Watchkeeper, one of the UK’s marquee arms projects, has consumed about £1 billion but is delayed and may never be as useful as projected.
Lewis Page, writing in the Register, notes that the project is now nine months later than called for in the contract.
Page reports on National Audit Office reports that “the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle has the most lines of development assessed as ‘At risk’ (six, with only Doctrine and Organisation assessed as ‘To be met’)”.
These drones are extremely expensive, costing as much as £16 million for 54 of them. (It isn’t clear what the marginal cost might be, in an expanded production run).
Drones similar to the US Predator, arguably superior to the Israeli MALE prototype, and capable of being armed, are available for a fraction of the cost of Watchkeeper, (US$7.5 million versus US$27 million) and can be produced as part of the US production run.
The original purpose of the project was to give the UK a domestic drone capability (though the UK already has a domestic capability in the many drone options produced by BAE systems). Like many decisions made by UK MOD, the logic behind the decision isn’t obvious, and the events leading up to decisions are shrouded in military and political secrecy.
But there is little evidence that the Watchkeeper has given the UK any new capability. Engines are still produced by an Israeli-owned UK company just as they were before the Watchkeeper project. (Engines from the same Israeli owned UK company have been used in Israeli drones). Advanced optical and communications systems are still provided by the Israeli parent company of the Watchkeeper consortium. What ARE produced by UK companies are primarily the lower tech systems. There isn’t much evidence that there has been any significiant technology transfer from Israel to the UK. On the other hand, the Israeli arms industry has been further integrated into the UK and NATO defence infrastructure, and provided with the tools to be integrally involved into the key elements of NATO defence. This has been a major coup for the Israel arms industry, without a corresponding advantage for the UK or NATO.
Advances in drones technology are coming so fast it isn’t clear whether Watchkeeper will be useful after it is introduced. The Watchkeeper project doesn’t seem to be providing any significant leading edge drone technology for the UK, rather that technology remains the intellectual property of the Israeli and French partners in the project.
Lewis Page notes that the Artillery Corp has little interest in Watchkeeper, mostly because of internal issues.
It can be added that countries like Canada and Australia have dropped their leases of MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) drones from an Israeli company, and Canada does not appear to be pursuing a domestic MALE drone programme that was announced with fanfare a few years ago and has disappeared into the information black hole that is the Stephen Harper government.
It may be that military units are finding more useful the new wave of very small surveillance drones being introduced that cost a fraction of the cost of the larger drones. In the blog DroneWarsUK it is pointed out that the UK military will be ordering rotary winged ‘nano drones’ which have a range of a kilometre or so. For battlefield surveillance, the cost and flexibility of these nano drones may far outweigh the advantages of large fixed wing drones that require two specialised crews, one to launch and one to monitor.
One of the earliest justifications for Watchkeeper was that there would be sales abroad for MALE drones produced in Britain. But the international market for MALE drones is dominated by Israeli companies operating in Israel, who create drone production joint ventures anywhere at the drop of a hat (Brazil, Russia, etc). There isn’t any indication that Watchkeeper has created any new comparative advantage for the UK which would allow the UK to make drone sales abroad from the Watchkeeper programme. The only like market is France, which may want to throw some business toward its own arms company Thales, which owns half of Watchkeeper.
All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that Watchkeeper project is a wasteful boondoggle. The people responsible for the programme should be required to defend this project, which has gone ahead with little public scrutiny, from both the point of view of whether the project is value for money, and regarding the ethics of providing a significant cash injection into the Israeli arm industry at a time when Israel is maintaining a repressive and illegal occupation of Palestine.
Some questions that should be asked:
What exactly is the UK going to do with 54 MALE drones, when each has a large demand for ground flight crews, and the entire UK Afghanistan project gets by with a fraction of that? For example, it appears that five drones are able to provide 80% of the UK surveillance requirements in Afghanistan. (Source)
Was there ever a realistic likelihood of the Watchkeeper would ever spawn a domestic drones manufacturing capability?
Could the UK rent MALE drones as required for a fraction of the cost (as did Canada, Australia, and a number of other NATO countries) ?
Could the UK have bought MALE drones (off the shelf), capable of being armed, at a fraction of the cost?
Was the whole project simply a backdoor way to subsidise Israel?
What is the long term implication of having Israel deeply integrated into UK and NATO military structures?
How much as this purchase contributed indirectly to the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel?
Are drones primarily a fad?
Is there really a realistic market for MALE drones which still cannot be used safely or legally in most civilian airspace?