From Popular Mechanics: Can a single unmanned aerial vehicle save the NATO alliance? Last week, German military brass and Northrop Grumman officials unveiled the EuroHawk, a UAV that performs long-endurance signal intelligence missions at more than 50,000 feet. (EuroHawk is an adapted Global Hawk, which the U.S. Air Force flies and plans to use to replace the U2 manned spy plane.) There were 300 guests and a lot of fanfare at Edwards Air Force Base during the event—especially considering the sale was for a single aircraft. If all goes well, Germany might buy four more EuroHawks in 2011. Why are hopes so high for the limited purchase of this aircraft? The reasons strike at the heart of some pressing defense issues facing Europe, NATO and the United States.

EuroHawk is a symbol that Europe is finally equipping its military with modern equipment, which might help bridge a chasm within NATO. European countries watched as the United States poured money into a host of new systems for use in Afghanistan and Iraq. These included new sensors, intelligence-gathering equipment and devices used by ground troops and commanders that could get real-time video imagery on demand. UAVs were, and remain, at the heart of the effort. At the same time, European defense spending languished, and the subsequent technology gulf between NATO allies is making it difficult for them to work together—especially during a challenging fight such as NATO faces in Afghanistan, where information is more critical than bullets. “The lack of a European platform means NATO relies on the United States for its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” says Guy Ben-Ari, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a crucial capability for battle-space management.”

For a sense of how far behind the Germans are lagging, take a look at what the EuroHawk is replacing: the Breguet Atlantic, a 12-person airplane that was built in 1972. (photo: Popular Mechanics)