It appears that the UK Watchkeeper drone might not be British at all. Questions arise whether French and Israeli arms companies will be the primary beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse.
The drone paid for by British taxpayers seem to be in the process of being flogged around the world by Thales, the French arms company that has been improving the drone beyond the Israeli Hermes 450 prototype on which it is based.
In 2013 the French government offered to test Watchkeeper, and apparently it has made flights in France, at a French air base. Thales is also said to be trying to sell Watchkeeper to Qatar, the desert oil dictatorship.
The UK already sells crowd control ammunition to the Qatari dynasty, so presumably there wouldn’t be serious reservations about selling them surveillance drones as well. Whether Thales plans to sell the wholly certified version of Watchkeeper to the Qataris isn’t certain. If Thales is successful in demonstrating that Watchkeeper doesn’t crash too often or interfere with civilian aircraft, it may get civil airspace certification. That would enable it to sell Watchkeeper for surveillance of urban populations in a range of countries experiencing insurgency or protests. I am unaware of a publicly available document that delimits the rights of Thales to sell the taxpayer funded drone technology abroad.
However it was recently reported in ihs.com that Thales has up to half a dozen potential customers for Watchkeeper. The article didn’t name these, but one could speculate that a range of vulnerable ME dictatorships may be included, even the Canadian government which is no doubt keen to monitor anti-pipeline activists.
Some questions: Does Thales get all the profits from taxpayer funded defence research?
Is the UK government prepared to expand its role in providing arms and technology for population surveillance and control?
Does the Thales/Elbit Systems partnership, allow the Israeli company access to new technology developed at British taxpayer expense?