Posts Tagged Elbit
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.
Project JUSTAS is the Canadian initiative to acquire large military surveillance drones. Like other military procurement projects Project JUSTAS has been delayed for many years by bungled procedures and shifting priorities. Most recently the government is claiming to have finished the acquisition process by 2023, with contracts going out by 2017. The military is still lobbying for armed drones, and it appears that the procurement for military surveillance drones will be separated from the procurement for arctic surveillance drones. Due to the need of the current government to minimise expenditures leading up to the October election no movement is likely to happen before the end of 2015.
General Atomics has lobbied eight government departments, including Department of National Defence and the Canadian Senate, in support of its bid to provide large military drones under Project JUSTAS. Their lobbyist was Patrick Gagnon, of The Parliamentary Group (consulting company and lobbyists) . Gagnon is a former Liberal MP, and former Parliamentary Secretary to the Solicitor General of Canada, and is well connected due to many roles in government. General Atomics would also like to sell the Canadian government its Avenger drone for arctic surveillance competing with the ‘Polar Hawk-Global Hawk’ offering of Raytheon (see below).
Also lobbying the government with respect to Project JUSTAS was MacDonald Dettwiler Associates (MDA), a Canadian company with widespread business with the government. Most pertinent is its role providing the Canadian Government with leased Heron MALE drones for use by Canadian forces in Afghanistan. (The lease ran out in 2011). Though the public lobbying records don’t state it, presumably MDA would act as an agent for Israeli Aerospace Industries, manufacturers of the Heron MALE drone. The active lobbyists for MDA are listed as Daniel Friedman, CEO, and Donald Osborne, the Executive Vice President of MDA. Records show that Osborne lobbied Bill Jones, Senior Associate Deputy Minister National Defence, though it isn’t certain that Project JUSTAS was the subject of all communication between the two. There were other contacts with respect to Project JUSTAS as well.
Raytheon, and American arms company producing the ‘Global Hawk’ family of jet powered drones also lobbied the Canadian government on a variety of subjects, including Project JUSTAS. Raytheon has been trying to sell the Canadian Government Global Hawk variants for arctic patrols.
Elbit Systems, the large Israeli arms company, retains powerful CFN Consultants to lobby on its behalf. Lobby records don’t show any communications with the government within the past year. CFN Consultants is made up mostly of former military personnel with strong ties in government circles.
Thales, the French arms company which promotes the Anglo Israeli Watchkeeper drone, uses Bluesky Strategy Group as its registered lobbyist had three recorded contacts with the Department of National Defence in the past year. But it isn’t recorded whether the Watchkeeper drone was discussed.
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.
France continues to debate the replacement of its older drones, and may buy an Israeli product. The UK military-industrial complex is trying to sell it to them.
Some elements of the French military support purchase of the Anglo Israeli Watchkeeper drone, which they viewed in Afghanistan, and pronounced satisfactory for their purposes. French chef d’état-major des armées,General Pierre de Villiers is advocating for Watchkeeper. France is holding a competitions for replacement of its tactical drones, to be completed in mid 2015. The competition would chose between offerings from Elbit/Thales, Sagem, Airbus, and a joint venture of Latécoère and Israeli Aircraft Industries. At least one of the proponents, Sagem, is attempting to ensure their ‘Shadow’ drone has civilian airspace certification, like Watchkeeper. (The French military was less enthusiastic about Watchkeeper after earlier trials).
The French debate is taking no account of the Israeli origin of two of the competitors. Watchkeeper is based on Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 drone, widely used by the Israeli military. The British version is produced by a joint venture of the Israeli company and Thales of France, in which Elbit is the senior partner. Much of the intellectual property on which Watchkeeper is based is owned by Elbit; Elbit will benefit significantly from any sale of additional Watchkeeper drones. Thales is a French arms company favoured by the French Socialist party. Elbit markets its drone products as ‘combat proven’, thanks to its use in attacks on Gaza and the suppression of the West Bank.
Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) is teamed with French company Latécoère to sell the Israeli Heron drone. Heron is also used by the Israeli military in its illegal occupation of Palestine and has been sold and leased widely to other countries.
French generals viewed Watchkeeper in Afghanistan in mid 2014. It seems likely that a major reason for taking the new drone to Afghanistan was for sales promotion and public relations, since there don’t appear to be any significant military reasons for having it there, given that the last British forces with withdrawn immediately afterward (and the military already had fit for purpose drones in Afghanistan). Flight Global reports that Watchkeeper was used to pass information along to a Reaper drone which carried out a strike on an unspecified target.
If that is true, UK MOD was in the position of making a combat mission for the purpose of helping a French company sell a mostly Israeli drone to the French military. ‘Combat proven’ indeed.
(UK MOD denied the obvious conclusion that the Watchkeeper deployment was a demonstration or trial, in an interview with Tim Ripley of IHS Janes Defence Weekly. It isn’t clear whether Ripley was aware of the French contingent viewing the Watchkeeper deployment).
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.
Israeli arms companies are quick to point out their close association with the Israeli military, and the fact that many of their key development staff are active members of the military. Since much of the effort of the military has been the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, and the blockade and attacks on Gaza, it follows that many of these staff have been integrally involved in the brutal occupation of the West Bank, and many of Israel’s incursions into Gaza and Lebanon.
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest drones manufacturer and the world’s largest drone exporter. Elbit’s Chief Financial Officer, Joseph Gasper, was recently interviewed by Financial Times, claiming that Elbit’s employees with active involvement in the Israeli military gave it “quick feedback” on whether those systems were working and whether they needed addressing. Elbit is a part of the Israeli military, and the Israeli occupation is a testing ground and feedback mechanism for the development arm of the Israeli arms industry.
In a country where military, government, and arms company roles are a virtual revolving door, it is not hard to imagine that there are strong finanical incentives to suggest military solutions to political problems. Elbit Systems not only profits from sales to the Israeli military and occupation forces, it uses the “combat proven” experience it gains from attacks on Gaza dn the surveillance of the West Bank to promote arms sales worldwide.