Posts Tagged UAV
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 British-Israeli ‘Watchkeeper’ drone passed another milestone this week with little fanfare, mostly press released-based articles and little critical comment. The new military drone is years late and has been restricted to flying in closed airspace in Wales, until it could be ‘certified’ to fly in civilian air space. This week the MOD was permitted to begin flights over the Salisbury Plain.
Lacking in the coverage this week has been has been any reference to the origin of most Watchkeeper technology, the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems (which advertises its drone products as ‘combat tested’ in the occupation of Palestine and the suppression of Gaza). Watchkeeper has ‘deep roots’ in the Israeli war machine and consequently in the human rights abuses that characterise that occupation. An extensive briefing paper on Israel’s role in the production and proliferation of drones has recently been released by Drone Wars UK.
Also lacking is analysis of the overall British and European drone strategy, and how Watchkeeper fits into it. Statewatch this month released a comprehensive report detailing the shocking level of European public spending on the development of drones, mostly to the benefit of domestic European arms companies and goals for research and market development.
It was hardly surprising that safety concerns were sloughed off in the press release-based coverage. Colonel Mark Thornhill of the UK MOD has downplayed safety risks, suggesting that Watchkeeper is certified the same way that manned aircraft are certified (but conveniently sidestepping the obvious difference that operators are not on board the aircraft). Drone Wars UK has documented the alarming crash rate of drones in the Drone Crash Database.
Although MOD point man Col Mark Thornhill said that Watchkeeper would be used in support of military operations within the UK, none of the media appears to have asked him what military operations in the UK he might be referring to.
Thornhill was also allowed to state without challenge that Watchkeeper would not be ‘armed’, while neglecting him to challenge him on the obvious point that ‘unarmed’ drones are part of integrated military systems for identifying and destroying ‘targets’. Laterally, British allies like the US and Israel have used drones for preemptive killings of suspects outside active war zones.
There is a growing awareness of the vast covert campaign being operated by the CIA and NATO to assassinate people they perceive as enemies, in several countries across Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Death squads have long been the preserve of authoritarian governments who kill their enemies at will without reference to human rights or the rule of law. But western governments have increasingly been using the technique, often with the help of armed or unarmed drones.
While revelations are emerging that drone death squads often kill ‘civilians’, including women and children, there is less attention paid to the daily arbitrary killing of men who are not fighting, but are designated for death because they appear to be in a proscribed group. Often the decision to kill someone is left to a small team of operators thousands of miles away, who carry out death sentences on people who have may or not be actively involved in military activities.
Minister of Armed Forces Mark Francois recently said that drones would continue to be used to kill people deemed to ‘pose a risk’ to UK armed forces, a disturbingly wide definition that seems to permit the armed forces to kill almost anyone preemtively.
American special forces and the CIA have a long history of assassinating people, in the pursuit of American foreign policy. But it is only recently that NATO has been drawn into this practise, and it appears to be facilitated by the ease with which drones can be used to conduct assassinations, with safety and anonymity for the assassins.
The Canadian government long ago said that it intended to buy a drone system for the Canadian military, and implemented a programme to determine needs and set out criteria for purchase, in the form of Project JUSTAS (Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System).
Very little information has been released to the public that would allow anyone to follow the deliberations of this body, even as a procession of lobbyists have had access to all levels of government.
In October 2013 MacDonald Dettwiler announced that it would provide Canada with Raven hand-launched drones, and associated training and maintenance. It isn’t clear whether this acquisition was related to Project JUSTAS, but clearly the Canadian government is still in the market for large surveillance, or even armed drones.
In November, 2013 the Canadian Defence Minister, Rob Nicholson, welcomed the Israeli Minister of Defence, Moshe Ya’alon, and was effusive about the relationship between Canada and the apartheid regime. Nicholson stated ‘I am confident that we will find avenues to expand our defence relations even further in the near future.” Several ministers in the Conservative government waste no opportunities to support the Netanyahu regime.
While no specifics were released it seems likely that the two discussed the possibility of Canada buying Israeli drones, as Israel has become the largest retailer of drones worldwide. Several Israeli companies make large surveillance drones, of which Israeli Aerospace Industries (Heron family of drones) and Elbit Systems (Hermes family of drones) are the largest. Elbit Systems often tries to sell its drones as ‘turn key’ systems, manufactured in the buyer country to permit ‘manufacturing offsets’. Both companies provide drones to the Israeli military for repressing Palestinians, and both drone systems have been implicated with deaths of civilians in Israeli drone attacks on Gaza. Canada has rented Heron drones from IAI for use by Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
Aside from Israeli companies, America’s Northrup Grumman has been aggressively trying to sell their Global Hawk drone to Canada. However Global Hawk is very expensive and likely to be unpopular with the Conservatative base.
General Atomics, which makes the Predator/Reaper class of drones has been less in evidence, perhaps sensing that the quagmire of Canadian defence procurement is best avoided. Predator/Reapers are cheaper, but are clearly thought of as armed drones, which may be a step the Conservative government isn’t ready to make as an election approaches.
Another possibility for a Canadian drone purchase would be the British-Israeli Watchkeeper, which will be part of UK military exercises at CFB Suffield in 2014. Watchkeeper will likely have civilian airspace certification. The Canadian military claims it doesn’t neen civilian authority to fly drones domestically, but certification would make it easier to fly drones to monitor pipeline protesters, (and other Canadian dissidents), which must surely be one of the goals of the Conservative government. Watchkeeper has a very large Israeli component, which would allow the Harper government to support the Netanyahu government while keeping the purchase within NATO. However the Canadian public is sure to react to buying any equipment from the UK military after the submarine debacle of a few years ago.
The Conservative ministers would have trouble facing their Israeli counterparts if they wasted the most obvious opportunity to make a high profile purchase of military technology from the apartheid regime.
Based on the information that is publicly available it my ‘best guess’ that the Canadian government will announce that it intends to buy one of the Israeli drone options in 2014.
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.
Project Justas, the plan to acquire drones for Canada, is now in the ‘options and analysis’ phase.
JUSTAS stands for ‘Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System’. Which is a euphemism for ‘drone’, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’. The programme has been running for several years, and is slated to produce the acquisition of a medium altitude long endurance drone for Canada in 2014-2017.
The Canadian Defense Department as usual is keeping under wraps the planning for this drone programme, which is certain to result in a well spring of controversy when the decision to acquire a particular drone is presented to the Canadian public in the next couple of years.
The Canadian government would like to have a single operation centre contolling multiple UAV’s doing surveillance in Canada.
Not only will there be considerable controversy about the operational requirements of drones to be used domestically, but there will be controversy about the range of suppliers chosen. The Canadian government has shown a past bias toward Israeli suppliers. Most Israeli companies supplying drones have a history of participation in Israel’s ongoing illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestine. Furthermore, they have a history of proliferation of drone technology to unstable and possibly hostile governments, for example Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. At least one potential Israeli supplier is actively promoting drone sales to various countries in Latin America, which is certain to provoke more border incidents in a region that doesn’t need arms proliferation.
Dave Pugliese, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, has reported American news that the Predator drone patrols along the Canada US border have been expanded to as far as easter Washington State.
The much touted but little praised drone patrols have been occuring for several years now, after being rolled out along the US Mexican boundary, where they are spectacularly inefficient in capturing illegal immigrants to the US. Along the western Canada US border, much of which is remote and unpopulated, the chore of watching video of nothing whatsoever happening must result in a high attrition rate among drone operators.
No doubt the opportunity to snoop on some East Kootenai marijuana growers was part of the motivation for extending the edge of the drone patrols so far westward.