After the recent Anglo French summit on 16 February, 2012, the possibility of the UK selling France the Watchkeeper drone system seemed dimmed, although the French agreed to evaluate the programme with regard to its own needs over the next couple of years.
Watchkeeper drone: France confirms its interest for the Watchkeeper system recognising the opportunities this would create for cooperation on technical, support, operational and development of doctrine and concepts. An evaluation of the system by France will begin in 2012, in the framework of its national procurement process, and conclude in 2013. (Source)
While the French expressed an ‘interest’ in the Watchkeeper, it was certainly far less than any proponent would want to take to the bank.
Thales, the giant French arms company which produces Watchkeeper in partnership with Elbit Systems of Israel, immediately issued a statement claiming that the Watchkeeper was to become the ‘pillar of Anglo-French cooperation‘. Whereas a more skeptical observer might have seen the minimal reference to Watchkeeper in the summit communique as a brushoff.
The Watchkeeper drone has been expensive and much delayed, leading the programme to receive the attention of the National Audit Office. The UK MOD has had to rely on rented Hermes 450 drones to accomplish their surveillance roles in Afghanistan during a period when they had planned to use Watchkeeper.
In February, 2012 Thales claimed that operational trials of Watchkeeper were to begin shortly at Parc Aberporth, the drones test site in Wales. Thales also claimed that some Watchkeeper related equipment had already be delivered to Afghanistan. Yet it remains that the programme is seriously delayed and getting later by the day.
It must weigh heavily on Thales that France’s Socialist-controlled Senate as recently as November, 2012 called for France to buy the American made Reaper drone over the Israeli made Heron. The Socialists also wanted less money spent on drones and an emphasis on French and European companies.
Should the Socialist Party win the upcoming French elections as expected, Watchkeeper might very well drop off the French shopping list.
Thales’ publicity can be interpreted as an attempt to keep the Watchkeeper programme alive in the face of diminishing enthusiasm. While Thales has bragged about the ‘considerable pedigree‘ of the Watchkeeper drone, which is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450, it doesn’t mention that the Hermes 450 is widely believed to have been involved in the attack on Gaza by Israeli forces in 2009, in which hundreds of women and children died. Also, an earlier attack on Lebanon. A less appealing aspect of its pedigree.