Is Watchkeeper really to become a ‘key pillar’ of Anglo French defence?

On Friday, 17 February, 2012 the UK and France governments announced an agreement to work more closely on developing military drones.

The two agreed to have a ‘strategic partnership’ to build a new ‘unmanned combat air vehicle’ (UCAV-yet another euphemism for drone), part of a ‘shared sovereign capability’. The reconaissance and attack drone project would be led by the French arms company Dassault, and the British arms company BAE Systems. Channel 4 reported estimates that the creation of a new drone might cost as much as £45 billion.

France also announced that it would evaluate the British Watchkeeper drone over 2012 and 2013. (Watchkeeper is joint project of Thales of France and Elbit Systems of Israel, and is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone).

Thales immediately announced that Watchkeeper would be ‘a key pillar‘ of Anglo French defence cooperation. This seems like a considerable overstatement of the mention of Watchkeeper in the government announcement.

Watchkeeper is a joint project of Thales of France, and Elbit Systems of Israel. If Thales’ announcement is accurate, it suggests that the Israeli company has de facto become a key pillar of Anglo French defence.

The reality is probably less grandiose. Any further development of the Watchkeeper drone would have to go head to head with competition with Elbit Systems, which continues to produce similar and evolved versions of its Hermes drone. The French decision to evaluate Watchkeeper probably has more to do with tact and diplomacy than a real interest in acquiring the Elbit/Thales product, which has been beset by delays.

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