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News this month that the French government has decided against purchasing the Watchkeeper drone came as no surprise to anyone following the development of the Watchkeeper project over the past few years.
Back in 2005 a consortium of Elbit Systems of Israel and Thales of France won the right to provide the UK with a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone with an estimated cost of about £700 million for 54 aircraft and associated ground stations. The Watchkeeper was to be based on Elbit Systems‘ ‘Hermes 450’ drone. Much was made of the potential of the project to provide jobs in Britain and for it to be sold abroad to legions of countries eager to purchase the latest drone technology. The new drone would be invaluable in the war in Afghanistan.
The project ran into problems right from the start, with delays attracting oversight attention, to the extent that some goals had to be abandoned to keep the project on track. Elbit Systems continued to sell Hermes 450’s, undercutting any market for the delayed Watchkeeper. (Watchkeeper is very similar to the Hermes 450, but is said to have enhanced ‘ISTAR’ —information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. capabilities). Meanwhile, costs of the 3-year-delayed programme rose to almost £1.2 billion.
The first Watchkeeper was finally ready to be introduced in late 2014 and a system of four aircraft were sent to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan just before the British withdrawal. The visit was probably little more than an attempt to provide Thales and Elbit with a sales opportunity, as several French military officials were invited along. After a few hours of flying, the Watchkeepers were boxed up and sent home, where reside the remainder of the 54 drones acquired from the consortium. Thales continues to market Watchkeeper as ‘combat tested’, though because its Afghanistan mission can hardly be considered to be worthwhile, Thales must be referring to the extensive use of the Hermes 450 prototype in attacking Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
As outlined in this The Bureau Investigates article, the UK MOD has had a serious problem training enough pilots to fly Watchkeeper, and more surprisingly isn’t confident flying the drone in British weather. The lightweight drone is disproportionately affected by icing conditions common in the British winter, risking crashes. So the training programme was packed up and moved to Ascension Island, in the South Pacific ocean. (Where it is also conveniently out of sight of the prying eyes of the public who might be wondering what they got for their £1,200,000,000). Despite Watchkeeper being certified to fly in crowded civilian airspace, the military cites the uncrowded airspace of Ascension Island as one of the advantages for moving the training programme there.
In France, officials were trying to decide what drone to buy for the French military, with Watchkeeper touted as an important contender, especially because of security cooperation agreements between France and the UK. Some said that Thales was more in favour with the incoming Hollande government than the chief competitors. Nevertheless in January, 2016, France rejected Watchkeeper and chose the Sagem Patroller, to be delivered in 2019. (Perhaps they looked at the performance record of Thales -10 years to modify an existing prototype-and decided no, thanks)
One of the limitations of radio-controlled Watchkeeper is that it must fly near its ground troop controllers, so is only useful where the UK has troops in combat on the ground. It can’t be used to assassinate distant targets, like ISIS fighters. For that purpose the UK uses its Reaper drones acquired from the US and controlled from Waddington air base in Lincolnshire. As suggested in this The Bureau Investigates article, Watchkeeper appears to have been designed for wars of the past, and not the wars currently being fought.
Because of the secrecy around military contracts and commercial transactions, little attention has been paid to the role of Elbit Systems as the majority owner of the Watchkeeper consortium, supplier of key parts, and integral participant of the brutal attacks on occupied Palestinians by the Netanyahu government using the Hermes 450 prototype. Lack of transparency in military procurement contracts means there is little public accountability for mistakes made and bad choices promoted.
Defense News has reported that there are two remaining contenders for providing France with ‘tactical drone systems’. One is the Anglo-Israeli ‘Watchkeeper’ drone, and the other is Sagem’s ‘Patroller’. Other arms companies have dropped out of the competition. Watchkeeper is a joint project of Elbit Systems of Israel, and Thales or France, based on the Israeli Hermes 450 and paid for by British taxpayers. A choice between the two options is expected by the end of 2015.
In 2014 French officers viewed a ‘fly-around‘ of Watchkeeper in Afghanistan, as the UK staged a demonstration of Watchkeeper in the last days of the UK deployment there. The French observers proclaimed an interest in acquiring Watchkeeper. Defense News also notes that a French artillery unit has trained on a Watchkeeper drone sent to France. It isn’t clear if this was a Thales-owned ‘demonstrator’, or one of the dozens of military Watchmakers mothballed by UK MOD.
