Archive for category Elbit Systems
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.
Back in July, 2014, Defense News reported that the giant French arms company Thales was trying to find markets for the imaging technology carried on the Watchkeeper drone. Thales was also interested in renting out the technology with the Watchkeeper drone included.
The Watchkeeper drone is based on the Hermes 450 drone produced by Israeli arms company Elbit Systems. It is produced by a company 51% owned by Elbit and 49% by Thales. It contains several components made by the Israeli company, included engines made in an Elbit owned plant in Lichfield, UK. Elbit Systems advertises its drones as ‘conflict tested’, due to their use in successive attacks on Gaza which resulted in thousands of deaths.
The UK government spent almost £1 billion to have Hermes redesigned and 54 drones produced. The programme was severely delayed and no drones were produced until immediately before Britain withdrew its forces from Afghanistan.
Though the UK government paid the development costs of Watchkeeper, that technology would be sold or rented on by Thales as a profit making enterprise. There is no published evidence that the government would benefit from exploitation of this expenditure.
Once again, taxpayers have financed the development of an arms system that will primarily benefit shareholders in other countries. Worse, there are risks that the technology developed will find its way into the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and be used to further the Israeli colonisation project.
Thales, the giant French arms company, has started a new campaign to sell the Watchkeeper drone around the world. Watchkeeper is a medium altitude, long endurance drone, based on the Hermes 450 drone which has long been used by Israel in the suppression of Palestine. Watchkeeper uses Elbit Systems technology, and many component parts supplied by Elbit. Additional technology was developed by Thales, allowing Watchkeeper to get certification to fly in civilian airspace.
Though Thales is (presumably) still in a minority partnership on the Watchkeeper project with Elbit as majority partner (UTacS), Thales appears to be downplaying its Israeli connection in its current publicity and sales campaign. Not surprising, since at the time that Thales is flogging the Israeli French drone worldwide, Elbit Systems drones are part of the attack on Palestinans being waged by the Israeli army on Gaza.
Almost a billion pounds of British taxpayer money was spent on Watchkeeper, on a programme that was delayed by years, and never fulfilled its mandate of being available to British troops in Afghanistan. Despite taxpayer money funding development of Anglo Israeli drone, it appears that profits from new sales will accrue exclusively to Thales and Elbit Systems. It isn’t clear who will own the new technology developed for the Watchkeeper programme, whether Thales as the active contractor will own it, or whether it is available to be used in upgrading Elbit System’s other drones.
Although new frones to fill Watchkeeper orders will be manufactured in Britain, many components will likely be purchased from Israel or Elbit’s subsidiary in the UK. The partnership agreement between Elbit Systems and Thales isn’t in the public domain; presumably it allows for considerable repatriation of profits to Israel, as well as fees for the use of Elbit System’s intellectual property. Thus UK taxpayers are doubly in the position of supporting the Israeli military industrial complex at a time when Britain should be seeking to demilitarise the region.
Thales claims to be confident that France will buy some of the drones, and that other NATO countries will also buy it. Thales is more in favour with the French government that rival Dassault, however many European governments are slowly seeking to isolate the Israeli regime as pressure to end its occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.
Brazil has bought four Hermes 450 drones for surveillance over stadiums of the FIFA World Cup football matches to commence in June, 2014. Intended to prevent terrorism during the games, no good case has been made that the Brazilian games will be targets of terrorism. Or that the drones will be useful in preventing it. Rather, the drones are more likely to be used monitoring protests that are sparked by the matches and Brazilian government policies, and building a ‘security state’. People attending the matches can expect pervasive surveillance, from drones overhead to facial recognition cameras on the ground.
As well, there may be a need to protect football fans and nearby residents from the drones themselves. Hermes 450 drones do not appear to have received widely accepted certification to fly in civilian air space,** although the Israeli government has certified them in Israel. Last year, during the Confederations Cup matches, Brazilian officials appear to have acknowledged this failing by planning to restrict civilian air traffic near the game venues.
British-Israeli Watchkeeper drones (which are based on the Hermes 450) have been recently certified by the UK to fly in civilian airspace but the technology that permitted this to occur does not appear to have been incorporated into the Hermes 450 drones sold to Brazil. There has been an effort worldwide to make drones safe to fly in populated airspace, including large European government subsidies documented by Statewatch and the Transnational Institute.
