In what appears to be a major subsidy to Britain’s biggest arms company, the UK Ministry of Defence has given BAE Systems £40 million ‘to ensure the UK retains a leading edge in the next generation of combat air systems.’
By that, it appears that the MOD means ‘drones’.
In a blizzard of bafflegab and meaningless remarks the Minister for Defence Equipment Support and Technology, Peter Luff, and several industry figures failed to illluminate exactly what the money would be used for, (although it certainly wouldn’t be used for schools or deficit reduction).
The UK drones strategy appears to be floundering. The British drones industry hasn’t produced commercial success in the face of Israeli and American competition, and now a range of drones are being manufactured in many places around the world. Apparently BAE now needs the public to pay for its research programmes in order to be persuaded to continue to research and develop drones.
The much vaunted Watchkeeper programme, rolled out a millenium ago (it seems) was touted as the means to kick start Britain into a leading role in the drones industry. Instead, £1 billion was spent on 54 drones based on an earlier Israeli drone, the Hermes 450.
Although MOD claims that the Watchkeeper is a much updated version of the Hermes 450, it remains to be seen whether the improvement is worth the premium. Certain elements of the Watchkeeper programme had to be postponed recently in order to bring that programme back into schedule.
In the mean time Elbit Systems, the owner of the Hermes 450 technology, has been setting up joint ventures around the world to produce drones, which undercuts the market for any possible Watchkeeper drone export from Britain.
The first units of the Watchkeeper drone are due to be deployed in Afghanistan in the first months of 2012, only a short time before UK troops are supposed to be withdrawn.
With 54 Watchkeeper drones, the UK will have one of the world’s larger MALE drones fleets, but without presently any new war theatres to deploy them in. Within a few months most of the 54 drones will be on standby, quietly depreciating.
Some other NATO countries, like Canada and Australia, leased MALE drones for their troops in Afghanistan and returned them when they were no longer needed.