Archive for category Thales

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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Thales Continues to Flog Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper Drone

The French arms company Thales was the prime contractor and minority partner in the billion pound contract to convert the Israeli Hermes 450 drone into a British Watchkeeper drone for the UK armed forces. The project was plagued with delays. Touted as essential for the British forces in Afghanistan, Watchkeeper wasn’t ready until the UK deployment was almost at the end, in 2014. At the last minute one Watchkeeper system was sent to Afghanistan in August, 2014, for a quick fly around, more as a sales tool than a useful part of the British armed forces. Information was relayed to an armed RAF Predator drones which carried out an airstrike on the basis of that information, (leading the cynical to wonder who might have died to promote Thales latest product).

The demonstration was witnessed by a number of French military officials, who announced themselves enough pleased that they recommended to the French government that Watchkeeper drones be purchased for their own fleet. Thales is promoting Watchkeeper to the ‘Système de Drone Tactique’, a French procurement project, but no purchase has been made.

Since the project was completed, information about the Watchkeepers purchased by the UK government has mostly dried up, though it is believed that the majority of the 54 drones purchased have been mothballed into storage, as the military mostly uses Predator drones purchased from the US in its forays abroad.

Recently Thales has tried to sell Watchkeeper to other countries, as the public arm of a partnership that includes the Israeli company Elbit Systems as a majority partner. Countries that are embarrassed by interactions with companies associated with the apartheid Israeli government are able to put some distance between them and themselves by dealing with Thales. It also provides cover for the UK government, which is anxious to to sell these value-added, Israeli-based Watchkeepers, manufactured in UK factories.

Thales has offered the Polish military an armed version of Watchkeeper.

In late 2015 Thales plans to fly Watchkeeper from Parc Aberporth in public airspace over Cardiff, Wales.

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French company Thales would rent out Watchkeeper drone paid for by UK taxpayer

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.

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Key Watchkeeper drone questions not being asked

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.

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British Israeli drones flying in Alberta summer 2014

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.

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More Watchkeeper drone news this week?

The long delayed Watchkeeper surveillance drone programme has been barely in the news for months, even as deadlines were missed, and the UK military operations in Afghanistan wind down. But news this week may put it in the spotlight again.

There is a joint summit between Francois Hollande and David Cameron this week at RAF Brize Norton this week.

This is ostensibly to restart the joint defense treaty/arms trade strategy that the two countries negotiated in 2010, which ploughed into quicksand when the Parti Socialiste won the French elections in 2012 and promptly reviewed the arms  procurement arrangements made by the Sarkozy government.

Writing in Defense News, Andrew Chuter and Pierre Tran have speculated that the conversation could involve a statement of French interest in the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.

Thales, the French arms company,  is the prime contractor and partner with Elbit Systems of Israel in the Watchkeeper programme, which has belatedly resulted in a British built drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450. Thales fortunes appeared to rise after the election of the Socialistes, while its rival Dassault appeared to fall.

Thales has been lobbying hard to have the French government buy the Watchkeeper drone, and French operators have flown the drone at Parc Aberporth in Wales. It is also believed that they may fly the drone this summer in Canada, possibly at the UK training base at Suffield Aberta.

Also discussed at the summit may be a proposal to build an armed combat drone, in which France’s Dassault and Britain’s BAE might build the airframe, Thales and Silex the electronics, Rolls Royce and Snecma the engine, according the Chuter and Tran. Proponents want the programme to begin immediately, ostensibly so that the French air force that evaluate how an armed drone would fit into ‘the operational picture’. Though why they couldn’t just use a Predator drone acquired from the US for that purpose isn’t clear.

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French pilots have been flying British Israeli Watchkeeper Drones in the UK

The French government is carrying on an evaluation programme to consider whether to buy the UK-Israeli Watchkeeper drone. Watchkeeper is the much delayed drone that will likely be introduced to the UK MOD in 2014. It is based on the Hermes 450 produced by the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, which is used extensively in the occupation of Palestine. Watchkeeper was first flown on Israeli test ranges, and more recently at Parc Aberporth in Wales. (A history of Watchkeeper can be read here).

Examples of the drone have evaluated in France, but it isn’t clear whether they have been flown there. It was revealed yesterday that French controllers have flown Watchkeeper at Parc Aberporth, in restricted air space. Apparently the flights did not involve UK MOD, so presumably were done in cooperation with the prime contractor Thales, (French arms company).

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