Is new French government ‘last hope’ or ‘end of the road’ for Watchkeeper drone programme?

The UK’s Watchkeeper drone programme was sold to the public as a way for the UK to build a UK drone export industry. But while the domestic Watchkeeper programme developed slowly, the drones industry moved forward and no market for Watchkeeper appears to have emerged. Long overdue from the original date of introduction, Watchkeeper delays have been blamed on the need to make Watchkeeper meet criteria for use in civilian airspace. The original goal of having Watchkeeper contribute to the ongoing NATO occupation of Afghanistan will apparently not be met.

The Watchkeeper programme was a joint venture of the Israeli company Elbit Systems, and French arms company Thales. Watchkeeper was based on the Elbit drone, Hermes 450. Elbit has continued to sell Hermes 450’s, and has also been developing joint ventures to produce similar drones in other countries.

Earlier this year the outgoing French government gave the go ahead for BAE and France’s Dassault to produce a French drone.  Thales responded by inviting the French government to consider the Watchkeeper drone.

Frances EADS has been developing another medium altitude, long endurance drone, the Talarion. But when the Sarkozy government favoured the BAE Dassault venture, EADS put the Talarion on the back burner.

May 30 the incoming French defence minister Jean-Yvres Le Drian seemed set to scuttle the BAE Dassault project, claiming to ‘want to start afresh’.  A Reuters article claimed that Francois Hollande wanted to ‘reduce the influence of some groups on the defence sector’.

It seems unlikely that the new French government will abandon the plan to acquire a new medium altitude, long endurance drone. The question is which drone programme will the French ultimately choose. Will it be the BAE Dassault programme, the EADS Talarion, or the Israeli/French/Anglo Watchkeeper?

Will the new socialist French government support a project that will materially support the Israeli arms industry? Will it make a rational decision based on its military needs, or will it be subject to the intense lobbying that is rife in the industry?

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