Archive for category Afghanistan

Watchkeeper Update

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.



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Is Iranian cloning the real reason for Watchkeeper drone delays?

The Watchkeeper drone programme will soon be three years late. Watchkeeper was originally intended to provide surveillance services for UK troops in Afghanistan and advanced ‘ISTAR’ for UK forces into the future. But despite Watchkeeper being based on a highly successful lethal Israeli drone (Hermes 450), Watchkeeper has apparently failed to produce any useful services after many years of development.

The only reason provided for the delays seems somewhat implausible. The UK Military Aviation Authority is conducting certification trials for civilian airspace, and failure to meet standards has been cited as the reason for Watchkeeper delays. But Watchkeeper is based on a Israeli prototype that works all too well in the field, and most of the projected role for Watchkeeper is in remote areas, like Afghanistan. While it may very well be difficult to certify Watchkeeper to fly in civilian airspace, this would be a very small part of Watchkeeper’s role.

So is there another reason for Watchkeeper delays?

In 2011 Iran apparently captured several American and Israeli drones which had penetrated Iranian airspace on covert missions. This demonstrated how the control mechanisms of these drones may been compromised, sharply curtailing the value of these drones for certain purposes. Is it possible that the failure to introduce Watchkeeper on schedule is a result of the need for the control mechanisms on the drone to be reengineered to be secure from takeover or tampering?

To me this seems more plausible than claims relating to civilian air certification.

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Australians complain about their training on drones

An article in the Ottawa Citizen, repeating information from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, showed that some members of the  Australian military are highly critical of the training received on Heron drones, rented through Macdonald Dettwiler, a Canadian company.

Australian Wing Commander Jonathan McMullan complained about ‘low experience civilians’ training highly experienced pilots.

The article did not make explicityly clear who provided the trainers. Macdonald Dettwiler, a Canadian company, provided the Heron drones to the Canadian and Australian military for use in Afghanistan, as an agent for Israeli Aerospace Industries, the manufacturer.

This article states that Macdonald Dettwiler Associates has a training contract with the Australian military, so perhaps we can guess that it is MDA that the Australian officer is complaining about.

The current contract between MDA and the Australian military to provide drones and training appears to end in December 2012. Three Heron drones rented from MDA had flown a total of 4600 flight hours by May, 2011. This extensive. A June 8, 2012 article from ABC online provides a wealth of details about Australia’s use of drones.

While Israel is not directly involved in the Afghanistan occupation, Israeli arms companies have provided weapons and trainers, including a range of drones to a variety of countries.


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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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Watchkeeper drone still on list of overdue defence projects

The Guardian reports that Watchkeeper drone programme delays now total 12 months. This is presumably despite contract relaxations designed to let the contractor ‘catch up’.

The drones, built by U-TacS, a consortium of Elbit Systems of Israel and Thales of France were intended to be supplied to UK forces in Afghanistan months ago, but there hasn’t been any public evidence that they have been introduced. Watchkeeper is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone.

There was considerable criticism of the decision to build Watchkeeper, when other drones were available ‘off the shelf’. But proponents claimed that the Watchkeeper programme would help spark a domestic drone industry.

There is little evidence of this happening, and competing drone factories are popping up around the world.

I don’t believe that the Ministry of Defence has provided an indication where the 54 drones will be deployed, aside from the few needed for Afghanistan. But given the propensity of drones to crash, perhaps many will just be kept in reserve.

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Watchkeeper drone delayed again

Aviation Week is reporting that the Watchkeeper drones programme is delayed again.

Inititally expected to be in operation in June, 2010, Watchkeeper has been delayed and was under review by the government watchdog monitoring poor performance on contracts. But the government was able to help the contractors catch up by jettisoning or delaying one of the operational requirements for the drone.

In January 2012, however, there is still no sign of Watchkeeper being deployed. Aviation Week did not indicate why the programme was delayed, but attributed the news of the delay to an unnamed Ministry of Defense spokesman.

Watchkeeper was due in Afghanistan to replace drones leased from an Israeli company.

Watchkeeper has been criticised for being vastly overpriced. The billion pound price tag also supported an Israeli arms company, Elbit Systems, well known for providing services to the occupation forces in Palestine.

Watchkeeper was produced by a coventure between Elbit of Israel, and Thales of France.

Watchkeeper flying near Parc Aberporth, Wales

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Drones Are Unreliable

The loss of a super secret US spy drone recently in Iran has drawn attention to the unreliability of drones. The Drones Crash Database has catalogued a large number of known drone crashes, and there must have been many more crashes and ‘loss of control events’ which are unreported in conflict zones like Afghanistan.

Anna Mulrine, of the Christian Science Monitor, reported recently in Alaska, on the problem of unreliable drones.

One of the problems of drones is the long and complicated communication networks needed to control drones remotely, and their vulnerability to failure and disruption. Another problem is the two second delay that occurs in electronic signals from drone operators in the US to drone being used in Central Asia or the Middle East, and back again. (Much like the scene in a digital camera that changes after the shutter is pressed but before the picture is taken a drone operator is always two seconds behind what is happening where the drone is).

Blogger Jeffery Carr, has reported on studies by the US government that detail the reliability of drones. Drones are particularly vulnerable to disruption in satellite communications, and may be vulnerable to cyber attacks, which is the technique that Iran claims to have used to capture the American MQ-170 drone earlier this month.

David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen, re-reporting information published in the Christian Science Monitor describes an Iranian scientist who claims that Iran reprogrammes GPS coordinate and jams satellite communications to trick American drones into landing.

Interestingly, there have been no new drone strikes in Pakistan in the past month, though this is likely due more to the fallout of from the disintegrating relations with Pakistan than concerns over drones being captured.

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