Posts Tagged Thales
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.
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.
There is startlingly little fuss being made over the imminent introduction of the long delayed Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone expected in just a few weeks. Delayed by years, the drone has been an embarrassment to both the British military and the prime contractor Thales.
Originally touted as essential for Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan, the drone will likely never be introduced to that operational theatre, due to the delays. The army has since found that it could do just as well with armed Predator-type drones, as well as rented Israeli surveillance drones. Meanwhile, the long delays in finishing Watchkeeper have been blamed on the need for ‘civilian airspace certification’, although it hasn’t been satisfactorily explained why that is needed since UK military drones have so far operated in remote areas, where conflict with civilian air traffic is not an issue.
Perhaps the greatest reason that Watchkeeper introduction has been kept to a low profile is that the drone is primarily an Israeli creation. Watchkeeper’s earliest years coincided with the infamous Cast Lead attack on Gaza, when hundreds of Palestinians, including a very large number of women and children, were killed by Israeli forces. Drones were heavily involved in that attack, and subsequent ones.
Watchkeeper is the anglicised version of the Hermes 450 drone used throughout the Cast Lead attacks, and many times since. Its maker, Elbit Systems, brags that their drones are ‘combat tested’, and their company officials have noted that the active participation of Elbit designers in Israel’s military activities means that the Hermes 450 is constantly updated and fixed to reflect the experiences of the Israeli military (which are largely gained in attacks on Gaza and suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank).** So, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone owes a debt to Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation.
Watchkeeper’s first flights were at the Megido airfield in northern Israel. (They were originally scheduled for and airport in the occupied territories, until British officials objected to the ‘optics’ of that). There is considerable Israeli equipment and intellectual property on Watchkeeper, including the take off and landing system, the engine, and the basic design. It has never been certain what Elbit’s returns from the £1 billion contract have been, but they will have been considerable.
Britain’s embrace of the Hermes 450 model has also been good for Elbit. Britain’s rented Hermes 450’s have flown thousands of hours in Afghanistan (several have crashed). And Watchkeeper has flown countless test hour from Parc Aberporth in Wales. Those experiences have filtered back to Elbit, and no doubt been incorporated into the design of updated Hermes models, including the Hermes 900 now being sold around the world. These updated Hermes drones will eventually be used again in the suppression of the occupied Palestinians, meaning that British use of Hermes-based drones have had a direct effect on subjugated people in the Middle East.
**It’s possible that Israeli arms company employees are actually involved specifically in the deployment of Israeli drones in combat situations, although this hasn’t been confirmed directly.
The long delayed Watchkeeper surveillance drone programme has been barely in the news for months, even as deadlines were missed, and the UK military operations in Afghanistan wind down. But news this week may put it in the spotlight again.
There is a joint summit between Francois Hollande and David Cameron this week at RAF Brize Norton this week.
This is ostensibly to restart the joint defense treaty/arms trade strategy that the two countries negotiated in 2010, which ploughed into quicksand when the Parti Socialiste won the French elections in 2012 and promptly reviewed the arms procurement arrangements made by the Sarkozy government.
Writing in Defense News, Andrew Chuter and Pierre Tran have speculated that the conversation could involve a statement of French interest in the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
Thales, the French arms company, is the prime contractor and partner with Elbit Systems of Israel in the Watchkeeper programme, which has belatedly resulted in a British built drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450. Thales fortunes appeared to rise after the election of the Socialistes, while its rival Dassault appeared to fall.
Thales has been lobbying hard to have the French government buy the Watchkeeper drone, and French operators have flown the drone at Parc Aberporth in Wales. It is also believed that they may fly the drone this summer in Canada, possibly at the UK training base at Suffield Aberta.
Also discussed at the summit may be a proposal to build an armed combat drone, in which France’s Dassault and Britain’s BAE might build the airframe, Thales and Silex the electronics, Rolls Royce and Snecma the engine, according the Chuter and Tran. Proponents want the programme to begin immediately, ostensibly so that the French air force that evaluate how an armed drone would fit into ‘the operational picture’. Though why they couldn’t just use a Predator drone acquired from the US for that purpose isn’t clear.
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?
It is completely predictable that Thales is touting its Watchkeeper drone for roles in `Homeland Security`. (Which essentially means population surveillance, and attacks on domestic dissidents).
Watchkeeper is being introduced three years late, after the UK Military Aviation Authority took extra time to certify the drone to fly in civilian airspace. Since the drone was unnecessary for military purposes, being less versatile than the cheaper and more flexible Predator family of drones, it was clear that the contractor and the government would try to find a new role for the costly new technology.
It is not the physical drone aircraft that is being touted, since the basic aircraft is similar to the Israeli Hermes 450 drone on which it is based, and to other medium altitude, long endurance drones. But, as reported by Anthony Osborne in Aviation Week, Thales believes that it could put the Watchkeeper guidance technology and certification into other aircraft, even the A400M military transport aircraft, just introduced by Airbus. This would make any aircraft into an unmanned air platform useful for many ‘homeland security’ missions. Thales clearly envisions a range of unmanned military and homeland security aircraft flying in civilian airspace, not just surveillance drones.
Approvals received within the last few days should make it possible for Thales and the military to soon achieve certification to operate the drones in Britain’s Salisbury Plains testing area, in the same airspace as manned flights. If they are lucky enough to operate in a mixed flying environment without too many crashes or mishaps (drones crash at an alarming rate), UK military drones may be operating in British of foreign skies in the near future. Political dissidents may soon have the experience of hearing the characteristic sound of drones above them at political demonstrations, just like the occupied people of the West Bank and Gaza.