Drones in general have a much higher crash rate than piloted aircraft, and several Hermes 450 drones crashes have been recorded from a relatively small worldwide fleet.
Hermes 450 drones have been widely used by Israel for surveillance and assassinations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. So often used that Elbit Systems advertises their products as ‘conflict tested’.
Elbit Systems has a strong marketing programme in South America and has sold drones to several countries.
Brazil appears to have paid $25 million for the four drones.
**If anyone knows differently, please let me know.
Some time in the next few weeks several large crates will be unloaded from a British military aircraft at a Canadian airstrip and hauled to CFB Suffield, in Alberta. Known in the UK as BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield), CFB Suffield will be the site of training exercises by British army units, as it is every year. The crates will contain disassembled Watchkeeper drones, as well as the ground stations which are needed to support them. British army personnel will learn to use the drones, as they used similar Israeli-made Hermes 450 drones in Afghanistan.
The Watchkeepers are unlikely to be controlled from RAF Waddington in the UK, as are Britain’s Predator drones, because these particular drones are being used for surveillance by regular army units. It is likely that there will be French army officers observing, because the French are considering buying Watchkeeper, and the Suffield deployment is the first operational test for the drone. Also likely to be present will be officials from Thales, the French company that built the drones, and from Elbit Systems, the Israeli arms company that built Hermes 450 drone which was the prototype for Watchkeeper.
Too predictable will be the public relations events where local Alberta and Canadian media are shown the new unmanned aircraft and urged to comment on its technological marvels. Also predictable will be the close working relationship between the military and the arms company officials. The latter will use the opportunity to promote sales, and military brass will cooperate fully. This video where a active UK Colonel waxes poetic about Watchkeeper, while sitting in front of large signs advertising the prime contractor Thales, illustrates how easily the lines between public and private interests are blurred.
Finally, it is possible that Canadian government and military officials will be present at Suffield, as France’s Thales and Israel’s Elbit Systems, (the manufacturers of Watchkeeper), will be eager to use the training exercises as marketing tools for their technology. The present Canadian government is Israel’s strongest ally, and Watchkeeper might be viewed as an opportunity to support Israel while appearing to be buying a British product.
Israeli arms company Elbit Systems has won a contract that may ultimately be worth up to $1 billion worth of work on US border systems from the US Customs and Border Protection. It won the contract from out of the hands of US corporate giant like General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed, etc. Another giant US arms company had lost the work after delays, according to business paper Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and huge increases in public costs. There was scathing criticism from some sources, that Elbit, a company that had been involved in the previous failed contract as a subcontractor, had been awarded the new contract.
The work is to provide a series of towers along the US-Mexico border with sensing equipment for spotting ‘illicit human crossings’, at from 5-7.5 miles away, in any weather, day or night. The system will further sterilise the border zone, preventing any unregulated movement in the area.
CBP officials wanted to hire someone who already had the technology developed. Perhaps unsurprising that they picked Elbit, whose products have been developed as part of its active role in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Elbit Systems, which has been criticised for its work building border systems on Israel’s apartheid wall, sells a wide range of technology for border fortification.
Israeli arms companies are quick to point out their close association with the Israeli military, and the fact that many of their key development staff are active members of the military. Since much of the effort of the military has been the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, and the blockade and attacks on Gaza, it follows that many of these staff have been integrally involved in the brutal occupation of the West Bank, and many of Israel’s incursions into Gaza and Lebanon.
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest drones manufacturer and the world’s largest drone exporter. Elbit’s Chief Financial Officer, Joseph Gasper, was recently interviewed by Financial Times, claiming that Elbit’s employees with active involvement in the Israeli military gave it “quick feedback” on whether those systems were working and whether they needed addressing. Elbit is a part of the Israeli military, and the Israeli occupation is a testing ground and feedback mechanism for the development arm of the Israeli arms industry.
In a country where military, government, and arms company roles are a virtual revolving door, it is not hard to imagine that there are strong finanical incentives to suggest military solutions to political problems. Elbit Systems not only profits from sales to the Israeli military and occupation forces, it uses the “combat proven” experience it gains from attacks on Gaza dn the surveillance of the West Bank to promote arms sales worldwide.
