Posts Tagged Afghanistan

Israel uses UK wars to sell Hermes 900 drones

Israeli company Elbit Systems has embarked on a world wide campaign to sell its new Hermes 900  drone.

Successful use in war is often a strong selling point for military arms, and the maker of Hermes, Elbit Systems of Israel, is quick to point out that the Hermes 900 is part of the Hermes 450 family of drones and therefore shares its ‘combat-proven‘ qualities. The Hermes 900 drone is a larger version of the Hermes 450 which has been flown widely in Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine and in the service of Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan.

By using Hermes drones extensively, the UK government has become a silent partner with the marketing arm of the Israeli arms industry. This arms industry is a fundamental part of the occupation of Palestine, and the ongoing attacks on Palestinians by the occupation forces.

The Algemeiner blog reports that Hermes drones have flown more than half a million hours, or which 85,000 hours were flown by UK military in Afghanistan.That means 17% of the flight experience of Hermes drones has been with the UK military. Israeli arms merchants trade on this experience when they try to sell drones to other purchasers. (Not mentioned is that UK forces had 11 crashes of Hermes 450’s by 2011 and the Drones Crash Database has recorded other Hermes crashes worldwide)

Drones have long been a mainstay of the Israeli military, and while it rarely discusses its use of drones, some information has leaked out. Drone Wars UK has documented Israel’s use of drones in the occupation of the West Bank, and especially its attacks on Gaza in a report ‘Israel and the Drone Wars’.

Hermes 450 drones are used in Afghanistan under Project Lydian, through which Elbit and its partner Thales (of France) rented drones to the UK military, by the hour,  while the military waited for the introduction of Watchkeeper surveillance drones. Obstensibly a UK built drone, Watchkeeper was based on the smaller Israeli Hermes 450 drone, manufactured and updated in Britain by Thales.

Watchkeeper drones were supposed to replace Hermes 450 drones in 2011, with a different set of operators as well, but the Watchkeeper programme was characterised by delays, and Thales eventually was forced to pick up some of the costs of operating the drone fleet in Afghanistan to compensate for the lateness. In January 2014 Watchkeeper still had not been introduced to Afghanistan, apparently, and the military was still using Hermes drones.

Meanwhile, Elbit is said to be producing one Hermes 900 each week, suggesting an inventory of more than 50 drones over the last year. Some of these have been sold to the Israeli military, and some sold to buyers in Latin America (Chile, Mexico, and Colombia) and elsewhere. Canada has considered buying the Hermes 900 as part of its languishing Project JUSTAS.

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Watchkeeper drone boondoggle inches forward

Thales  is stating that the delayed Watchkeeper drone will eventually be ready for deployment in Afghanistan in 2012.  These high priced drones, based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone, are still being tested and ‘flight’ crews trained.

Thales is also promoting an armed Watchkeeper type drone at the big London arms bazaar, DSEi. Thales makes missile capable of being used on Watchkeeper, though the UK has not committed itself to an armed Watchkeeper.

The UK has been renting Hermes 450 drones for use in Afghanistan. Given that the Hermes 450 drones, (which have been field tested by the Israelis in repressing their Palestinian population), seem to have performed adequately in Afghanistan, one wonders if the billion pound Watchkeeper will provide a billion pounds of value to British forces.

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Glut of Drones

Thales, of France, says it has a number of Hermes 45o drones to sell or rent, after they come back from Afghanistan. Drones operated by Thales are used by the UK in Afghanistan, and will (in theory) be replaced by the delayed Watchkeeper drone. Hermes 450’s are produced by Elbit of Israel, and are managed by Thales probably because as an Israeli company Elbit would have difficulty operating in Afghanistan or Middle Eastern countries.

Shephard News points out that this may pose a problem for Thales, since flogging the used Hermes 450s from Afghanistan would put it in direct competition with its business partner Elbit, which is continuing to market Hermes 450 drones, as well as turn key factories for producing Hermes drones in other countries.

Watchkeeper was promoted as an exportable product for the UK, but a glut of used Hermes 450 drones would probably exacerbate the dim prospects for Watchkeeper as a UK export.

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Will Watchkeeper Arrive This Year?

