Years in the making, and costing over a billion pounds, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone programme has almost dropped out of public view, on the very eve of its introduction.
Watchkeeper was a collaboration of France’s Thales, and Israel’s Elbit Systems. The prototype for Watchkeeper was Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone, used for many years in the suppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Thales became the prime contractor, from its facilities in the UK. Originally conceived as a surveillance drone for use Afghanistan, Watchkeeper took too long to produce (three years late, so far) to be very useful in Afghanistan, so the UK chose to purchase or lease alternatives from Israeli and American sources in the interim. The developing Watchkeeper has apparently been repurposed as a platform for flight and surveillance in populated areas, and Thales was required to develop systems to enable Watchkeeper to be certified to fly in civilian airspace. Thales has produced a slick video showing Watchkeeper flying over populated areas in Wales. ThinkDefence in a detailed look at Watchkeeper shows how Watchkeeper could monitor a moving target in the British countryside.
What we know from recent information in the public record:
Military Aviation Authority has approved a ‘statement of type design assurance’. (Apparently this means that Watchkeeper is nearing acceptance by the military).
Although UK involvement in Afghanistan is winding down, the UK MOD still plans to introduce Watchkeeper to Afghanistan when it is released for service.
France is still considering whether to purchase Watchkeeper, with elements of the French army pushing to purchase.
UK and French military would like to take Watchkeeper to Afghanistan to test it out in an operational situation (demonstrating that wars are often used as proving grounds for military hardware).
The UK MOD is considering arming Watchkeeper, possibly with ‘lightweight multirole missiles’. Armed with missiles and having gained civilian airspace certification it is theoretically possible that the UK could bring its assassination programme to British soil.
On 7 October Thales was given permission to fly Watchkeeper over populated areas in Britain, allowing it to be flown over its test area on the Salisbury Plain.