According to Defense News the French government wants to ensure national control over the technology and imaging of the new drones. claims that the source codes operating Watchkeeper were purchased from the Israel company and rewritten, so that neither Israeli or UK companies would share control of the French system. A report in AINonline.com says that Watchkeeper offered to France has 35% French content and is not dependent on Israel for ‘support or export permission’.
Defense News also notes that a French artillery unit has trained on a Watchkeeper drone sent to France. It isn’t clear if this was a Thales-owned ‘demonstrator’, or one of the dozens of military Watchmakers mothballed by UK MOD.
Watchkeeper is touted as ‘civilian airspace compliant’, widely claimed to be a comparative advantage of Watchkeeper, which otherwise doesn’t stack up well against competitors like the General Atomics ‘Predator’ or ‘Reaper’ drones. But Defense News notes that Sagem also claims to have demonstrated European civilian airspace compliance.
Defense-aerospace.com reports that there is no budget for the drone acquisition, and that there are questions about whether this drone procurement programme would be completed, because the French military has other options like Predator drones, and smaller drones, that already do what Watchkeeper or Patroller would contribute. Considering that the UK has mothballed most of its Watchkeeper drones, there is a real possibility that budget considerations will end the French procurement process.
The cost of Watchkeeper was borne by the UK taxpayer, much of the profit was likely taken by Elbit Systems, which supplied parts and owned the intellectual property rights to Hermes 450. Blogger ‘Think Defence‘ asked the pertinent question: Given that the UK taxpayer funded Watchkeeper, if Thales sells Watchkeeper abroad, will UK MOD and the British taxpayer, get anything back? (paraphrased).
A Watchkeeper drone crashed on Salisbury Plain in Southwestern England this week. The medium altitude, long endurance drone was adapted from the Israeli Hermes 450 drone in a billion pound upgrade, largely focused on making the drone compliant with civilian air regulations.
It is the third Watchkeeper to crash.
Dozens of the drones were purchased from a French-Israeli consortium but almost all have been mothballed, and the UK MOD has recently revealed that it has only six qualified, competent pilots to fly them. (After this crash perhaps only five). None are known to have been in active military service, save a perfunctory ‘fly-around’ arranged just before UK forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The boondoggle programme hasn’t received critical examination in Parliament because both major political parties had a role in its inception.
A recent report that Watchkeeper has been armed hasn’t been confirmed by MOD.
The UK has armed its Watchkeeper drones with Hellfire missiles, according to ‘The Strategy Page’. The report has apparently not been confirmed by UK Ministry of Defence.
Watchkeeper is a medium range, long endurance drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450. The UK spent one billion pounds updating the Hermes 450 prototype, renaming it Watchkeeper, then basically mothballed the drone as it used its more effective US-purchased Predators drones to conduct campaigns of assassination in Afghanistan, Iraq and perhaps elsewhere.
Arming of Watchkeeper can be viewed as a UK MOD attempt to make the white elephant Watchkeeper look more relevant, as the MOD itself uses the more deadly Predators almost exclusively. Acting with the US, the UK has carried out countless armed sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing a large number of individuals, most of whom were likely innocent civilians.
The new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is set to rubber stamp the continuing sale of Canadian Light Armoured Vehicles to the despotic monarch of Saudi Arabia, violating Canada’s own arms export rules and straining the Prime Minister’s ‘liberal’ credibility. The outgoing Conservative government of Canada agreed in 2014 to sell an unspecified number of LAV III mini-tanks to the king of Saudi Arabia in a deal worth $15 billion over several years. They will be built by General Dynamics Canada, Land Systems Division. The deal was supported and actively promoted by the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a crown corporation, that uses government funds and credit to support external trade, including arms deals.
The deal came after extensive lobbying by the Conservative government, including (then) Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, and support from members of at least one of Canada’s right-wing military think tanks. Wikileaks published documents in June 2015 that showed how members of the Conservative cabinet lobbied the Saudi regime.
Violation of Canadian Laws
Rules for the export of arms from Canada require that the weapons will not be used against civilian populations. Saudi troops have used similar LAVs against their own citizens on many occasions, and in 2011 notoriously invaded Bahrain at the request of the Bahrain dictatorship to put down (largely Shia) democracy protesters. Given the past history of Canadian arms sales to Bahrain, it is probable that earlier Canadian LAVs were used against democracy protests. Project Ploughshares has pointed out that the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development will not even let Canadians know how the arms export permit system works, hiding behind the veil of ‘commercial confidentiality’.
