Posts Tagged drone

Watchkeeper Drone Value Diminishes with Delays.

The effect of Watchkeeper programme delays depends on the perspective of the observer.

In part because of the delays in the Watchkeeper programme, the UK was forced to use outdated technology in its recent attacks on Libya.

Delays have another impact as well on the cost benefit of the programme. It has been reported that by late 2012 only six of the Watchkeeper drones will be deployed. It is uncertain when the remainder of the fleet of 54 will be delivered. But in evaluating the value of the programme to taxpayers, it is only fair that the value be discounted for the time that the UK didn’t have access to the drone. Already extremely expensive at nearly £20 million each, the value of the the drone to the taxpayer should be discounted substantially, meaning the real cost should be considered to be much higher, since most of the funds have already been dispersed, while the the product has yet to be produced.

The absence of the drone will soon begin to degrade Britain’s ability to fight aggressive wars in foreign countries. Given the destruction of international law and lack of meaningful results from previous interventions, this probably isn’t a bad thing.

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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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Partial List of Suppliers to Watchkeeper Drone Programme

According to,  the suppliers to theWatchkeeper Programme include:

Advanced Composites (prepregs, MTM 46 epoxy prepreg system)

Lola Composites Ltd (Fuselage manufacture, Composites Manufacturing Services)

Salex Galileo SpA (Surveillance/Air Defense Radar: Gabbiano T20 Radar)

Rockwell Collins (Attitude and Heading Reference Systems: Athena 411 integrated inertial navigation, global positioning & air data attitude heading reference systems)

UAV Engines Ltd (Rotary Engines)

This does not appear to be new information, except perhaps the addition of supplier Salex Galileo, which appears to have gained the contracts to supply both Watchkeeper and Israeli Hermes 450 and 900 with radar technology. A lengthier list of suppliers can be found by searching earlier entries of this blog.

UAV Engines Ltd is an Elbit subsidiary, and appear to supply rotary engines to other Elbit drones manufactured elsewhere.

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United Arab Emirates builds MALE drone.

The Pakistani based online site The International News reports that the United Arab Emirates has developed a drone with longer range and endurance and US Predator drone, after it was denied the opportunity to purchase Predator drones by the US. The drone is called the ‘Smart Eye’.

Much more background information on this is available here.

Photos are available here (registration required). The drone looks like a MALE drone, similart to Predator or Watchkeeper.

Althought the UAE formed the Abu Dhabi UAV Investment Company to produce the Smart Eye drones, it isn’t clear where the technology came from, since UAVs are normally put together from high tech parts from a variety of sources.


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Oxford Research Group Releases Discussion Report on Drone Attacks

The Oxford Study Group discussion paper on drone attacks, titled DISCUSSION PAPER 2: DRONE ATTACKS, INTERNATIONAL LAW, AND THE RECORDING OF CIVILIAN CASUALTIES OF ARMED CONFLICT can be found here.

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Overdue Watchkeeper Drone Programme to be Examined by Major Projects Review Board

The UK MOD has announced that several programmes facing difficulty will be examined by a new board, the Major Projects Review Board established by the Defence Secretary, Dr. Liam Fox.

The MPRB will review 50 projects with a value of £100 billion.

Among them will be the £635 billion Watchkeeper programme announced with fanfare a few years ago, but which is now long overdue. A joint venture between Elbit Systems of Israel and Thales of France, Watchkeeper was touted as way for the UK to develop an export programe for Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) drones. But the programme is long overdue, and Elbit has continued to sell turnkey drone programmes to other countries, undercutting the possibility of a UK export programme ever developing. The Watchkeeper programme has also been criticised for being very over priced, since similar drones could apparently have been purchased at a much lower price from other vendors.

Countries like Canada have leased their military drone requirements, at a fraction the cost of a national drone manufacturing programme, and are not stuck with dated technology.

Watchkeeper was also touted as providing technology transfer. But there isn’t much public evidence of this transfer, since Elbit Systems appears to retain much of the technology. Drones are generally put together from parts brought together from many suppliers, and the useful technology is in the parts, not so much in the ‘system’.

Watchkeeper provided a major cash infusion to Elbit Systems, which has noted that recently declining revenues from Watchkeeper have had an impact on its bottom line. Among its many products, Elbit provides security technology in Israel, including on the partition wall, and in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

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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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More Watchkeeper Drone Boondoggle

News that France’s Dessault and Britain’s BAE are cooperating to build a new drone to compete with the American Predator drone is another indication of what a colossal waste of money the UK Watchkeeper programme has been.

One of the original justifications for the programme was the possibility of building a domestic drones programme. (Why the government didn’t think that the existing BAE drones programme wasn’t a domestic drones programme isn’t clear. Perhaps they wanted to have an alternative to the scandal plagued BAE).

But in the many years that the Watchkeeper programme has dragged along, the nature of drones and drone warfare has moved on, and the market for drones has changed. Israeli drones manufacturers have been building turnkey drone manufacturing plants around the world, rather than focussing on exports. Any country with a developed or nascent manufacturing sector can have its own national drone, using Israeli technology.

