Posts Tagged Thales
This week Agence France Press reported that France would like to buy US Predator drones. The US has used Predator drones for surveillance and to assassinate enemies in widely separated parts of the world, and apparently supported France with Predator drones in France’s incursion into Mali.
La Tribune has reported that in order to bypass the US debate about armed drones, France might want to purchase unarmed Predators initially, then add armed drones in a few years time. La Tribune also noted there is a French debate about whether it is worth it to continue with a domestic European drone programme, when export possibilities are limited by France’s participation in the Missile Technology Control Regime. As a member of MTCR, France would only be able to export to specific countries, under specific conditions. (Israel, the world’s second major drone producer after the US, is not a member of MTCR, and is therefore not limited by its provisions).
Last year France agreed to consider purchasing Watchkeeper ‘MALE’* drones from UTacS, the Franco-Israeli consortium contracted by UK MOD to produce 54 of the drones. The UK would like to sell some Watchkeeper drones, (the programme was in part justified by the potential of export sales) and a Watchkeeper purchase would benefit Thales, the French partner in the consortium. But Watchkeeper is almost three years late, and the decision by France to consider Watchkeeper smacks more of a wish to appear patriotic, as well as placate its defense partner Britain, than any genuine desire to buy the troubled British drone.
*Medium Altitude Long Endurance
Both the Dassault-BAE consortium and Thales appear to be playing high pressure, ‘press release’ politics over the Anglo French plan to have a joint drone programme. Earlier in the year the Sarkozy government announced the intention to go with a Dassault BAE programme, leaving the hapless UK Watchkeeper programme in the cold. Thales, the Watchkeeper joint venturer, immediately announced that the Watchkeeper drone would also be studied by the French government. Then, after the election of the Hollande government, the French seemed to back away from the Dassault BAE option. This week, Dassault BAE announced that their proposal was ready to go and simply needed a signature. Whether this means that the French and British are on board, or whether the announcement was simply pressure on both governments by the arms company consortium doesn’t seem clear.
Watchkeeper is a Thales-Elbit Systems joint venture aimed at giving the UK a medium altitude, long endurance drone. Watchkeeper is long overdue, and UK MOD makes excuses for the Franco Israeli effort saying that the delays are because of the need to get certification for civilian air space. But this does not explain why the drone, which is supposed to be far superior to the Hermes 450 drone on which it is based, is not being used in Afghanistan, where civilian certification is not neeeded. Nor does it explain why this supposedly state of the art drone isn’t the hands down favourite for the Anglo French joint drone capability, since its massive development costs are already paid for.
So far it appears that Watchkeeper may have been a billion pound boondoggle that provided a huge cash infusion to the Israeli arms industry at a time when the UK was claiming kudos from not arming the supremicist state after its attack on Gaza in 2009.
Britain’s new Watchkeeper drone was extensively tested in Israel. In August 2008 Thales, co-contractor on the Watchkeeper programme noted that the Watchkeeper’s ‘ATOL’ facility was being tested in Israel. (ATOL stands for automated takeoff and landing and appears to be an innovation that takes Watchkeeper beyond the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 on which it is based). The three successful automatic takeoffs and landings, were witnessed by several journalists, according to Thales. The flights took place at the Megiddo Airfield, in Northern Israel.
The Watchkeeper ATOL software was developed at the Thales facility in Crawley, UK.
It’s not the first time that Watchkeeper was flown in Israel. Initial flight testing of Watchkeeper was carried out in Israel, before being moved to the UK.
There is no indication that the Israeli Hermes 450 drone has had ATOL capability previously, though the capabilities of Israeli drones used by the Israeli military are not necessarily known. Given that Watchkeeper now has ATOL capability, it may be that the British taxpayer has paid for research and development costs for an innovation that can be retrofitted to earlier Hermes 450 drone versions. (The high cost of Watchkeeper is mostly due to the development costs of enhanced capabilities to ‘improve’ the Hermes 450s. The basic Hermes 450 could have been purchased or leased for much less cost).
The Elbit Systems Hermes 900 has ATOL capabilities. It isn’t clear whether these capabilities were developed independently from the Thales effort to provide ATOL for Watchkeeper.
Of course, given that Watchkeeper is based on the Hermes 450, MOST of the development and testing of Watchkeeper has happened in Israel, including a great deal of ‘field testing’ attacking Palestinians in Gaza.
Although the UK MOD has previously stated that it has no plans to arm the Watchkeeper MALE drones scheduled to enter service in the next few months, there is pressure from various sources to add arms to the new drone.
Certainly there is a precedent, because it is widely believed that the Israeli Hermes 450 drone, on which Watchkeeper is based, is armed with missiles and has be used to attack Palestinian positions in Gaza.
There are elements in the UK MOD which are pursuing the option of arming Watchkeeper. Major Matt Moore, an MOD official overseeing the fielding of Watchkeeper in Afghanistan has stated that MOD is considering proposals to arm Watchkeeper with a ‘low collateral damage’ missile. And certainly Thales, the co-contractor of the Watchkeeper system, has made no secret of its wish to arm the Watchkeepers with LMM missiles manufactured by Thales. The LMM was developed in Thales’ Belfast facility.
Military.com has reported that Thales and BAE have considered arming BAE’s Fury UAVs with Thales Javelin missiles. Fury is based on the Herti drone, which has seen deployment in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, there is a programme to arm the BAE Mantis drone, according to military.com.
The UK military already has armed Predator drones which it acquired from the US and which are deployed in Afghanistan.
No doubt Watchkeeper will be introduced without arms to reduce public scrutiny of the controversial weapon, which was late, overpriced, and widely believed to be a poor deal for Britain. At a time when drone assassinations are under increasing public scrutiny, adding weapons to a drone that was sold to the public as a surveillance tool will not be popular.
CND activists from Leicester protested at the Thales arms manufacturing site in Leicester. The plant produces components for the beleagured Watchkeeper drone. The Watchkeeper drone is overdue and is being monitored by the UK government.
Updates to follow.
Thales, of France, says it has a number of Hermes 45o drones to sell or rent, after they come back from Afghanistan. Drones operated by Thales are used by the UK in Afghanistan, and will (in theory) be replaced by the delayed Watchkeeper drone. Hermes 450’s are produced by Elbit of Israel, and are managed by Thales probably because as an Israeli company Elbit would have difficulty operating in Afghanistan or Middle Eastern countries.
Shephard News points out that this may pose a problem for Thales, since flogging the used Hermes 450s from Afghanistan would put it in direct competition with its business partner Elbit, which is continuing to market Hermes 450 drones, as well as turn key factories for producing Hermes drones in other countries.
Watchkeeper was promoted as an exportable product for the UK, but a glut of used Hermes 450 drones would probably exacerbate the dim prospects for Watchkeeper as a UK export.
University of Bristol engineering students have toured facilities of Thales, the coventurer of the Watchkeeper programme.
As well as promoting their company to prospective young engineers, the tours have a ‘bloodwash’ component, allowing Thales to promote its arms manufacturing venture as a normal manufacturing enterprise.
Thales, which is partnered with Elbit Systems of Israel in the Watchkeeper Programme, is a major French based arms manufacturer.
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest arms company and provides drones, and security systems, which are used by the Israeli armed forces, including those involved in the occupation of Palestine and the maintenance of the separation wall that imposes a de facto apartheid on the people of Palestine.