NATO drone surveillance hours surge amid growing appetite for intel

NATO drone surveillance hours surge amid growing appetite for intel

ORLANDO — Demand for insights derived from NATO’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance outfit is swelling.

The NATO ISR Force, comprising more than 400 people working from Europe, logged 30% more flight hours in 2023 than the year prior, according to Scott Bray, the assistant secretary general for intelligence and security.

The force’s flights covered the alliance’s eastern flank, notable for its proximity to the Russia-Ukraine war; the Baltic and Black seas; and the High North following Finland’s membership, he told GEOINT conference attendees in Florida on May 7.

“The North Atlantic security environment is under threat,” said Bray, who visited Kyiv two weeks ago. “Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine has created the biggest conflict on the European continent since the Second World War, and the Euro-Atlantic is not at peace.”

The ISR Force has five of its own unmanned RQ-4D Phoenixes. The remotely piloted aircraft are based on designs by Northrop Grumman, the third-largest contractor in the world when ranked by defense-related revenue. The company earned $32.5 billion in 2022, according to Defense News Top 100 analysis.

The drones are modified to meet NATO information-sharing and communication requirements and are outfitted with surveillance sensors. Together, the force can cover more than 62,000 square-miles a day.

Bray said “the appetite, the expectations and the centrality of intelligence to NATO is only growing.” Militaries around the world are increasingly turning to unmanned technologies to monitor faraway forces and augment targeting on the front lines.

The NATO ISR Force was previously known as the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force. The name change was motivated by a growing set of missions.

The force recently participated in the Nordic Response exercise, concentrated on northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. It featured more than 20,000 troops from more than a dozen countries.

“In today’s complex environment, decision-ready, actionable intelligence provided at the speed of need is one of our greatest weapons,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Clark, the ISR Force commander, said in a statement at the time. “As the alliance’s premier ISR unit, NISRF provides the foundation for informed decisions, allowing NATO to anticipate threats and react quickly.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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