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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Drone crash sheds light on covert Afghanistan mission

The recent crash of a top secret American RQ-170 stealth drone in Iran raises  several issues.

Last week the Iranian government claimed it had shot down an American spy drone deep within Iranian territory, using ‘electronic’ means. American military disinformation operatives stated that the drone actually came down along the Iran Afghanistan frontier, while flying missions in Afghanistan.

But a story in Atlanticwire confirms that the drone actually came down deep in Iranian territory, (140 miles from the frontier) and that the autonomously piloted aircraft likely crashed due to ‘catastrophic malfunctions’ of its control system.

The Atlantic points out that the US government has long flown drone surveillance flights over Iranian territory. (Last week this blog discussed the role of drone flight over frontiers as a destabilising factor). Flying at 50,000 feet, with stealth technology, it is believed RQ-170 is beyond Iran’s to shoot down or perhaps even detect. Stories in late 2009 noted that because the Taliban lack the technology to shoot down even conventional drones, the only reason to deploy the RQ170 in Afghanistan must be to fly them over neighbouring countries, (of which Iran would be the most obvious target-ed).

The long history of American drone flights over bases in Afghanistan supports the widespread contention that the NATO occupation of Afghanistan is as much to do with its strategic location adjacent to American arch-enemy Iran, as any other factor. Reluctance of the US to abandon the failed Afghanistan occupation has to be viewed in light of their desire to maintain a military presence on that border with Iran.

Another issue that has come up is the loss of secret technology that protects American ‘stealth’ aircraft. The stealth technology that protects the RQ-170 appears to be the same or similiar technology used in the new F-35 fighter jets that the US is building. The Iranian capture of a plane using this technology probably guarantees that US stealth secrets will be spread widely. This would severely degrade the value of the stealth version of the beleagured F-35.

The ‘catastrophic malfunction’ of the drone’s control system also gives pause. This is the most sophisticated drone in the American fleet, used in sensitive incursions in the sovereign territory of other countries. That the absolutely best technology available to the US military can fail at crucial times severely undermines the credibility of drone advocates that claim that drones can be operated safely over civilian airspace. Widespread crashes by drones fuel fears of the safety of the entire genre of unpiloted aircraft.

(late addition):

This extensive article in the New York times gives extensive analysis of the implications of the crash.

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Watchkeeper planned to be deployed in Afghanistan in December, 2011

If the claims at the recent Paris air show were to be believed, the first unit of Watchkeeper drones would have been deployed in Afghanistan in December, 2011. A recent answer by the undersecretary of state suggests that the first operational use of Watchkeeper will be in early 2012. There has been little public information about Watchkeeper released recently. If Watchkeeper is deployed successfully, watch for a series of embedded journalism stories to hype the success of the project. If the project continues to falter, expect the project to be under reported, as it has been from the beginning.

Over priced, delayed, and built from an Israeli prototype, Watchkeeper has been an embarrassment to both the Labour and Conservative governments. Now that the most recent atrocities in Gaza have faded in the public mind, the government may wish to trumpet Watchkeeper as a success story, despite its dependence on collaboration with an Israeli arms maker who provides weapons for the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

But the government will have to explain why it has paid a billion pounds for drone technology which could have been purchased elsewhere at much less.

And it will have to explain what Watchkeeper contributes to the UK effort in Afghanistan which is failing not because the UK and its allies lack technology but because they lack moral legitimacy and the ability to make any positive contribution to Afghanistan through military force.

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Pressure to Arm Watchkeeper Drones

Although the UK MOD has previously stated that it has no plans to arm the Watchkeeper MALE drones scheduled to enter service in the next few months, there is pressure from various sources to add arms to the new drone.

Certainly there is a precedent, because it is widely believed that the Israeli Hermes 450 drone, on which Watchkeeper is based, is armed with missiles and has be used to attack Palestinian positions in Gaza.

There are elements in the UK MOD which are pursuing the option of arming Watchkeeper. Major Matt Moore, an MOD official overseeing the fielding of Watchkeeper in Afghanistan has stated that MOD is considering proposals to arm Watchkeeper with a ‘low collateral damage’ missile. And certainly Thales, the co-contractor of the Watchkeeper system, has made no secret of its wish to arm the Watchkeepers with  LMM  missiles manufactured by Thales. The LMM was developed in Thales’ Belfast facility. has reported that Thales and BAE have considered arming BAE’s Fury UAVs with Thales Javelin missiles. Fury is based on the Herti drone, which has seen deployment in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, there is a programme to arm the BAE Mantis drone, according to

The UK military already has armed Predator drones which it acquired from the US and which are deployed  in Afghanistan.

No doubt Watchkeeper will be introduced without arms to reduce public scrutiny of the controversial weapon, which was late, overpriced, and widely believed to be a poor deal for Britain. At a time when drone assassinations are under increasing public scrutiny, adding weapons to a drone that was sold to the public as a surveillance tool will not be popular.

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