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Is Thales Scrambling to Save Watchkeeper Programme’s Future?

After the recent Anglo French summit on 16 February, 2012, the possibility of the UK selling France the Watchkeeper drone system seemed dimmed, although the French agreed to evaluate the programme with regard to its own needs over the next couple of years.

Watchkeeper drone: France confirms its interest for the Watchkeeper system recognising the opportunities this would create for cooperation on technical, support, operational and development of doctrine and concepts.  An evaluation of the system by France will begin in 2012, in the framework of its national procurement process, and conclude in 2013. (Source)

While the French expressed an ‘interest’ in the Watchkeeper, it was certainly far less than any proponent would want to take to the bank.

Thales, the giant French arms company which produces Watchkeeper in partnership with Elbit Systems of Israel, immediately issued a statement claiming that the Watchkeeper was to become the ‘pillar of Anglo-French cooperation‘. Whereas a more skeptical observer might have seen the minimal reference to Watchkeeper in the summit communique as a brushoff.

The Watchkeeper drone has been expensive and much delayed, leading the programme to receive the attention of the National Audit Office.  The UK MOD has had to rely on rented Hermes 450 drones to accomplish their surveillance roles in Afghanistan during a period when they had planned to use Watchkeeper.

In February, 2012 Thales claimed that operational trials of Watchkeeper were to begin shortly at Parc Aberporth, the drones test site in Wales. Thales also claimed that some Watchkeeper related equipment had already be delivered to Afghanistan. Yet it remains that the programme is seriously delayed and getting later by the day.

It must weigh heavily on Thales that France’s Socialist-controlled Senate as recently as November, 2012 called for France to buy the American made Reaper drone over the Israeli made Heron. The Socialists also wanted less money spent on drones and an emphasis on French and European companies.

Should the Socialist Party win the upcoming French elections as expected, Watchkeeper might very well drop off the French shopping list.

Thales’ publicity can be interpreted as an attempt to keep the Watchkeeper programme alive in the face of diminishing enthusiasm. While Thales has bragged about the ‘considerable pedigree‘ of the Watchkeeper drone, which is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450, it doesn’t mention that the Hermes 450 is widely believed to have been involved in the attack on Gaza by Israeli forces in 2009, in which hundreds of women and children died. Also, an earlier attack on Lebanon. A less appealing aspect of its pedigree.


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More on the Watchkeeper drone

Chris Pocock has written article in AIN Online that introduces new information about the Watchkeeper drone programme into the public record. The Watchkeeper drone programmes is a joint venture of Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, and the French arms company Thales to provide the UK with 54 MALE (medium altitude long endurance) drones.

The new British drone is months overdue and the programme has been criticised by the UK government’s National Audit Office.

According to Pocock, a senior engineer formerly from the Watchkeeper team claimed that Thales seemed unable to get needed information from Elbit Systems to enable air worthiness certification. Apparently numerous other difficulties have plagued Watchkeeper, including problems with the system of automated takeoff and landing. There were questions about the evidence of safety and air worthiness. (Certainly there is widespread concern elsewhere about the safety of drones and their propensity to crash).

Generally the delays seem to stem from the UK’s desire to have a drone with all the ‘bells and whistles’ that the suppliers were able to provide, and (according to the suppliers) the request to have additional capabilities beyond what was originally contracted.

I found Pocock’s article to be useful in rounding out current knowledge of this programme.

The Watchkeeper programme has generated relatively little analysis and, given the cost of the programme and the ethical issues involved, it needs more attention.

Having missed several deadlines, the significant players in the Watchkeeper programme do not appear to be any longer predicting when the new drone will finally be introduced. To do so would only emphasis that the drone which was supposed to be used in Afghanistan may not be available until that ‘mission’ is over.

Doubtlessly when Watchkeeper is finally rolled out it will be termed an ‘unarmed drone’ for surveillance purposes only. But with a sophisticated laser designator, the drone will be used in an attack capacity to mark targets for other weapons. The difference between an ‘armed drone’ and one with only the ability to designate targets, is a small one indeed.



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How the Watchkeeper Drone Project Caught Up

The MOD Major Projects Report 2011 of the National Audit Office brought a couple of new details of the Watchkeeper project into the public record.

Watchkeeper is a £1 billion project to produce a new MALE (medium altitude long endurance) surveillance drone for the UK MOD. It is built by UTacS a joint venture of a French company Thales,  and an Israeli company Elbit Systems, based on Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone.

