Archive for category United Kingdom
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.
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.
There was more confirmation this week that the UK will be flying its Watchkeeper drone in Alberta this summer. Watchkeeper is Britain’s new large surveillance drone, which uses technology purchased from Israel. It is based on the Hermes 450 drone produced in Israel by Elbit Systems and used by Israel forces in the suppression of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Watchkeeper programme has been kept low profile because the technology was acquired from the Israeli company shortly before Operation Cast Lead, when the Israeli military killed more than a thousand people in Gaza, including hundreds of women and children. The Hermes 450 on which Watchkeeper is based is believed to have been integrally involved in these attacks.
Watchkeeper is years behind schedule, to the extent that it may never be used in the Afghanistan conflict for which it was intended. The UK claims that Watchkeeper will have ‘civilians airspace certification’, though it hardly needs it in Canada where the Defence department asserts its right to fly drones in Canada without reference to civilian flight rules.
The UK MOD is closely connected to the UK war industry, and often helps the war industry sell products to foreign state buyers. The UK is promoting Watchkeeper to the French military, which presently has representatives in Britain observing flight tests and operational use on the Salisbury Plain, where one of Britain’s military training facilities is located. We have reported before in this blog that the UK has offered to further demonstrate Watchkeeper to the French military during training exercises with Watchkeeper on Britain’s training ground at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, in Alberta, this summer.
If Britain manages to sell Watchkeeper drones abroad, it will be a boost for Israel’s Elbit Systems, which manufactures some of the components from the drone, and co-owns the company which produces it in Britain.
Defense News reported this week that units of the French army plan to work with the Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone in Afghanistan, if the new addition to the UK drone fleet is deployed there. French artillery officers are working with Watchkeeper as it is being introduced in the UK’s Salisbury Plain training area. (They are also expected to train with Watchkeeper crews in the Suffield training area in Alberta, Canada later in 2014).
Elements of the French army want the defence minister to acquire Watchkeeper, but that would likely depend on Britain acquiring French armoured combat vehicles.
Watchkeeper was built for the UK by Thales of France and Elbit Systems of Israel, based on the Hermes 450 drone. The latter has been ‘conflict tested’ in the repression of the West Bank and the attacks on Gaza.
For background search other posts on wanderingraven.wordpress.com
For detailed background of European drone policy see this report by Statewatch.
Unconfirmed news is that Manroy Engineering is closing its facility in Beckley, East Sussex, and moving those operations to its other facility at Slade Green. There will be redundancies at the Beckley facility. Slade Green is a ‘leafy green suburb’ on the extreme eastern margin of London.
Manroy was purchased by the Belgian arms company Herstal last month. Started as a small operation supplying heavy machine guns to the UK military, Manroy was bought out a few years ago by venture capitalists who planned to expand the company with sales abroad. But their aggressive sales plans were thwarted by declining arms budgets and the Arab Spring, which thwarted the plans of Britain’s new Conservative government to expand arms sales to a range of authoritarian regimes.
Manroy, the British arms company with a manufacturing facility in Beckley, East Sussex has agreed to be purchased by the Belgian arms company Herstal. Manroy’s main products are heavy machine guns and turrets.
Originally a small company selling heavy machine guns to the UK military, a few years ago Manroy was taken over by aggressive new owners who planned large expansion and took the company public. They also purchased a troubled American arms company.
Recently Manroy’s plans had fallen on hard times as arms budgets dropped, but especially as a result of Arab Spring. Before Arab Spring the UK Conservative government had pushed to expand British arms sales to countries previously forbidden, including several repressive regimes. Manroy was attempting to sell arms to Libya’s Gaddafi (with the full support of the UK government) when British policy towards Gaddafi sudden shifted. Quickly following, the government was forced to abandon plans to expand arms sales to many of the repressive regimes it had previously targeted.
Manroy’s ambitious expansion plans were never realised, and the company was eventually put up for sale, culminating in the acquisition by Herstal this week. Conditions of the sale included shearing the American branch from the British company.
It isn’t clear whether the huge Belgian arms company will maintain a presence in the sleep Sussex village of Beckley.
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.
Plans to have British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone used by British at CFB Suffield, Alberta, a step closer
Flight Global recently reported that the UK armed forces will test the Watchkeeper drone at Canadian Forces Base, Suffield, Alberta in 2014 and beyond. That the UK would test Watchkeeper there was anticipated from at least 2006 as indicated in the Environmental Assessment for the Suffield base for that year.
UK army personel are now learning to fly the Watchkeeper over the Salisbury plain in the UK, presumably in preparation for flying it elsewhere, like CFB Suffield (BATUS), or Afghanistan. No mention was made of operators being licensed pilots, despite recent comments by the same officer elsewhere that Watchkeeper would be as safe to fly as manned planes (neglecting to mention that manned aircraft are flown by licensed pilots).
