Chris Pocock has written article in AIN Online that introduces new information about the Watchkeeper drone programme into the public record. The Watchkeeper drone programmes is a joint venture of Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, and the French arms company Thales to provide the UK with 54 MALE (medium altitude long endurance) drones.
The new British drone is months overdue and the programme has been criticised by the UK government’s National Audit Office.
According to Pocock, a senior engineer formerly from the Watchkeeper team claimed that Thales seemed unable to get needed information from Elbit Systems to enable air worthiness certification. Apparently numerous other difficulties have plagued Watchkeeper, including problems with the system of automated takeoff and landing. There were questions about the evidence of safety and air worthiness. (Certainly there is widespread concern elsewhere about the safety of drones and their propensity to crash).
Generally the delays seem to stem from the UK’s desire to have a drone with all the ‘bells and whistles’ that the suppliers were able to provide, and (according to the suppliers) the request to have additional capabilities beyond what was originally contracted.
I found Pocock’s article to be useful in rounding out current knowledge of this programme.
The Watchkeeper programme has generated relatively little analysis and, given the cost of the programme and the ethical issues involved, it needs more attention.
Having missed several deadlines, the significant players in the Watchkeeper programme do not appear to be any longer predicting when the new drone will finally be introduced. To do so would only emphasis that the drone which was supposed to be used in Afghanistan may not be available until that ‘mission’ is over.
Doubtlessly when Watchkeeper is finally rolled out it will be termed an ‘unarmed drone’ for surveillance purposes only. But with a sophisticated laser designator, the drone will be used in an attack capacity to mark targets for other weapons. The difference between an ‘armed drone’ and one with only the ability to designate targets, is a small one indeed.