Watchkeeper has been considerably delayed due to difficulty resolving software issues. The MOD raised its concern several times about the progress of the project with the prime contractor Thales. As the project continued to suffer unresolved software problems, extra testing and training were conducted in Israel.

However, the challenging development programme was by now also experiencing severe technical integration issues in the following areas: most critically completion of the Client-Server software (the core software providing all mission functionality) Development and Integration, Automatic Take Off & Landing System and the De-icing System. Thales declared that it was unable to meet the main equipment delivery Anchor Milestone of June 2010 (50% date), and forecast a revised delivery schedule reflected in the current delivery dates. The MOD Project Team has since continued working closely with Thales (UK) to understand the causes of the problems and implement an agreed revised schedule and project plan. Contract negotiations to account for the technical issues and optimise delivery of the system for deployment to Afghanistan have now concluded; MOD has reached a settlement to remedy the situation and mitigate risk to operations at no further cost. An Information Note informed the Investment Approvals Board of the situation in October 2010. A Review Note was subsequently submitted to the Investment Approvals Board in March 2011 to endorse the accepted position and to approve the revised project schedule, which “reset” the In-Service Date. (quoted from the Major Projects Review).

The Major Projects Review notes that Watchkeeper was brought back on schedule when the MOD agreed to drop or delay certain requirements for features not required in the upcoming Afghanistan deployment.

“to reduce risk to operational deployment and ensure the revised programme timescales were maintained, some of the more complex software functionality unessential for initial operational deployment has also been deferred and is planned to be delivered in the next formal software release in 2012 at no additional cost to MOD.”

In other words, the coventure appears to have failed to bring the project to fruition on time, but was saved the embarrassment of failure by a favour of the MOD which allowed them to delay portions of the project. Ironically the Major Projects Review notes that the late capability will be delivered ‘at no extra cost to MOD’ ignoring the possibility that the contractor might have been expected to pay a penalty for late delivery of the required capability. Without knowing the details of the contract it isn’t possible to know whether the financial responsibility for delays would normally have been born by the contractor or the MOD.

The Major Projects Review document also pointed out that Watchkeeper is integrated with the ‘Bowman’ communications system of MOD.  Bowman is the system that integrates all of the various communications in the combat theatre. This slide presentation illustrates how Watchkeeper is integrated with Bowman and other communication systems. The prime contractor for the Bowman system in the UK is General Dynamics, of Hastings, East Sussex and other locations. It isn’t clear what role General Dynamics has with Bowman integration of Watchkeeper. Referring back to slide 7 of the presentation, it appears that Bowman is not directly integrated with the drone itself, so General Dynamics may not be involved directly in the Watchkeeper project.

(General Dynamics was on a losing bid for the original Watchkeeper contract).

The vehicles that transport Watchkeeper will, however, be equipped with General Dynamics-supplied Bowman ‘digital communications systems’, according to Army

What the Army Technology article also draws attention to is that the carrying vehicles for Watchkeeper are apparently supplied by a different contractor under a separate programme, which means that the cost of the carrying vehicles should be added to the  cost of the Watchkeeper drones.


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Watchkeeper a Colossal Waste?

Watchkeeper, one of the UK’s marquee arms projects, has consumed about £1 billion but is delayed and may never be as useful as projected.

Lewis Page, writing in the Register, notes that the project is now nine months later than called for in the contract.

Page reports on National Audit Office reports that “the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle has the most lines of development assessed as ‘At risk’ (six, with only Doctrine and Organisation assessed as ‘To be met’)”.

These drones are extremely expensive, costing as much as £16 million for 54 of them. (It isn’t clear what the marginal cost might be, in an expanded production run).

Drones similar to the US Predator, arguably superior to the Israeli MALE prototype, and capable of being armed, are available for a fraction of the cost of Watchkeeper, (US$7.5 million versus US$27 million)  and can be produced as part of the US production run.

The original purpose of the project was to give the UK a domestic drone capability (though the UK already has a domestic capability in the many drone options produced by BAE systems). Like many decisions made by UK MOD, the logic behind the decision isn’t obvious, and the events leading up to decisions are shrouded in military and political secrecy.

