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The U.S. Navy base in Sigonella will house NATO’s future air surveillance command and control system, which could boost the U.S. military presence on the Sicilian island by 800 troops, officials said.

The Air Ground Surveillance system, which has stirred up controversy among Italian politicians, is slated to be operational by 2012. It will consist of a fleet of eight U.S.-manufactured Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles and the accompanying assets to operate it, said Robert Pszczel, a NATO headquarters spokesman.

Sigonella has about 3,500 military, civilians and dependents.

NATO’s participating 26 nations collectively agreed to house the AGS at Sigonella. Originally, it was planned to be a combination of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, but now will consist of only a fleet of the unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, Pszczel said.

The addition of the AGS to the Naval Air Station Sigonella base will boost the number of military members and families, and means "the realization of new infrastructure and housing, and therefore breathing a fresh breath for the economy," Italian Minster of Defense Ignazio La Russa said on the ministry’s Web site.

The NATO surveillance project comes with a roughly 1 billion to 1.5 billion-euro price tag — with the Italian government responsible for footing 150 million euros of it, La Russa said.

The potential for violations of average citizens’ privacy, coupled with the expanding U.S. military footprint, drew the ire of a vocal opponent.

"It is dangerous and wrong to install at Sigonella one of the world’s most powerful air interception systems," Giusto Catania, a member of the European Parliament for North-West, and member of Italy’s Communist Refoundation Party, said in a statement. The system "will serve to spy aerially in all of the Mediterranean and countries of the Middle East. … Aircraft will survey electromagnetic waves, to include telephonic ones," Catania stated.

La Russa confirmed that though the AGS system will have the capability to capture telephone conversations, but said the technology is to be used solely for military intelligence purposes.

Sigonella strategically is positioned for the mission, La Russa said, and "will become more so the nerve center of security" for intelligence forces. "This not only will boost Italy’s role in NATO, but on a social level will create jobs with the increased military presence," he said.


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