In 2012 the French arms company Thales convinced the French government to consider purchasing the Watchkeeper drone. As the government of France changed, the incoming government was anxious to rid itself of some of the connections the previous government had had with elements of the French arms industry. So it was inclined to widen its search for drones to include what the French press sometimes calls the Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
La Tribune reported that French trials of Watchkeeper in early 2013 didn’t go very well. Other trials occured at l’Istres, presumably at Le Tubé air base, near Marseille. French Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud said that “The results are not yet those we hoped.” Only half of the flights were successful, partly due to bad British weather, and partly due to technical reasons. Yet the French military claimed to be still supportive of Watchkeeper, as the largest European drone programme. La Tribune suggested that France might purchase 15 Watchkeeper systems by 2019. And Thales ramped up its selling pitch by taking Watchkeeper to the Paris Air show, as a model with French army colours.
By November La Tribune was reporting that the head of France’s land army, General Ract-Madoux, was asking for Watchkeeper and wanted to lease two systems even before delivery of purchased systems. He wanted delivery moved forward to 2016-17 rather than 2019. Ract-Madoux said ” The drone flies and lands perfectly. However , the links between the UAV and the ground have a problem ” Ract-Madoux felt the system hadn’t reached ‘maturity’ and urged Thales to solve the problems.
Included in Anglo French cooperation was the testing of a new Thales high speed data link as an alternative to the existing data link. The TMA data link might also be used on Reaper or Heron drones being used in the French or British air forces. It isn’t clear whether this related to previous concerns with Watchkeeper data links.
The CEO of Thales, Jean-Bernard Levy tried to sell the idea of France buying Watchkeeper, on the basis of it’s being what France wanted, cheap, having a European supply chain, and would be under exclusive control of French forces.
TTU Online has reported that on 18 November 2013 four members of the French 61 Artillery Regiment will join a team from 43 battery of the British 47 Regiment on Salisbury Plain as the latter tries to ‘ramp up’ the struggling Watchkeeper program. . The purpose was to more closely integrate the two armies in their ability to operate drones (and presumably further the assessment of the Watchkeeper drone for the French).
Ract-Madoux suggested that French officers and NCO’s should go to Afghanistan in early 2014 when the British Watchkeepers would presumably be sent there, “to test the behaviour of the device in a theatre of operations.” But according to TTU Online, British officials ‘did not envisage’ French participation in British operations in Afghanistan and offered them the chance to jointly test Watchkeeper in Canada instead.
Writing in L’Enterprises, Vincent Lamigeon speculated that many French politicians would support a competing bid from Saran, the ‘Patroller’ a larger drone made almost entirely in France. He suggested that Senators might demand an open bidding process and that political campaigning had earlier resulted in France acquiring American Reaper drones, rather than the Heron drones offered by Israeli Aerospace Industries and Dassault.
Videos of the first UK flight of the new Watchkeeper drone reappeared on Youtube this week. The first flight of Watchkeeper drone in the UK took place several years ago, after the drone was initially tested in Israel by French arms company Thales and its Israeli partner Elbit Systems. Thales is tasked with producing a new British drone from an Israeli prototype, the Hermes 450. So far the project is almost three years late, and Thales has been forced to pay the cost of British ISTAR surveillance in Afghanistan (that Watchkeeper was supposed to provide).
What is clear from the video is how irritating is the noise of the Watchkeeper drone. Residents near the Welsh drone testing site at Parc Aberporth have long complained about the incessant noise of Watchkeeper tests. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza say that the Hermes 450 drone used by the Israeli occupation forces is used not only for surveillance and assassination, but for harrassment and intimidation, as the high pitched engine noise overhead cannot be ignored.
Curiously, the long delays in finalising the Watchkeeper have been blamed by the UK Ministry of Defence on the need to certify Watchkeeper in civilian airspace. Yet it is difficult to see how the noisy Watchkeeper drone can be used in civilian airspace without creating annoyance and alarm to civilian populations.
In March of 2012 the Canadian Pension plan held approximately $2 million worth of shares in Elbit Systems of Israel. While $2 million is not an extremely large investment, it is large enough that Elbit Systems considers the CPP a ‘top holder’.
Elbit is one of the primary suppliers of arms to the Israeli military, and is linked with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of West Bank and Gaza.
The Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade has produced an extensive research paper that documents the investments of top Canadian pension funds in companies profiting from military and ‘homeland security’ contracts with Israel.