But there is little evidence that the Watchkeeper has given the UK any new capability. Engines are still produced by an Israeli-owned UK company just as they were before the Watchkeeper project. (Engines from the same Israeli owned UK company have been used in Israeli drones). Advanced optical and communications systems are still provided by the Israeli parent company of the Watchkeeper consortium. What ARE produced by UK companies are primarily the lower tech systems. There isn’t much evidence that there has been any significiant technology transfer from Israel to the UK. On the other hand, the Israeli arms industry has been further integrated into the UK and NATO defence infrastructure, and provided with the tools to be integrally involved into the key elements of NATO defence. This has been a major coup for the Israel arms industry, without a corresponding advantage for the UK or NATO.

Advances in drones technology are coming so fast it isn’t clear whether Watchkeeper will be useful after it is introduced. The Watchkeeper project doesn’t seem to be providing any significant leading edge drone technology for the UK, rather that technology remains the intellectual property of the Israeli and French partners in the project.

Lewis Page notes that the Artillery Corp has little interest in Watchkeeper, mostly because of internal issues.

It can be added that countries like Canada and Australia have dropped their leases of MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) drones from an Israeli company, and Canada does not appear to be pursuing a domestic MALE drone programme that was announced with fanfare a few years ago and has disappeared into the information black hole that is the Stephen Harper government.

It may be that military units are finding more useful the new wave of very small surveillance drones being introduced that cost a fraction of the cost of the larger drones. In the blog DroneWarsUK it is pointed out that the UK military will be ordering rotary winged ‘nano drones’ which have a range of a kilometre or so.  For battlefield surveillance, the cost and flexibility of these nano drones may far outweigh the advantages of large fixed wing drones that require two specialised crews, one to launch and one to monitor.

One of the earliest justifications for Watchkeeper was that there would be sales abroad for MALE drones produced in Britain. But the international market for MALE drones is dominated by Israeli companies operating in Israel, who create drone production joint ventures anywhere at the drop of a hat (Brazil, Russia, etc). There isn’t any indication that Watchkeeper has created any new comparative advantage for the UK which would allow the UK to make drone sales abroad from the Watchkeeper programme. The only like market is France, which may want to throw some business toward its own arms company Thales, which owns half of Watchkeeper.

All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that Watchkeeper project is a wasteful boondoggle. The people responsible for the programme should be required to defend this project, which has gone ahead with little public scrutiny, from both the point of view of whether the project is value for money, and regarding the ethics of providing a significant cash injection into the Israeli arm industry at a time when Israel is maintaining a repressive and illegal occupation of Palestine.

Some questions that should be asked:

What exactly is the UK going to do with 54 MALE drones, when each has a large demand for ground flight crews, and the entire UK Afghanistan project gets by with a fraction of that? For example, it appears that five drones are able to provide 80% of the UK surveillance requirements in Afghanistan. (Source)

Was there ever a realistic likelihood of the Watchkeeper would ever spawn a domestic drones manufacturing capability?

Could the UK rent MALE drones as required for a fraction of the cost (as did Canada, Australia, and a number of other NATO countries) ?

Could the UK have bought MALE drones (off the shelf), capable of being armed, at a fraction of the cost?

Was the whole project simply a backdoor way to subsidise Israel?

What is the long term implication of having Israel deeply integrated into UK and NATO military structures?

How much as this purchase contributed indirectly to the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel?

Are drones primarily a fad?

Is there really a realistic market for MALE drones which still cannot be used safely or legally in most civilian airspace?

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No surprise: Drones don’t work for border security

The American Department for Homeland Security has been using Predator B drones to patrol its frontiers with Mexico and Canada. However its Office for Inspector General has done an audit that showed that it does not achieve intended results and that it dramatically underestimates the cost of the operation (by as much as 5X). While program proponents claimed the hourly cost of the programme was $2,468,the auditors found the real cost is $12,255 when all relevant costs are included.

The audit found that the drones did not help catch illegal border crossers (being involved in only 2% of captures) and operators flew only 20% of the intended sorties, mostly because of weather.  Federal Times reported that the Office for the Inspector General had recommended not approving an addition $443 million for more drones to expand the programme.

American Homeland Security has also been operating a limited drone patrol programme along the Canadian border, with little effect. Lothar Eckardt, Executive Director of national air security operations, defended the programme, essentially saying that having drones patrolling areas where there was no illegal activity freed up resources where there was a greater problem.

It isn’t clear whether Homeland Security has the same problem with retaining drone operators as the military does. Drone operation is increasingly viewed as a dead-end job. If the programme is ineffective on the busy Mexican-American frontier, the drone patrols along the Canadian border must be particularly purposeless.

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