The new UK Watchkeeper drone may be dramatically overbought.
Hundreds of millions of pounds may have been wasted buying unneeded drones.
Watchkeeper is a MALE drone, (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance). Many have been used in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but they may provide restricted value because their surveillance results can’t be immediately translated to meet needs on the ground.
More useful are the newer rotary winged drones that have short range, but which can provide quick local reconnaisance for troops on the ground. Also very useful to the military are the armed ‘Reaper’ drones used by the US and UK to assassinate people in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
UK authorities have variously suggested that Watchkeeper will or won’t be armed. But with Reaper armed drones available very cheaply, it seems unlikely that the UK would arm their MALE Watchkeeper drones.
In Afghanistan, the UK has been renting Israeli drones. In 2010 it rented an unstated number of Hermes 450 drones (the base model for Watchkeeper) for £70 million. Previously it had had two systems of Hermes, purchased from the Israeli manufacturer, Elbit Systems. It isn’t clear how many Hermes 450’s or similar MALE drones are being used by the UK at any one time. A Flight Global article on the subject shows six Hermes on an airfield, but it isn’t clear if these are the rented Hermes 450’s.
UK forces often boast about the number of flight hours flown by their surveillance drones, amounting to thousands of flight hours and vast amounts of information.
So, in the war theatre most active currently the UK needs only a few MALE drones, no more than half a dozen, and probably many fewer in use at any time. Yet it has ordered 54 drones, at a per unit cost almost three times higher than the more flexible Predator/Reaper drones. There appears to have been no rationale published publicly that suggests why the UK needs 54 of these high cost drones.
As well, it must be said that several countries, including allies Canada and Australia, who were leasing drones, will return them to the vendor at the end of the lease period. It isn’t clear why they will do this, but what is clear is that the latest MALE drones can be leased on short notice from their vendors, complete with crews, and so there is no need to maintain a large inventory of MALE drones. Certainly Canada will have saved a great deal by not having its own domestic drone construction programme.
The major justification for the Watchkeeper Programme at the time it was initiated was to give the UK a domestic drone production capability. Yet the some of the most crucial drone technology appears to be licensed from Elbit Systems, one of the co-contractors of the Watchkeeper Programme, and will likely remain the intellectual property of that company.
Finally, the drones industry is moving forward extremely quickly. As the ‘battlefield’ changes in response to this new technology and other changing circumstances, drone technology becomes obsolete very quickly. It would appear that the unarmed MALE drone will not be as valuable as previously thought, and it is very possible that the UK has bought large fleet of very expensive toys, not as effective expected, and rapidly becoming obsolete.
Lewis Page, writing in the Register, has been writing on this subject for several years, and provides a less speculative analysis than this is.
One thing is likely, with Elbit Systems becoming Israel’s premier drone manufacturing company, British taxpayers will have helped to fund the research and development of the next wave of Israeli drones.