Rather than involving a technology transfer to the UK from the leading edge Israel, Watchkeeper has helped Israel to make inroads into the NATO infrastructure, and permitted the rogue state to integrate itself further into western military structures.

Watchkeeper Drone

Watchkeeper has provided the UK with 54 extremely expensive drones, little more. There appears to be little potential for exports. The British taxpayer is the loser.

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US Drones Patrol Western Canadian Border

US Customs and Border Protection has flown a Predator-B drone patrol along the Western Canadian border from Lake of the Woods, Minnesota to near Spokane, Washington, using an expanded ‘Certificate of Authorisation’.  (It is already flying drones on an eastern section of the border, as reported by the CBC. Apparently the patrols focus on the Akwesasne Reserve, subject to persistent allegations of smuggling). Security Magazine reported that the Predators had been grounded for some time by unreported software problems.

This is not the first drone flight along the Western Canadian border, flights have been carried out since February 2009, presumably under a different level of authorisation.It is uncertain how many flights have been carried out, and whether they have provided any useful information. The RCMP believe that they will benefit from information obtained by the American drones. Wired Magazine reported that the drones would be controlled from Grand Forks and their information analysed in Washington and Riverside, California.

MSNBC reports that the drones, which cost more than $10 million each, will have laser spotlights that light up ‘targets’ with light only visible to wearers of special goggles, for example crews of intercepting helicopters.

There is no indication the drone was armed, although Predator drones are the mainstay of US attacks on Pakistani territory. Government Security News reports that there were two Predator B drones operating from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota in 2009, which is  the home base of these drones.

One assumes that the Predator now has, or will have, an array of surveillance equipment. UPI reports that the drones would transmit ‘live video, radar streams, and photos of footprints’  back to base. Scripps News reports that there would be both infrared and HD video.

One assumes, though that may be too much to assume, that the drone will fly only in American air space. The drones would be able to fly in Canadian airspace with Canadian permission. Would that require them to meet Canadian standards for flying in civilian air space?

The drone will gather information from the immediate border territory as well as well beyond the border into adjacent parts of Canada. Scripps News reported that the Predator’s sensor array monitors a 25 mile (40 km) swath of land, but won’t be flown within 10 miles (15 km) of the Canadian border, meaning that it would monitor a 15 mile (25 km) swath of land within Canada.

(Scripps News reported scepticism over the drone deployment, noting that several commentators felt it was a technological solution promoted for political purposes).

It is uncertain what types of information are best obtained from Predator drones. There are other types of surveillance arrayed near the border (I’ve encountered cameras on the border years ago in Waterton Park). And satellites are capable of providing very detailed images if required.

Will the drones simply make occasional or regular passes along the border? Will they sometimes stay ‘in situ’ overhead, circling? Will they be collecting other data about Canada or Canadians, essentially covert long distance espionage?

One imagines long periods in which the drone operators and the people analysing the data find nothing at all. The area monitored will be approximately the size of Great Britain. Perhaps they will spend their time gathering data for their next fishing trip north of the line? Will they be spotting marijuana patches in the Kootenai Mountains? More sinisterly, will there be a lot of false positives, generating tensions between the two countries?

Dvorak Uncensored blog reported that US border official Michael Kostelnik as saying:

“There are vast parts of the border where, on any given day, we’re not sure what’s going on, so part of this is to try to deal with the unknown and not be surprised.”

Most of us could telling him what is mostly happening on a given day. Not very much at all .

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Europeans Test Jet Powered UAV in Canada

Few Canadians would have known about tests in 2009 and 2011 by a European consortium of jet powered drones from a Canadian Forces air base. It appears not to have been reported.

In 2009 the European collaboration EADS tested its jet powered drone, the ‘technology demonstrator’ Barracuda (now morphing into the Talarion), at Goose Bay Air Forces Base, Newfoundland.

The previous test flight of the Barracuda in 2006 had resulted in a crash.

In 2010 the Barracuda flew again this time making  four sorties without crashing. View a video of it flying here.

Chris Pocock, writing in suggested that there was little evidence of progress in the development of this drone and that the programme was shrouded in secrecy. He wrote:

‘It seems that Zoller has banned all mention of the Barracuda and the follow-on UCAV development. Perhaps he is concerned that another crash will dent the nations’ enthusiasm for proceeding with the Advanced UAV.’

(Pocock might have mentioned that the same concerns might come from Canadians unwilling to see a drone crash in Newfoundland.)

He reported that EADS claimed it wasn’t working on armed drone programmes because it saw no deliveries for armed drones in the next ten years.

The Barracuda was resurrected so that EADS could use it to work out various UAV technologies, and is funded largely by Germany’s BWB, an arm of the German defence ministry.

Wikipedia, in an unreferenced opinion, suggests that Barracuda’s competition is the French/Swedish project Dassault’s ‘nEUROn’. Barracuda and Talarion are supported by Germany and Spain.

In January, 2011, Alan Dron writing in C4ISR, noted that European countries have struggled to fund medium sized UAV drones. His article is an extensive exploration of the issues.

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