Posts Tagged Parc Aberporth

French pilots have been flying British Israeli Watchkeeper Drones in the UK

The French government is carrying on an evaluation programme to consider whether to buy the UK-Israeli Watchkeeper drone. Watchkeeper is the much delayed drone that will likely be introduced to the UK MOD in 2014. It is based on the Hermes 450 produced by the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, which is used extensively in the occupation of Palestine. Watchkeeper was first flown on Israeli test ranges, and more recently at Parc Aberporth in Wales. (A history of Watchkeeper can be read here).

Examples of the drone have evaluated in France, but it isn’t clear whether they have been flown there. It was revealed yesterday that French controllers have flown Watchkeeper at Parc Aberporth, in restricted air space. Apparently the flights did not involve UK MOD, so presumably were done in cooperation with the prime contractor Thales, (French arms company).

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Noisy Watchkeeper Drones

Videos of the first UK flight of the new Watchkeeper drone reappeared on Youtube this week. The first flight of Watchkeeper drone in the UK took place several years ago, after the drone was initially tested in Israel by French arms company Thales and its Israeli partner Elbit Systems. Thales is tasked with producing a new British drone from an Israeli prototype, the Hermes 450. So far the project is almost three years late, and Thales has been forced to pay the cost of British ISTAR surveillance in Afghanistan (that Watchkeeper was supposed to provide).

What is clear from the video is how irritating is the noise of the Watchkeeper drone. Residents near the Welsh drone testing site at Parc Aberporth have long complained about the incessant noise of Watchkeeper tests. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza say that the Hermes 450 drone used by the Israeli occupation forces is used not only for surveillance and assassination, but for harrassment and intimidation, as the high pitched engine noise overhead cannot be ignored.

Curiously, the long delays in finalising the Watchkeeper have been blamed by the UK Ministry of Defence on the need to certify Watchkeeper in civilian airspace. Yet it is difficult to see how the noisy Watchkeeper drone can be used in civilian airspace without creating annoyance and alarm to civilian populations.

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Watchkeeper Drone Programme Continues to Annoy Local Citizens

The Watchkeeper drone, meant to be used by British forces in Afghanistan, is almost two and a half years late. As Thales, the primary contractor, tries to adapt Watchkeeper to fly in civilian airspace the time they are spending at Parc Aberporth has been extended, with no announcement when the drones will finally be introduced. Originally citing Watchkeeper as essential for the Afghanistan war, the UK MOD has recently purchased five Predator drones to add to those they already have. Predators are equipped for assassination, which Watchkeeper presently is not, leaving one to ask the question whether the MOD has any use at all for the excessively expensive Watchkeeper drone, intended only for surveillance. And the fact that the Predators won’t be available for several months suggests that Watchkeeper will be delayed for many more months.

A Welsh peace group, Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice, has been monitoring the Watchkeeper programme at the airfield Parc Aberporth. They learned recently that the restricted flying zone around Parc Aberporth has been expanded. These ‘Danger Areas’ are meant to warn pilots that they may encounter unpiloted drone aircraft.

The Watchkeeper drones (see video) are based on the notoriously noisy Israeli Hermes 450 drones. The latter are used to monitor residents of occupied West Bank and Gaza, and the high pitched whining sound of the British made ‘Wankel’ engine is meant to intimidate those below. (The presence of a drone may signal a missile attack, or a visit from security forces). In Wales they are simply annoying.

BEPJ also reported recently that trainee drone pilots are frustrated by the poor flying conditions at Parc Aberporth, which severely restricts the days of flying.

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Watchkeeper UAV programme drones on…. and on, and on.

News from Wales suggests that Watchkeeper drones are still being tested at Parc Aberporth. And there are rumours that the testing will continue for a couple of months more. The noisy machines are readily noticed when they are operating at the small airport in Wales which has tried to bill itself as a drones testing centre, but will be pretty much vacant if the Watchkeeper project is ever completed.

The Watchkeeper programme has been an embarassment for the government, but one that has luckily (for them) been under the radar of most Brits. Recently the billion pound programme was singled out by an audit office as being of special concern. It appeared brought back on track when the government dropped certain criteria from the project. It was dropped from the list of project of special concern. But even after that ‘bailout’ the project has failed to meet delivery expectations. MP Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, has recently had the job of making excuses for the project, claiming that the project was taking time to meet certification standards for BOTH military and civilian air worthiness. What he didn’t explain is why Watchkeeper has not been released to fly in Afghanistan where military standards apply which are much easier to meet.

