How the Watchkeeper Drone Project Caught Up

The MOD Major Projects Report 2011 of the National Audit Office brought a couple of new details of the Watchkeeper project into the public record.

Watchkeeper is a £1 billion project to produce a new MALE (medium altitude long endurance) surveillance drone for the UK MOD. It is built by UTacS a joint venture of a French company Thales,  and an Israeli company Elbit Systems, based on Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone.

Watchkeeper has been considerably delayed due to difficulty resolving software issues. The MOD raised its concern several times about the progress of the project with the prime contractor Thales. As the project continued to suffer unresolved software problems, extra testing and training were conducted in Israel.

However, the challenging development programme was by now also experiencing severe technical integration issues in the following areas: most critically completion of the Client-Server software (the core software providing all mission functionality) Development and Integration, Automatic Take Off & Landing System and the De-icing System. Thales declared that it was unable to meet the main equipment delivery Anchor Milestone of June 2010 (50% date), and forecast a revised delivery schedule reflected in the current delivery dates. The MOD Project Team has since continued working closely with Thales (UK) to understand the causes of the problems and implement an agreed revised schedule and project plan. Contract negotiations to account for the technical issues and optimise delivery of the system for deployment to Afghanistan have now concluded; MOD has reached a settlement to remedy the situation and mitigate risk to operations at no further cost. An Information Note informed the Investment Approvals Board of the situation in October 2010. A Review Note was subsequently submitted to the Investment Approvals Board in March 2011 to endorse the accepted position and to approve the revised project schedule, which “reset” the In-Service Date. (quoted from the Major Projects Review).

The Major Projects Review notes that Watchkeeper was brought back on schedule when the MOD agreed to drop or delay certain requirements for features not required in the upcoming Afghanistan deployment.

“to reduce risk to operational deployment and ensure the revised programme timescales were maintained, some of the more complex software functionality unessential for initial operational deployment has also been deferred and is planned to be delivered in the next formal software release in 2012 at no additional cost to MOD.”

In other words, the coventure appears to have failed to bring the project to fruition on time, but was saved the embarrassment of failure by a favour of the MOD which allowed them to delay portions of the project. Ironically the Major Projects Review notes that the late capability will be delivered ‘at no extra cost to MOD’ ignoring the possibility that the contractor might have been expected to pay a penalty for late delivery of the required capability. Without knowing the details of the contract it isn’t possible to know whether the financial responsibility for delays would normally have been born by the contractor or the MOD.

The Major Projects Review document also pointed out that Watchkeeper is integrated with the ‘Bowman’ communications system of MOD.  Bowman is the system that integrates all of the various communications in the combat theatre. This slide presentation illustrates how Watchkeeper is integrated with Bowman and other communication systems. The prime contractor for the Bowman system in the UK is General Dynamics, of Hastings, East Sussex and other locations. It isn’t clear what role General Dynamics has with Bowman integration of Watchkeeper. Referring back to slide 7 of the presentation, it appears that Bowman is not directly integrated with the drone itself, so General Dynamics may not be involved directly in the Watchkeeper project.

(General Dynamics was on a losing bid for the original Watchkeeper contract).

The vehicles that transport Watchkeeper will, however, be equipped with General Dynamics-supplied Bowman ‘digital communications systems’, according to Army Technology.com

What the Army Technology article also draws attention to is that the carrying vehicles for Watchkeeper are apparently supplied by a different contractor under a separate programme, which means that the cost of the carrying vehicles should be added to the  cost of the Watchkeeper drones.

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