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The NATO alliance this month approved long-held plans to purchase an airborne surveillance system to give it the sort of eagle eyes the United States initially peered through during the Persian Gulf War.

The new Air Ground Surveillance system, planned to go online in 2010, will allow NATO countries to see and share intelligence on enemy terrain and ground movements in the same way its current Airborne Early Warning system monitors airspace.

“It gives us a much broader picture,” said a NATO press official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. “It fills in a gap.”

This would allow troops serving on the ground to have a clearer idea of where enemies lurk. It could even allow troops to pursue enemies from a distance, yet have full real-time intelligence on any changes in enemy speed or direction.

Some Europeans have developed airborne ground surveillance capabilities of their own, but the new Air Ground Surveillance concept will give the alliance a shared system of the same capabilities as the American fleet — “the full Monty,” as the NATO official called it.

“These types of projects tend to encourage technology,” he said. “We constantly try to close that gap, which is a real one, between the U.S. and European armies.”

Though NATO won’t disclose the price tag, it reportedly is between $3 billion and $5 billion.

The United States backs the plan. Some analysts believe that’s simply because a NATO ground surveillance system would be paid for by other alliance members as well as the United States. The existing American fleet, called J-STARS, wouldn’t be the only place to which the allies could turn, freeing it for U.S. tasks. And European members without any equivalent would save money by not having to develop their own.

“By deciding to purchase a common system, rather than separate, nationally owned systems, member countries will save on costs and make best use of taxpayers’ money,” said James Appathurai, the NATO spokesman, in a release.

The contract for the new system — made up of special aircraft, unmanned drones and ground equipment — was won by a consortium led by Germany’s EADS. The consortium also includes Northrop Grumman from the United States.

“U.S. industries hoped to sell NATO a variant of J-STARS, but NATO chose a European system,” said Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security. “It was just a question of who better integrated European capabilities into the system.”

The alliance was impressed with America’s J-STARS system during the Gulf War and decided shortly thereafter to buy something similar.

“If you can ID ground targets from a distance of several kilometers, most people working with precision-guided munitions would be pretty happy,” Nassauer said.

Individual member states could also request the use of the new system in the same way that Greece requested the use of AWACS airspace surveillance for this summer’s Olympics.

The crews, however, still would be multinational — the system would be complicated enough that any pilot couldn’t just jump in and take it for a rental spin.

“You can’t just bring it back with a full tank and air in the tires,” said a NATO official directly involved with the planned system.

For combat troops, the biggest gain is simply having a huge advantage over other ground forces.

“You’d have much better intelligence,” said the NATO official. “[Air Ground Surveillance] gives you a moving window. You can see day and night, in all weather, and therefore your security will be improved by it. And your ability to launch operations — successful operations — would be increased.”


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