Or why, if Watchkeeper is such a big improvement in drone technology, it isn’t been rushed to troops in Afghanistan. Could it be that the Watchkeeper, which is based on the same Hermes 450 currently being rented from Elbit Systems for use in Afghanistan, isn’t enough of an improvement to warrant hurrying the project along? Is it possible that the Watchkeeper has been a billion pound white elephant that is largely obsolete by the time it is introduced? Is it possible that the government could have met its surveillance needs by renting a few drones from existing drone suppliers, at vastly reduced costs, and then returned them to the supplier when not needed, as Canada and Australia did?

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Is Thales Scrambling to Save Watchkeeper Programme’s Future?

After the recent Anglo French summit on 16 February, 2012, the possibility of the UK selling France the Watchkeeper drone system seemed dimmed, although the French agreed to evaluate the programme with regard to its own needs over the next couple of years.

Watchkeeper drone: France confirms its interest for the Watchkeeper system recognising the opportunities this would create for cooperation on technical, support, operational and development of doctrine and concepts.  An evaluation of the system by France will begin in 2012, in the framework of its national procurement process, and conclude in 2013. (Source)

While the French expressed an ‘interest’ in the Watchkeeper, it was certainly far less than any proponent would want to take to the bank.

Thales, the giant French arms company which produces Watchkeeper in partnership with Elbit Systems of Israel, immediately issued a statement claiming that the Watchkeeper was to become the ‘pillar of Anglo-French cooperation‘. Whereas a more skeptical observer might have seen the minimal reference to Watchkeeper in the summit communique as a brushoff.

The Watchkeeper drone has been expensive and much delayed, leading the programme to receive the attention of the National Audit Office.  The UK MOD has had to rely on rented Hermes 450 drones to accomplish their surveillance roles in Afghanistan during a period when they had planned to use Watchkeeper.

In February, 2012 Thales claimed that operational trials of Watchkeeper were to begin shortly at Parc Aberporth, the drones test site in Wales. Thales also claimed that some Watchkeeper related equipment had already be delivered to Afghanistan. Yet it remains that the programme is seriously delayed and getting later by the day.

It must weigh heavily on Thales that France’s Socialist-controlled Senate as recently as November, 2012 called for France to buy the American made Reaper drone over the Israeli made Heron. The Socialists also wanted less money spent on drones and an emphasis on French and European companies.

Should the Socialist Party win the upcoming French elections as expected, Watchkeeper might very well drop off the French shopping list.

Thales’ publicity can be interpreted as an attempt to keep the Watchkeeper programme alive in the face of diminishing enthusiasm. While Thales has bragged about the ‘considerable pedigree‘ of the Watchkeeper drone, which is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450, it doesn’t mention that the Hermes 450 is widely believed to have been involved in the attack on Gaza by Israeli forces in 2009, in which hundreds of women and children died. Also, an earlier attack on Lebanon. A less appealing aspect of its pedigree.

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Watchkeeper Testing and Training and Deployment

Watchkeeper is an updated Hermes 450, which Israel’s Elbit Systems has sold or leased to many armed forces, and which has been used over the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza. Elbit will be a key player in the development of Watchkeeper which contains much Elbit technology. It also owns 51% of U-TacS, which builds Watchkeeper, and will have a large part to play in the operation and maintenance of the Watchkeeper fleet. Unsurprisingly, Thales takes the lead in publicising Watchkeeper, no doubt due to the sensitivities about having an Israeli company so integrally involved in UK arms purchases.

The new Watchkeeper was initially tested in Israel at Elbit’s test flying range at Megiddo, Israel.   The purpose of the Israeli tests was to make sure that the Watchkeeper was safe to fly in the UK. (Why Israelis or Palestinians should be sacrificed to keep Britons safe wasn’t discussed. Perhaps they weren’t informed).

In April 2010 it was flown on a twenty minute flight at Parc Aberporth, the Qinetic test range in Wales, which was extended for the purpose.

Later, the flights will take place over Salisbury Plain and will be launched from Qinetic’s Boscombe Field facility at Salisbury. A training facility will be operated by Thales at Salisbury.

Thales claims that the Hermes have flown at +55C in Iraq, and that Watchkeeper will be tested at temperatures ranging from -34C to +49C.

Watchkeeper drones will initially be deployed along with the existing Hermes 450 drones used by the UK in operations in Afghanistan.

The Watchkeeper joint MOD/Thales Service and Training delivery teams will be based at Abbey Wood, Bristol and at Larkhill Salisbury.  They will be assisted by Thales support personnel from Leicester and Crawley. (The ones from Leicester would presumably be U-TacS employees from the Watchkeeper manufacturing facility).

Troops from 32 Regiment Royal Artillery will train at Parc Aberporth and later at Salibury, as they are the ones who will ultimately control the drones in the field. Employees from Thales (actually U-TacS?) will handle launches and landings, and military personnel will handle the remainder of the flight.

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