Taxpayer Gets Poor Value from Watchkeeper Programme

The Watchkeeper Programme will cost the UK taxpayer almost £ 1 billion. £1,000,000,000. If we still had one pound notes that would be enough to circle the globe four times, laid end to end.

For that we get 54 drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, based on the Israeli Hermes 450.

The UK MOD has not provided any public justification for why it needs 54 drones, far in excess of what it uses in the most active war zone, Afghanistan.

The original justification for the costly Watchkeeper Programme was that it would give the UK a domestic drone production programme, and provide opportunities for export. But the UK proponents profoundly misunderstood the nature of the drones industry.

Drones are primarily put together from off the shelf components sold by a variety of high tech companies around the world. There appears to be no exciting new proprietary technology being developed for Watchkeeper which can be the basis for an export programme. Rather, Watchkeeper has paid for the development of new intellectual property benefitting the offshore Israeli partner in the Watchkeeper programme.

Rather than giving the UK access to a useful range of new technology from offshore, Watchkeeper has given the Israeli and French partners deep participation in UK defence infrastructure. It would appear that the only part of Watchkeeper which is unique to the UK is the software and operating systems that integrate the Watchkeeper drones with UK military systems.

It would appear that the Israeli and French partners have gained a lot more from the project than has the UK.

Drones as good as comparable to the Hermes 450/Watchkeeper are available at a fraction of the cost from other sources (eg the Predator/Reaper from US vendors).

And there appears to be very little avenue for the UK to develop exports based on the Watchkeeper Programme, unless the French government decides to throw some business towards Thales, the French partner.

The business strategy of Israeli companies which produce drones is to form joint ventures with local companies in countries wishing to acquire drone technology. Thus, these companies minimise the thorny political issue of dealing with an Israeli arms company. Since it is relatively easy to set up a drone production company, (essentially assembly plants for imported components) these national joint ventures can be established anywhere. They are being created in places as diverse as Russia, Brazil, and Azerbaijan. The valuable component of drone manufacturing is not the airframe, or even the engine, it is the optical and electronic systems, the software, and the operating protocols.

Furthermore, unless there is domestic, non military demand for MALE (medium altitude, long endurance) drones, there doesn’t appear to be any demand to sustain the manufacturing facilities which participated in the Watchkeeper Programme. There appears to have been no indication of domestic demand for this kind of drone from the Watchkeeper System. (Indeed, why would there be a comparative advantage for a British drone, when the same type of drone can be proliferated at any time to any country with modest manufacturing infrastructure). Every country can have a domestic drone programme based on an Israeli prototype, but the national drone will be little more than Israeli technology in a fibreglass body, with a catchy local name.

Therefore, the Watchkeeper would appear to be a ‘one-off’ project, a very expensive lesson, and a huge subsidy to the Israeli arms industry.

(Sommaire en français. Je m’excuse auprès de ceux qui parlent français bien.)

La programme Watchkeeper, pour la creation d’un drone anglais, est pour la plupart une dépense inutile. Le plus grand bénéficiaire est le secteur de l’aviation d’Israël. Le militaire du Royaume-Uni n’a pas besoin de cette quantité de ces drones, et l’armée a payé trop cher.


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  1. #1 by david on September 1, 2012 - 09:55

    Had this been about an ****** drone (substitute Israel for any other country) would you have even bothered writing about it?

    • #2 by wandering raven on September 1, 2012 - 13:52

      I write about Israeli drones because I campaign to stop the occupation and continued colonisation of Palestinian land outside the 1967 boundaries by Israel. Drones are a key aspect of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (don’t kid yourself, Gaza is still occupied by the Israeli army). Israeli drone sales abroad are an important source of foreign cash for the Netanyahu government, which is systematically stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank, as part of its not-so-secret campaign to annex ‘Judea’ and ‘Samaria’.

      If you are a moral person, you should take your blinders off.

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