The Vancouver Sun reported that the LAVs would not be for the state army of Saudi Arabia, but for the ‘SANG’ the personal army of the Saudi despot, who maintains a force four times the size of the state army. They reported
“According to reports in a variety of specialist military publications — including Jane’s — the SANG comprises Bedouin tribesmen and Wahhabi religious zealots whose prime task is to protect King Abdullah and the royal family from domestic opponents”.
The government has provided little information about the contract, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. The government has refused to say whether the LAV’s will be armed as they leave Canada. They don’t provide information about who might have been paid to broker aspects of the deal. The government refuses to say whether the Saudis have provided assurances that the mini-tanks won’t be used against their own people. It refuses to say how many LAV IIIs will be sold to the Saudis.
The Conservative government, defeated in October, regularly tried to deceive the public about the true nature of the deal. Stephen Harper, when questioned about the deal, denied that the LAV’s were arms, calling them ‘transport vehicles’, obfuscating the reality that the LAVs are armed small tanks often used in aggressive attacks on both civilian and military adversaries.
The arms sale can’t be understood without examining the convoluted strategic context of the Canadian Conservative Party. Saudi Arabia is bulwark of the conservative ‘Sunni-sphere’, and thus the main local adversary of Iran. Iranian relations with Canada have been poor, but the main driver of events has been Canada’s solid support for Israel in its relentless campaign against Iran. Any foe of Iran is a friend of Canada, in this view, and supportive of the Israeli regime. Support for the Israeli strategic plan was enough incentive for the Conservatives to allow Canada’s own rules to be violated, and to maintain a high level of secrecy.
Despite clear violations of Canada’s best interests and international human rights, Canada’s opposition parties have been tepid in their opposition to this deal. While the New Democrats spoke out against it, they were pressured by the union Unifor to protect jobs by dropping their opposition. New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair maintained his opposition to the deal but said he would not stop an ongoing commercial transaction, thereby making his opposition irrelevant. He said that under a New Democrat government there would be more ‘transparency’.
Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also against the deal while speaking in Parliament, but is expected to provide no opposition to it while in power. In the lead up to the election he minimised the LAVs as ‘jeeps’, claimed that the deal was between the Saudi and a private commercial company, dodging the involvement of the Canadian Commercial Corporation and the responsibility of the Canadian government to respect its own laws on military exports.
Decide for yourself. Are they ‘jeeps’, or ‘tanks’?
(Last link added, somewhat unfairly, after the fair comment below).
Is an American arms company trying to sell the Canadian government a drone the US military doesn’t want
Is General Atomics trying to sell a drone to Canada that the US military doesn’t want?
General Atomics says that it is hoping to sell its ‘Avenger’ drone to the Canadian military to fulfill the Arctic surveillance role that has been identified by Project JUSTAS, the inept programme of the Canadian government to acquire drones for military use. Avenger is a jet powered drone evolved from the Predator drone, and is known as the Predator ‘C’.
An article in medium.com suggests that the US government was less than satisfied with Avenger, as it didn’t significantly address the shortcomings that it had identified with the Predator ‘A’ and the Predator ‘B’ (known as ‘Reaper’). The military wanted a drone that was more prone to survival in a combat zone, weather resistant, and with good communications. The US military felt that Avenger, which is faster and can carry more, wasn’t much different than the Predator A in the qualities that mattered. Certainly a drone that was not weather resistant and didn’t have a robust communication system would not be useful in high arctic conditions where it is anticipated such a drone would be used.
General Atomics is no doubt hoping that the Canadian government will see advantages in the long range capability of the Avenger, though it isn’t clear why the Canadian government would want a drone promoted for its ‘stealth’ qualities to fly in the arctic.
The Avenger would compete with the Polar Hawk drone that Raytheon has been trying to sell to the Canadian government, that has been written about before on this blog.
Acquisition of a surveillance drone is mired in the Project JUSTAS the procurement effort of the Canadian military, so is unlikely to happen soon. Military brass shrug off the inability of the government to define its needs or fulfill its requirements, as a benefit, allowing technology to advance. Probably a good excuse because there is little evidence that an army staying out of foreign conflicts needs large surveillance drones at the present time.