Archive for category Watchkeeper
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.
Defense News has reported that there are two remaining contenders for providing France with ‘tactical drone systems’. One is the Anglo-Israeli ‘Watchkeeper’ drone, and the other is Sagem’s ‘Patroller’. Other arms companies have dropped out of the competition. Watchkeeper is a joint project of Elbit Systems of Israel, and Thales or France, based on the Israeli Hermes 450 and paid for by British taxpayers. A choice between the two options is expected by the end of 2015.
In 2014 French officers viewed a ‘fly-around‘ of Watchkeeper in Afghanistan, as the UK staged a demonstration of Watchkeeper in the last days of the UK deployment there. The French observers proclaimed an interest in acquiring Watchkeeper. Defense News also notes that a French artillery unit has trained on a Watchkeeper drone sent to France. It isn’t clear if this was a Thales-owned ‘demonstrator’, or one of the dozens of military Watchmakers mothballed by UK MOD.
According to Defense News the French government wants to ensure national control over the technology and imaging of the new drones. claims that the source codes operating Watchkeeper were purchased from the Israel company and rewritten, so that neither Israeli or UK companies would share control of the French system. A report in AINonline.com says that Watchkeeper offered to France has 35% French content and is not dependent on Israel for ‘support or export permission’.
Defense News also notes that a French artillery unit has trained on a Watchkeeper drone sent to France. It isn’t clear if this was a Thales-owned ‘demonstrator’, or one of the dozens of military Watchmakers mothballed by UK MOD.
Watchkeeper is touted as ‘civilian airspace compliant’, widely claimed to be a comparative advantage of Watchkeeper, which otherwise doesn’t stack up well against competitors like the General Atomics ‘Predator’ or ‘Reaper’ drones. But Defense News notes that Sagem also claims to have demonstrated European civilian airspace compliance.
Defense-aerospace.com reports that there is no budget for the drone acquisition, and that there are questions about whether this drone procurement programme would be completed, because the French military has other options like Predator drones, and smaller drones, that already do what Watchkeeper or Patroller would contribute. Considering that the UK has mothballed most of its Watchkeeper drones, there is a real possibility that budget considerations will end the French procurement process.
The cost of Watchkeeper was borne by the UK taxpayer, much of the profit was likely taken by Elbit Systems, which supplied parts and owned the intellectual property rights to Hermes 450. Blogger ‘Think Defence‘ asked the pertinent question: Given that the UK taxpayer funded Watchkeeper, if Thales sells Watchkeeper abroad, will UK MOD and the British taxpayer, get anything back? (paraphrased).
A Watchkeeper drone crashed on Salisbury Plain in Southwestern England this week. The medium altitude, long endurance drone was adapted from the Israeli Hermes 450 drone in a billion pound upgrade, largely focused on making the drone compliant with civilian air regulations.
It is the third Watchkeeper to crash.
Dozens of the drones were purchased from a French-Israeli consortium but almost all have been mothballed, and the UK MOD has recently revealed that it has only six qualified, competent pilots to fly them. (After this crash perhaps only five). None are known to have been in active military service, save a perfunctory ‘fly-around’ arranged just before UK forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The boondoggle programme hasn’t received critical examination in Parliament because both major political parties had a role in its inception.
A recent report that Watchkeeper has been armed hasn’t been confirmed by MOD.
The UK has armed its Watchkeeper drones with Hellfire missiles, according to ‘The Strategy Page’. The report has apparently not been confirmed by UK Ministry of Defence.
Watchkeeper is a medium range, long endurance drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450. The UK spent one billion pounds updating the Hermes 450 prototype, renaming it Watchkeeper, then basically mothballed the drone as it used its more effective US-purchased Predators drones to conduct campaigns of assassination in Afghanistan, Iraq and perhaps elsewhere.
Arming of Watchkeeper can be viewed as a UK MOD attempt to make the white elephant Watchkeeper look more relevant, as the MOD itself uses the more deadly Predators almost exclusively. Acting with the US, the UK has carried out countless armed sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing a large number of individuals, most of whom were likely innocent civilians.
General Atomics may have eclipsed Israeli drone companies in the quest to sell Canada large drones. David Pugliese reports in Defense News that the Canadian military, under the JUSTAS programme, is favouring the General Atomics ‘Predator’ drone for addition to the Canadian aircraft fleet. The Canadian attempt to acquire large surveillance drones has been running for years with any concrete decision. Military brass now feel that say that a contract will be issued in 2019 for delivery in 2023. But anyone familiar with Canadian military procurement won’t be holding their breath.
Notable by its absence is mention of military support for the offerings of either of the large Israeli drone companies. Canada has leased Heron drones from Israel Aerospace Industries for use in Afghanistan, and Elbit Systems sells its ‘conflict tested’ (in Palestine) drones far and wide. But the Conservative government is known to be strongly supportive of the Netanyahu regime, and it seems absurd to believe that the cabinet will not pressure the military to favour any bid from either of the Israeli companies. As well there is the possibility of a bid from Thales, the French arms company selling the Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
Pugliese also quotes unnamed air force officers as saying that the contract issued would be for armed drones. Certainly the Predator drone has the experience. Predator drones and their variants have carried out thousands of armed attacks and have left a path of destruction and death across Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East, whereas armed attacks by either of the Israeli options have mostly been carried out in maintaining the occupation of Palestine. Watchkeeper drones aren’t known to have been armed in conflict zones, and are mostly mothballed in their English bases.
(All surveillance drones are ‘attack’ drones when coupled with jet fighters, artillery, ground to ground missiles, etc).
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.
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.