Posts Tagged drone
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.
Is an American arms company trying to sell the Canadian government a drone the US military doesn’t want
Is General Atomics trying to sell a drone to Canada that the US military doesn’t want?
General Atomics says that it is hoping to sell its ‘Avenger’ drone to the Canadian military to fulfill the Arctic surveillance role that has been identified by Project JUSTAS, the inept programme of the Canadian government to acquire drones for military use. Avenger is a jet powered drone evolved from the Predator drone, and is known as the Predator ‘C’.
An article in medium.com suggests that the US government was less than satisfied with Avenger, as it didn’t significantly address the shortcomings that it had identified with the Predator ‘A’ and the Predator ‘B’ (known as ‘Reaper’). The military wanted a drone that was more prone to survival in a combat zone, weather resistant, and with good communications. The US military felt that Avenger, which is faster and can carry more, wasn’t much different than the Predator A in the qualities that mattered. Certainly a drone that was not weather resistant and didn’t have a robust communication system would not be useful in high arctic conditions where it is anticipated such a drone would be used.
General Atomics is no doubt hoping that the Canadian government will see advantages in the long range capability of the Avenger, though it isn’t clear why the Canadian government would want a drone promoted for its ‘stealth’ qualities to fly in the arctic.
The Avenger would compete with the Polar Hawk drone that Raytheon has been trying to sell to the Canadian government, that has been written about before on this blog.
Acquisition of a surveillance drone is mired in the Project JUSTAS the procurement effort of the Canadian military, so is unlikely to happen soon. Military brass shrug off the inability of the government to define its needs or fulfill its requirements, as a benefit, allowing technology to advance. Probably a good excuse because there is little evidence that an army staying out of foreign conflicts needs large surveillance drones at the present time.
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).
Several years late, and costing almost a billion pounds, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone was finally introduced to combat in Afghanistan this summer just in time to be withdrawn again. As predicted, the introduction was little more than a ‘fly-around’ to give the military a chance to say their new drone had been useful.
The Watchkeeper drone is based on the Israeli Hermes 450, built by Elbit Systems, and widely used in surveillance in the West Bank and attacks on Gaza. The British version was created by a consortium of Elbit System, and Thales of France, using an engine produced by an Elbit subsidiary in England, and other parts made in the UK or imported.
In November 2014 the UK military proclaimed themselves satisfied with their new drone, claiming to have used it for surveillance leading to a strike against the Taliban. Then the Watchkeeper was packed up and taken back to the UK, with no word on future deployment. Watchkeeper is pointedly not being used in Iraq. Unarmed Watchkeeper is best suited to support of ground troops, and there isn’t a significant role for it at present.
For a major, very costly, military procurement of a ‘leading edge’ technology, the Watchkeeper drone programme has had little coverage. No doubt this results from military and government fears of raising a public backlash, for dealing with an Israeli arms company at a time when Israel was attacking Gaza and killing hundreds of people, many of them women and children. As one of Israel’s largest arms companies, Elbit Systems is deeply involved with all aspects of the Israeli military, the occupation, attacks on Gaza, and any large scale surveillance of Palestinians. Many Elbit principals are part of the Israeli military establishment, and Elbit advertises its products as ‘conflict tested’.
None of the major political parties have taken any interest in Watchkeeper. It is a legacy project of the Blair government, and none of the parties appear willing to own up to having transferred several hundred million pounds to an Israeli arms company while Israel was using similar drones in committing atrocities in Gaza.
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.
The French military has been using Israeli `Harfang` drones in its operations in Libya.
The Harfang is based on Israeli Aircraft Industry`s Heron drones, and is produced by EADS and BAE. It is said to be an `interim` drone programme, and is used in Afghanistan by French forces. The French have recently announced the purchase of the Heron TP (The `Eitan`), a much larger version of the Heron on which Harfang is based. The Eitan will be introduced about 2014.
The Harfang drones were flown from Sicily to Libya and have 25 operators. Control of the drones is based in Sicily. It isnt clear how many drones are involved, but there is no evidence that any have been produced beyond the original four or so created a few years ago.