue refining our processes, fine-tuning our four aircraft and optimizing our NATO communications networks. Flying three missions in three consecutive days is a real achievement for NATO, and I congratulate the entire team who made it happen. It's a culmination of combined effort of NATO and Host Nation organisations and industry, but ultimately a reflection of the talented multi-national service members here at Sigonella," he added.

Ultimately this is a reflection of the talented multi-national service members here at Sigonella

At present, the multinational NATO AGS Force – comprised of some 350 posts from 23 nations - has four of the total five aircraft available for enduring missions; one was flown to the States in April to receive an upgrade to allow tracking of moving maritime targets. With more than half of the authorized NAGSF positions filled and working out of temporary facilities, it was possible to plan this week of surge operations, timely preparing the aircraft and successfully conducting the three consecutive intelligence and surveillance flights, each lasting eight hours.

"To fly three missions in three days we needed two aircraft ready every day for each mission; two days before take-off our maintainers tops them off, conduct the necessary pre-flight inspections to check the mechanic and avionics systems and simulate cockpit connection with special ground-test equipment," says Support Wing Commander, Spanish Air Force Colonel Juan-Carlos Raimundo Martinez.

The recovery crew tows the RQ-4D to a ramp at Sigonella Air Base home to the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force. Photo by Christian Träger.
As the RQ-4D is parked and post-flight checks are conducted, a technician is working on the mobile satellite unit. Photo by Christian Träger.
Refueling the RQ-4D is part post-flight inspection ensuring the plane is ready for a new mission without delay. Photo by Christian Träger.

On the day of take-off, the launch crew conducts final preparations that begin a couple of hours before launching. The maintainers tow the RQ-4D Phoenix to the take-off position that is entered as the initial point of the flight plan; they power up the engine and conduct final checks of the avionics and the satellite link connections. One of the two pilots conducts a final visual inspection on the ready-for-take-off aircraft and hands the control over to the other pilot in the "airplane cockpit" at the Operation Centre in Sigonella. This is where the flight is controlled, from take-off to touchdown.

A NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force RQ-4D Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle is ready for take-off on the runway at the Italian Air Base at Sigonella on Sicily. The Phoenix aircraft are used by NATO to enhance Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities and Europe-wide awareness that enable Alliance leaders' decision-making. Photo by Christian Träger.
Upon mission accomplishment and landing at Sigonella, the pilot hands the RQ-4D Phoenix over to the recovery crew to power the systems down, once the ground support units are connected. Once the aircraft is towed to its parking inside the hangar, the crew conducts a post-flight inspection, tops off the aircraft again and conducts another pre-flight inspection.

"This is a process that normally takes around eight hours if no major technical problems occur, and is one that requires a strong partnership between NATO aircraft maintainers, operational aircrew, communications technicians, and Italian Air Force fuels support. This means our Phoenix will be ready for another mission the following day, every day," explains Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander, US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jason Carney.

On the Intelligence production side, "we have used our weekly flights to establish and test procedures and processes for the production, exploitation and distribution of all organically collected products," said Operations Wing Commander, German Air Force Colonel Wolfgang Asmus. "With the sustained missions we flew last weeks we were able to also test and coordinate our personnel on rotating shifts, a system that we would be using every time we need to fly long-hour and consecutive sorties in order to provide time-sensitive near-real time intelligence products to our NATO Alliance leaders," Colonel Asmus added.

Story by NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force Public Affairs Office

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