British forces have long used Canadian Forces Base Suffield for training, going so far as to call it ‘British Army Training Unit Suffield’ (BATUS). There is already a private drone test facility at Suffield. It isn’t clear whether it will figure at all in the flying of the Watchkeeper drones at Suffield. (More likely not, because it is believed that the flights this summer will involve integrating Watchkeeper into British army practise, not testing the drone per se). Interviewed by a parliamentary committee in 2008, Air Vice Marshall Stuart Butler said that Watchkeeper would be flown at Suffield because of the greater ‘standoff area’ that Suffield provides, as well acknowledging that Suffield was already had a designation for dangerous flights.
TTU Online has reported that British military officials will invite French military officers to join in the flying of Watchkeeper at Suffield, as part of the ongoing effort of the British military industrial establishment (and its French and Israeli arms company friends) to sell the French a few Watchkeeper systems.
Watchkeeper is an Anglo-Israeli-French drone, based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone used widely in the suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Interestingly, when flown at the Suffield base Watchkeeper will likely be flying within the view of American border patrol Predator drones (believed currently grounded because of safety concerns after a crash).
The British-Israeli ‘Watchkeeper’ drone passed another milestone this week with little fanfare, mostly press released-based articles and little critical comment. The new military drone is years late and has been restricted to flying in closed airspace in Wales, until it could be ‘certified’ to fly in civilian air space. This week the MOD was permitted to begin flights over the Salisbury Plain.
Lacking in the coverage this week has been has been any reference to the origin of most Watchkeeper technology, the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems (which advertises its drone products as ‘combat tested’ in the occupation of Palestine and the suppression of Gaza). Watchkeeper has ‘deep roots’ in the Israeli war machine and consequently in the human rights abuses that characterise that occupation. An extensive briefing paper on Israel’s role in the production and proliferation of drones has recently been released by Drone Wars UK.
Also lacking is analysis of the overall British and European drone strategy, and how Watchkeeper fits into it. Statewatch this month released a comprehensive report detailing the shocking level of European public spending on the development of drones, mostly to the benefit of domestic European arms companies and goals for research and market development.
It was hardly surprising that safety concerns were sloughed off in the press release-based coverage. Colonel Mark Thornhill of the UK MOD has downplayed safety risks, suggesting that Watchkeeper is certified the same way that manned aircraft are certified (but conveniently sidestepping the obvious difference that operators are not on board the aircraft). Drone Wars UK has documented the alarming crash rate of drones in the Drone Crash Database.
Although MOD point man Col Mark Thornhill said that Watchkeeper would be used in support of military operations within the UK, none of the media appears to have asked him what military operations in the UK he might be referring to.
Thornhill was also allowed to state without challenge that Watchkeeper would not be ‘armed’, while neglecting him to challenge him on the obvious point that ‘unarmed’ drones are part of integrated military systems for identifying and destroying ‘targets’. Laterally, British allies like the US and Israel have used drones for preemptive killings of suspects outside active war zones.
There is startlingly little fuss being made over the imminent introduction of the long delayed Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone expected in just a few weeks. Delayed by years, the drone has been an embarrassment to both the British military and the prime contractor Thales.
Originally touted as essential for Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan, the drone will likely never be introduced to that operational theatre, due to the delays. The army has since found that it could do just as well with armed Predator-type drones, as well as rented Israeli surveillance drones. Meanwhile, the long delays in finishing Watchkeeper have been blamed on the need for ‘civilian airspace certification’, although it hasn’t been satisfactorily explained why that is needed since UK military drones have so far operated in remote areas, where conflict with civilian air traffic is not an issue.
Perhaps the greatest reason that Watchkeeper introduction has been kept to a low profile is that the drone is primarily an Israeli creation. Watchkeeper’s earliest years coincided with the infamous Cast Lead attack on Gaza, when hundreds of Palestinians, including a very large number of women and children, were killed by Israeli forces. Drones were heavily involved in that attack, and subsequent ones.
Watchkeeper is the anglicised version of the Hermes 450 drone used throughout the Cast Lead attacks, and many times since. Its maker, Elbit Systems, brags that their drones are ‘combat tested’, and their company officials have noted that the active participation of Elbit designers in Israel’s military activities means that the Hermes 450 is constantly updated and fixed to reflect the experiences of the Israeli military (which are largely gained in attacks on Gaza and suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank).** So, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone owes a debt to Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation.
Watchkeeper’s first flights were at the Megido airfield in northern Israel. (They were originally scheduled for and airport in the occupied territories, until British officials objected to the ‘optics’ of that). There is considerable Israeli equipment and intellectual property on Watchkeeper, including the take off and landing system, the engine, and the basic design. It has never been certain what Elbit’s returns from the £1 billion contract have been, but they will have been considerable.
Britain’s embrace of the Hermes 450 model has also been good for Elbit. Britain’s rented Hermes 450’s have flown thousands of hours in Afghanistan (several have crashed). And Watchkeeper has flown countless test hour from Parc Aberporth in Wales. Those experiences have filtered back to Elbit, and no doubt been incorporated into the design of updated Hermes models, including the Hermes 900 now being sold around the world. These updated Hermes drones will eventually be used again in the suppression of the occupied Palestinians, meaning that British use of Hermes-based drones have had a direct effect on subjugated people in the Middle East.
**It’s possible that Israeli arms company employees are actually involved specifically in the deployment of Israeli drones in combat situations, although this hasn’t been confirmed directly.