On March 20, 2012 Peter Luff UK, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, in reply to a question from Ian Lucas, MP, reported to parliament that:
“Watchkeeper will be the first unmanned air system to secure all the necessary airworthiness certification to fly in both a civil and a military environment and this process is taking longer than anticipated. Work continues and, until this is complete, it would be speculative to provide a forecast as to when Watchkeeper will achieve release to service or its in-service date.” Hansard
This appears to mean that the much delayed Watchkeeper system will be delayed again, seriously damaging the credibility of co-contractors Thales of France and Elbit Systems of Israel.
In fact, an article in Flight Global appears to suggest that Watchkeeper might not be available in 2012.
Craig Hoyle, writing in Flight Global, lamented that a technology deemed of critical value in the Afghanistan mission is now being delayed in order to make Watchkeeper fit for civilian airspace. He might better have asked, if the Watchkeeper drone wasn’t needed in Afghanistan, why it was purchased at all.
Last year the Watchkeeper was first put on and then taken off the ‘Projects of Concern’ list, when certain elements were dropped in order to speed the process. Despite this the project has failed to meet expected delivery times.
The Watchkeeper project was announced in 2005 with optimistic statements about the contribution that Watchmaker would make. But the program has been criticised as expensive and unneeded. The project was a significant contributor to the Israel economy at a time that the UK was claiming to not to have large economic relations with the apartheid state.
In related news, residents of Northern Ireland have been complaining about loud noises in the sky keeping them awake. Speculation in the Londonderry Sentinel suggests that the noise might be from Watchkeeper drones being tested at night.
If, in fact, the loud noises are from a Watchkeeper drone, it does not bode well for the plan to deploy the drone in domestic airspace.
If Watchkeeper is deployed to Afghanistan prior to the withdrawal of UK forces from that country it will replace drones currently rented from Elbit Systems of Israel. Nominally a ‘surveillance’ drone at the moment, Watchkeeper could be armed. And of course any drone carrying a laser designator can be used to attack targets when accompanied by an aircraft capable of carrying missiles.
Drones War UK has published a list of UK drone strikes in Afghanistan, which appear to have been carried out by US made Reaper drones in the British fleet. While there are widespread reports of civilian casualties and ‘targeted assassinations’ from US drone strikes, the details of UK drone strikes are less known. The UK MOD has admitted to killing four civilians in a drone strike in March, 2011.