What Now for UK Watchkeeper Drone?

The Canadian military has just announced that it has disbanded its MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drone programme at the end of Canadian Forces deployment in Afghanistan.

Which brings up the issue of what UK Watchkeeper drones will be used for when the Afghan deployment ends for the UK.

With a high rate of attrition (one third of US Predator drones have crashed), and rapid obsolescence, maintaining a drone programme may not be as cheap as previously thought.

What deployments by the UK will require drones? Certainly there has been no satisfactory solution for the risk of large drones flying in civilian air space. This severely limits what can be done with a large drone and certainly one wonders what will be done with a £700,000,000 worth of drones.

There was initially a plan that the Watchkeeper programme would provide a UK drone that could be sold on to other buyers. But with the Watchkeeper based on an Israeli Hermes drone, it seems unlikely that an export programme could be developed that didn’t compete directly with the state of the art Israeli product and its aggressive Israeli manufacturers. Perhaps the best chance for a market will be with France, which is the home of Watchkeeper partner Thales.

UK arms export regulations are more stringent than the loose Israeli standards, so markets for military Watchkeepers would be limited. And what local civilian markets can be envisioned when the MALE drones cannot safely be flown in civilian airspace.

There is a much larger civilian market in large countries like Canada, Australia, Brazil, etc where the issue of remote controlled planes in civilian air space can be overcome. But what evidence is there that the Watchkeeper drone can out compete its Israeli progenitor/rivals.

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