NATO receives first upgraded RQ-4D Phoenix

The first RQ-4D Phoenix high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to complete the so-called Maritime Mode software upgrade and subsequent testing with the type’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, was returned to the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force (NAGSF) at Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, Italy, on September 17.

This upgraded RQ-4D Block 40 (serial MM AV-SA-0014, callsign ‘NATO14’) touched down at Sigonella at approximately 1200hrs (local time), after completing an almost 21-hour transatlantic flight to the Italian base from Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California. The HALE UAV was the first of five to receive a technical upgrade, where it was fitted with the so-called Maritime Mode, which is designed to enhance the NAGSF’s ability to detect and track surface vessels and identify non-cooperative targets using the platform’s Maritime Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (MISAR).

The first Northrop Grumman RQ-4D Phoenix to undergo the so-called Maritime Mode upgrade is towed into the NAGSF hangar after returning to Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, Italy, on September 17, 2022.
The first Northrop Grumman RQ-4D Phoenix to undergo the so-called Maritime Mode upgrade is towed into the NAGSF hangar after returning to Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, Italy, on September 17, 2022. NAGSF/Christian Träger

Brig Gen Andrew Clark, NAGSF commander, said: “The return of this aircraft marks a major milestone for AGS and the Alliance. The upgraded sensor dramatically improves NATO’s ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability by enabling effective collection in the maritime domain.”

NATO states that this technical upgrade adds an “enhanced feature” to the Phoenix, which “offers the Alliance and all its members an increased capability to collect ISR products.” Having now returned to Sigonella, NAGSF technicians are now integrating the first upgraded RQ-4D back into the fleet’s operational schedule. NATO adds that the remaining four RQ-4Ds will soon receive the same upgrade, although this process will be carried out at Sigonella.

Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4D Phoenix is based on the firm’s off-the-shelf RQ-4B Block 40 Global Hawk, which is in operational service with the US Air Force (USAF). However, the Phoenix has been uniquely adapted to fulfil NATO-specific ISR mission requirements and will provide the Alliance with all-weather, persistent wide-area surveillance capabilities at near real-time. The NAGSF currently comprises five RQ-4Ds and approximately 375 personnel from 24 nations.

NATO revealed on February 15, 2021, that the RQ-4D had achieved initial operational capability (IOC), with the fleet operating from temporary facilities at Sigonella – the NAGSF’s main operating base. The force has conducted ISR collection flights on behalf of NATO member states since 2020.