There is startlingly little fuss being made over the imminent introduction of the long delayed Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone expected in just a few weeks. Delayed by years, the drone has been an embarrassment to both the British military and the prime contractor Thales.
Originally touted as essential for Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan, the drone will likely never be introduced to that operational theatre, due to the delays. The army has since found that it could do just as well with armed Predator-type drones, as well as rented Israeli surveillance drones. Meanwhile, the long delays in finishing Watchkeeper have been blamed on the need for ‘civilian airspace certification’, although it hasn’t been satisfactorily explained why that is needed since UK military drones have so far operated in remote areas, where conflict with civilian air traffic is not an issue.
Perhaps the greatest reason that Watchkeeper introduction has been kept to a low profile is that the drone is primarily an Israeli creation. Watchkeeper’s earliest years coincided with the infamous Cast Lead attack on Gaza, when hundreds of Palestinians, including a very large number of women and children, were killed by Israeli forces. Drones were heavily involved in that attack, and subsequent ones.
Watchkeeper is the anglicised version of the Hermes 450 drone used throughout the Cast Lead attacks, and many times since. Its maker, Elbit Systems, brags that their drones are ‘combat tested’, and their company officials have noted that the active participation of Elbit designers in Israel’s military activities means that the Hermes 450 is constantly updated and fixed to reflect the experiences of the Israeli military (which are largely gained in attacks on Gaza and suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank).** So, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone owes a debt to Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation.
Watchkeeper’s first flights were at the Megido airfield in northern Israel. (They were originally scheduled for and airport in the occupied territories, until British officials objected to the ‘optics’ of that). There is considerable Israeli equipment and intellectual property on Watchkeeper, including the take off and landing system, the engine, and the basic design. It has never been certain what Elbit’s returns from the £1 billion contract have been, but they will have been considerable.
Britain’s embrace of the Hermes 450 model has also been good for Elbit. Britain’s rented Hermes 450’s have flown thousands of hours in Afghanistan (several have crashed). And Watchkeeper has flown countless test hour from Parc Aberporth in Wales. Those experiences have filtered back to Elbit, and no doubt been incorporated into the design of updated Hermes models, including the Hermes 900 now being sold around the world. These updated Hermes drones will eventually be used again in the suppression of the occupied Palestinians, meaning that British use of Hermes-based drones have had a direct effect on subjugated people in the Middle East.
**It’s possible that Israeli arms company employees are actually involved specifically in the deployment of Israeli drones in combat situations, although this hasn’t been confirmed directly.