Archive for category Watchkeeper
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.
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.
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).
The Canadian government long ago said that it intended to buy a drone system for the Canadian military, and implemented a programme to determine needs and set out criteria for purchase, in the form of Project JUSTAS (Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System).
Very little information has been released to the public that would allow anyone to follow the deliberations of this body, even as a procession of lobbyists have had access to all levels of government.
In October 2013 MacDonald Dettwiler announced that it would provide Canada with Raven hand-launched drones, and associated training and maintenance. It isn’t clear whether this acquisition was related to Project JUSTAS, but clearly the Canadian government is still in the market for large surveillance, or even armed drones.
In November, 2013 the Canadian Defence Minister, Rob Nicholson, welcomed the Israeli Minister of Defence, Moshe Ya’alon, and was effusive about the relationship between Canada and the apartheid regime. Nicholson stated ‘I am confident that we will find avenues to expand our defence relations even further in the near future.” Several ministers in the Conservative government waste no opportunities to support the Netanyahu regime.
While no specifics were released it seems likely that the two discussed the possibility of Canada buying Israeli drones, as Israel has become the largest retailer of drones worldwide. Several Israeli companies make large surveillance drones, of which Israeli Aerospace Industries (Heron family of drones) and Elbit Systems (Hermes family of drones) are the largest. Elbit Systems often tries to sell its drones as ‘turn key’ systems, manufactured in the buyer country to permit ‘manufacturing offsets’. Both companies provide drones to the Israeli military for repressing Palestinians, and both drone systems have been implicated with deaths of civilians in Israeli drone attacks on Gaza. Canada has rented Heron drones from IAI for use by Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
Aside from Israeli companies, America’s Northrup Grumman has been aggressively trying to sell their Global Hawk drone to Canada. However Global Hawk is very expensive and likely to be unpopular with the Conservatative base.
General Atomics, which makes the Predator/Reaper class of drones has been less in evidence, perhaps sensing that the quagmire of Canadian defence procurement is best avoided. Predator/Reapers are cheaper, but are clearly thought of as armed drones, which may be a step the Conservative government isn’t ready to make as an election approaches.
Another possibility for a Canadian drone purchase would be the British-Israeli Watchkeeper, which will be part of UK military exercises at CFB Suffield in 2014. Watchkeeper will likely have civilian airspace certification. The Canadian military claims it doesn’t neen civilian authority to fly drones domestically, but certification would make it easier to fly drones to monitor pipeline protesters, (and other Canadian dissidents), which must surely be one of the goals of the Conservative government. Watchkeeper has a very large Israeli component, which would allow the Harper government to support the Netanyahu government while keeping the purchase within NATO. However the Canadian public is sure to react to buying any equipment from the UK military after the submarine debacle of a few years ago.
The Conservative ministers would have trouble facing their Israeli counterparts if they wasted the most obvious opportunity to make a high profile purchase of military technology from the apartheid regime.
Based on the information that is publicly available it my ‘best guess’ that the Canadian government will announce that it intends to buy one of the Israeli drone options in 2014.
A decade in the making, and at least three years late, the Watchkeeper drone will be introduced shortly. The current publicity blitz by Britain’s Defense Minister, Philip Hammond, may be part of the government’s effort to prepare the British public for the intoduction of the new surveillance drone, one that has deep roots in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Based on a medium altitude, long endurance Hermes 450 prototype, Watchkeeper was built by UTacS, a consortium of Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, and French arms company Thales. Much of the technology comes from Elbit or subsidiaries like UAV Engines Ltd, while Thales has been general contractor ensuring that some of the drone is built in Britain, and providing updated software.
The first flights of Watchkeeper occurred from Megiddo Airfield, in Northern Israel, before test flights were moved to Parc Aberporth in Wales. After the drone receives certification to fly in civilian airspace it will be flown at the Salisbury Plain base, and at CFB Suffield in Canada, (in 2014).
The Israeli prototype, Hermes 450, has been a mainstay of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the blockade of Gaza. The Israeli government has been tightlipped about the use of drones in suppressing the West Bank, but the Hermes 450 is believed to have been used several times in attacks on Gaza, during Cast Lead and at other times. The drone is known to overfly Gaza, and the frontier with Egypt.
The UK government claims to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and human rights abuses, but maintains a strong trade relationship with Israel, not limited to drone purchases, but including sales of other strategic goods amounting to £7,700,000,000 in the most recent year. Many parts of Watchkeeper are based on Israeli intellectual property, or are directly acquired from Elbit, with the result that hundreds of millions of pounds have been transferred to the Israeli arms company as part of the Watchkeeper programme.
Flight Global reports 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 that year.
British forces have long used Canadian Forces Base, Suffield for training, calling it British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS). There is already a drone test facility at Suffield. It isn’t clear whether the British drones will be tested there, or as autonomous units.
TTU Online has reported that British military officials will invite French military officers to join in the testing of Watchkeeper, as part of the ongoing effort of the British military industrial establishment 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.
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.