Posts Tagged France
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).
In June 2012 Drone Wars UK discussed a mysterious strike on a convoy of trucks in Northern Mali, and argued that the strikes may have been carried out using an American drone, though this was neither confirmed nor denied by US officials. (Predator drones were known to be flown in the area at that time-ed).
In October 2012 the French government announced that it planned to send unarmed reconnaissance drones, Harfangs from 1/33 Belfort squadron, to aid its military presence in Mali, as its soldiers were fighting an Al-Qaida backed insurgency. In January the government announced that the deployment of the Israeli made drones had taken place. This video of French paratroopers being deployed was taken by a Harfang drone. Harfang drones are from the Heron family of drones produced by IAI of Israel.
In early 2013 Wall Street Journal reported that some military in the US were calling for US armed drone strikes in Mali (but none seem to have happened, at least not with public knowledge-ed).
In February, Le Monde announced that American drones were being used to support French troops in Mali.
In March 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that US Reaper drones were providing targetting information for French airstrikes against insurgent positions, as many as 60 strikes a week.
Europe 1 reported that a dozen Al Qaeda in Maghreb fighters had been killed by French forces with the help of a surveillance drone on the night of March 4. It was claimed that the strikes killed prominent insurgent Oumar Ould Hamaha.
In April 2013 an American Reaper drone crashed in Mali, due to ‘mechanical failure’. The drone had been one of two based in Niger to provide drone surveillance to support French forces on the ground. These in turn had replaced Predator drones deployed earlier.
In April France said it would buy 12 US Reaper drones to replace its Harfang drones. Reuters reported that the French had found that they had a shortage of drones suited to the conditions and had been using camera-equipped Cessna airplanes for surveillance, which had proved inadequate. (Apparently the US had flown reconnaissance piloted airplanes over Northern Mali for several years previously).
Reuters reported that France had eventually received delivery of two Reaper drones and that those would be operating in Mali by the end of 2013. The Hill reported that the two Reapers were the first of 12 acquired in a deal done with US based General Atomics in June and, incorrectly it seems, that the drones would be armed with US Hellfire missiles. The Hill also reported that the initial two drones, at least, would be operating from a site in Niger. Defence Web reported that the sale of Reaper drones to France had been approved in August 2013, and that a total of 12 drone with four ground stations would be delivered by 2015 or 2016.
In early 2014 the Medium.com published photos of a joint drone base operated by the US and France, located near Niamey, the capital of Niger. The Medium speculated about whether drones from the base would conduct armed attacks, and whether the unarmed French Reapers would be eventually armed. Defense News reported that the first French Reaper flight occurred, in early January, 2014 from the base in Niamey, using US-equipped sensors.
In the first week of March, 2014, France claimed to have killed Omar Ould Hamaha, insurgent leader, using information supplied by a Reaper drones. The same week it was claimed that French forces attacked and killed insurgents at a rocket cache in Mali, with the help of drones.
In July 2014, French President Francois Hollande visited Niamey, and was greeted with a fly-over by French Reaper drone. Later the French military showed off footage of the visit to Hollande, who could pick out members of his entourage. At this point France continued to have two Reapers and one Harfang drone based at their Niamey base. (Three Mirage jets were based in Niger and three Rafale jets in Chad, but it isn’t clear whether the Mirage jets were bases at Niamey). The Bloomberg article detailed some of the business interests that France has in Niger and the region.
Also in July, a French Reaper was the first to spot an Algerian passenger plane that had crashed in Mali.
In September 2014 an article in the Washington Post reported that the US was building another drone base in Niger, at Agadey. The article speculated that the US would discontinue using the joint US-France base at Niamey, though it didn’t say what would happen with the more than 100 US troops deployed there to protect the base.
By late 2014 concerns were being raised about the US base in Agadey, because of local resentment and fears that the based would draw extremist attacks on the town. Concerns were also raised that France and the US were more concerned with securing mineral resources in the region than in fighting terrorism. An FT article also noted growing instability in the region and noted the difficult of France to monitor the situation.
French, Malian, and UN troops were still being attacked and in October French forces intercepted an arms shipment from Libya bound for Malian insurgents.
In early October 2014 French forces destroyed an arms convoy from southeast Libya being sent to insurgents in Niger. The convoy had been followed from Libya by a French Reaper drone. Fox News also reported that French troops supported by US intelligence planned to move north toward the Libyan border. Voice of America reported that both the US and France were marshalling forces further north to cut off growing insurgency in southern Libya.
This article is incomplete, particularly with respect to the large number of airstrikes know to have been carried out in Mali against insurgents, with the help of drones. Any further information or direction to sources gratefully received.
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.
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).
It appears that the UK Watchkeeper drone might not be British at all. Questions arise whether French and Israeli arms companies will be the primary beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse.
The drone paid for by British taxpayers seem to be in the process of being flogged around the world by Thales, the French arms company that has been improving the drone beyond the Israeli Hermes 450 prototype on which it is based.
In 2013 the French government offered to test Watchkeeper, and apparently it has made flights in France, at a French air base. Thales is also said to be trying to sell Watchkeeper to Qatar, the desert oil dictatorship.
The UK already sells crowd control ammunition to the Qatari dynasty, so presumably there wouldn’t be serious reservations about selling them surveillance drones as well. Whether Thales plans to sell the wholly certified version of Watchkeeper to the Qataris isn’t certain. If Thales is successful in demonstrating that Watchkeeper doesn’t crash too often or interfere with civilian aircraft, it may get civil airspace certification. That would enable it to sell Watchkeeper for surveillance of urban populations in a range of countries experiencing insurgency or protests. I am unaware of a publicly available document that delimits the rights of Thales to sell the taxpayer funded drone technology abroad.
However it was recently reported in ihs.com that Thales has up to half a dozen potential customers for Watchkeeper. The article didn’t name these, but one could speculate that a range of vulnerable ME dictatorships may be included, even the Canadian government which is no doubt keen to monitor anti-pipeline activists.
Some questions: Does Thales get all the profits from taxpayer funded defence research?
Is the UK government prepared to expand its role in providing arms and technology for population surveillance and control?
Does the Thales/Elbit Systems partnership, allow the Israeli company access to new technology developed at British taxpayer expense?