Peter Luff, Defense Minister for Equipment,  recently claimed that the Watchkeeper drone would be put into action later in 2011. The Watchkeeper has been delayed before and the project has been examined by the Projects Review Board, for past shortcomings.

Nor is it clear how many of the projected 54 drones will be delivered in 2011. At a cost of almost a billion pounds for 54 aircraft, the Watchkeeper is perhaps the most expensive in its class.

The Ministry of Defense plans to send the Watchkeeper drones to Afghanistan almost immediately.

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Watchkeeper drone programme late and 25% more expensive than claimed.

Aviation Week recently reported that the Watchkeeper drone will be put in service later this year in Afghanistan.

Watchkeeper is many months late, and under view by a government watchdog.

Aviation Week reported that the government is now estimates that the programme have cost just under £1 billion, up from the estimate of just under £800 million when the programme was initiated.

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Brit Volunteers Operate Drones

The 104 Regiment of the Royal Artillery, composed of volunteers from the Territorial Army, is designated as a support unit for the the operation of drones, and has this role in Afghanistan.

The only online references I’ve seen relate to small surveillance drones. There isn’t any obvious evidence or confirmation that they assist in operating larger MALE drones, or operating killer attack drones in Afghanistan.

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Watchkeeper Dramatically Overbought?

The new UK Watchkeeper drone may be dramatically overbought.

Hundreds of millions of pounds may have been wasted buying unneeded drones.

Watchkeeper is a MALE drone, (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance). Many have been used in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but they may provide restricted value because their surveillance results can’t be immediately translated to meet needs on the ground.

More useful are the newer rotary winged drones that have short range, but which can provide quick local reconnaisance for troops on the ground. Also very useful to the military are the armed ‘Reaper’ drones used by the US and UK to assassinate people in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

UK authorities have variously suggested that Watchkeeper will or won’t be armed. But with Reaper armed drones available very cheaply, it seems unlikely that the UK would arm their MALE  Watchkeeper drones.

In Afghanistan, the UK has been renting Israeli drones. In 2010 it rented an unstated number of Hermes 450 drones (the base model for Watchkeeper) for £70 million. Previously it had had two systems of Hermes, purchased from the Israeli manufacturer, Elbit Systems. It isn’t clear how many Hermes 450’s or similar MALE drones are being used by the UK at any one time. A Flight Global article on the subject shows six Hermes on an airfield, but it isn’t clear if these are the rented Hermes 450’s.

UK forces often boast about the number of flight hours flown by their surveillance drones, amounting to thousands of flight hours and vast amounts of information.

So, in the war theatre most active currently  the UK needs only a few MALE drones, no more than half a dozen, and probably many fewer in use at any time. Yet it has ordered 54 drones, at a per unit cost almost three times higher than the more flexible Predator/Reaper drones. There appears to have been no rationale published publicly that suggests why the UK needs 54 of these high cost drones.

As well, it must be said that several countries, including allies Canada and Australia, who were leasing drones, will return them to the vendor at the end of the lease period. It isn’t clear why they will do this, but what is clear is that the latest MALE drones can be leased on short notice from their vendors, complete with crews, and so there is no need to maintain a large inventory of MALE drones. Certainly Canada will have saved a great deal by not having its own domestic drone construction programme.

The major justification for the Watchkeeper Programme at the time it was initiated was to give the UK a domestic drone production capability. Yet the some of the most crucial drone technology appears to be licensed from Elbit Systems, one of the co-contractors of the Watchkeeper Programme, and will likely remain the intellectual property of that company.

Finally, the drones industry is moving forward extremely quickly. As the ‘battlefield’ changes in response to this new technology and other changing circumstances, drone technology becomes obsolete very quickly. It would appear that the unarmed MALE drone will not be as valuable as previously thought, and it is very possible that the UK has bought large fleet of very expensive toys, not as effective expected, and rapidly becoming obsolete.

Lewis Page, writing in the Register, has been writing on this subject for several years, and provides a less speculative analysis than this is.

One thing is likely, with Elbit Systems becoming Israel’s premier drone manufacturing company, British taxpayers will have helped to fund the research and development of the next wave of Israeli drones.

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