Posts Tagged UK
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 UK has armed its Watchkeeper drones with Hellfire missiles, according to ‘The Strategy Page’. The report has apparently not been confirmed by UK Ministry of Defence.
Watchkeeper is a medium range, long endurance drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450. The UK spent one billion pounds updating the Hermes 450 prototype, renaming it Watchkeeper, then basically mothballed the drone as it used its more effective US-purchased Predators drones to conduct campaigns of assassination in Afghanistan, Iraq and perhaps elsewhere.
Arming of Watchkeeper can be viewed as a UK MOD attempt to make the white elephant Watchkeeper look more relevant, as the MOD itself uses the more deadly Predators almost exclusively. Acting with the US, the UK has carried out countless armed sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing a large number of individuals, most of whom were likely innocent civilians.
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).
Several years late, and costing almost a billion pounds, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone was finally introduced to combat in Afghanistan this summer just in time to be withdrawn again. As predicted, the introduction was little more than a ‘fly-around’ to give the military a chance to say their new drone had been useful.
The Watchkeeper drone is based on the Israeli Hermes 450, built by Elbit Systems, and widely used in surveillance in the West Bank and attacks on Gaza. The British version was created by a consortium of Elbit System, and Thales of France, using an engine produced by an Elbit subsidiary in England, and other parts made in the UK or imported.
In November 2014 the UK military proclaimed themselves satisfied with their new drone, claiming to have used it for surveillance leading to a strike against the Taliban. Then the Watchkeeper was packed up and taken back to the UK, with no word on future deployment. Watchkeeper is pointedly not being used in Iraq. Unarmed Watchkeeper is best suited to support of ground troops, and there isn’t a significant role for it at present.
For a major, very costly, military procurement of a ‘leading edge’ technology, the Watchkeeper drone programme has had little coverage. No doubt this results from military and government fears of raising a public backlash, for dealing with an Israeli arms company at a time when Israel was attacking Gaza and killing hundreds of people, many of them women and children. As one of Israel’s largest arms companies, Elbit Systems is deeply involved with all aspects of the Israeli military, the occupation, attacks on Gaza, and any large scale surveillance of Palestinians. Many Elbit principals are part of the Israeli military establishment, and Elbit advertises its products as ‘conflict tested’.
None of the major political parties have taken any interest in Watchkeeper. It is a legacy project of the Blair government, and none of the parties appear willing to own up to having transferred several hundred million pounds to an Israeli arms company while Israel was using similar drones in committing atrocities in Gaza.
Israeli company Elbit Systems has embarked on a world wide campaign to sell its new Hermes 900 drone.
Successful use in war is often a strong selling point for military arms, and the maker of Hermes, Elbit Systems of Israel, is quick to point out that the Hermes 900 is part of the Hermes 450 family of drones and therefore shares its ‘combat-proven‘ qualities. The Hermes 900 drone is a larger version of the Hermes 450 which has been flown widely in Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine and in the service of Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan.
By using Hermes drones extensively, the UK government has become a silent partner with the marketing arm of the Israeli arms industry. This arms industry is a fundamental part of the occupation of Palestine, and the ongoing attacks on Palestinians by the occupation forces.
The Algemeiner blog reports that Hermes drones have flown more than half a million hours, or which 85,000 hours were flown by UK military in Afghanistan.That means 17% of the flight experience of Hermes drones has been with the UK military. Israeli arms merchants trade on this experience when they try to sell drones to other purchasers. (Not mentioned is that UK forces had 11 crashes of Hermes 450’s by 2011 and the Drones Crash Database has recorded other Hermes crashes worldwide)
Drones have long been a mainstay of the Israeli military, and while it rarely discusses its use of drones, some information has leaked out. Drone Wars UK has documented Israel’s use of drones in the occupation of the West Bank, and especially its attacks on Gaza in a report ‘Israel and the Drone Wars’.
Hermes 450 drones are used in Afghanistan under Project Lydian, through which Elbit and its partner Thales (of France) rented drones to the UK military, by the hour, while the military waited for the introduction of Watchkeeper surveillance drones. Obstensibly a UK built drone, Watchkeeper was based on the smaller Israeli Hermes 450 drone, manufactured and updated in Britain by Thales.
Watchkeeper drones were supposed to replace Hermes 450 drones in 2011, with a different set of operators as well, but the Watchkeeper programme was characterised by delays, and Thales eventually was forced to pick up some of the costs of operating the drone fleet in Afghanistan to compensate for the lateness. In January 2014 Watchkeeper still had not been introduced to Afghanistan, apparently, and the military was still using Hermes drones.
Meanwhile, Elbit is said to be producing one Hermes 900 each week, suggesting an inventory of more than 50 drones over the last year. Some of these have been sold to the Israeli military, and some sold to buyers in Latin America (Chile, Mexico, and Colombia) and elsewhere. Canada has considered buying the Hermes 900 as part of its languishing Project JUSTAS.
In line with its Conservative cousins in the UK, Canada’s government has moved to increase arms sales by removing some restrictions on exports. Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works tasked with managing a review of the items that can be exported, announced recently that more than half the items would be taken off the list. (In other words, items deemed too dangerous to export in 2002, are now considered safe). In keeping with this governments habit of secrecy, the review was announced with little fanfare.
According to Finley’s statement, reported by Lee Berthiaume in the Ottawa citizen, the purpose of the review was to align Canada’s policies with that of the US.
Arms sold by Canada to the Saudi dictatorship were recently used to suppress democracy demonstrations in nearby Bahrain. Bahrain is home of the US Fifth Fleet, and the US has been reluctant to support democratic movements which could destabilise the ruling dictators who gave them permission to be there. Likewise Canada’s foreign affairs Minister John Baird has given support to the Bahrain dictators, over democracy protesters.
Lee Berthiaume reported that Canada would like to widen exports to countries like Chile, Peru, South Korea and Brazil. (Brazil may not be so keen after recent allegations of Canadian industrial spying). Whether the list will be expanded to a longer list of autocratic countries isn’t clear. But if the government is willing to export arms to the Saudi dictatorship, one assumes that our government will have few limitations on who it sells to.
When the UK Conservative government greatly expanded the list of export targets, they were quickly stung by the Arab Spring, which revealed them in numerous arms trade transactions with Colonel Qadaffi of Libya.
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?
Chris Cole has written ‘Drone Wars Briefing’. It is hot off the press and is essential reading for anyone concerned with the impact of drones on human rights or the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine and Somalia.
Many people around the world are extremely troubled by the growing use of unmanned systems to launch attacks at great distances. Traditionally, one of the key restraints on warfare has been the risk to one’s own forces and, as the MoD themselves admit in their publication on UAV’s, if this restraint is taken away, unmanned systems may make war more likely. The way that unmanned drones have enabled a huge increase in targeted killing is also causing deep disquiet amongst legal experts and scholars. Of particular concern is the way that the CIA is using such unmanned systems to undertake extrajudicial killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries with which the US is not at war.
However, perhaps the greatest concern relates to what is seen as one of the most important capabilities or characteristics of drones – their ability to loiter over an area for hours or even days. Evidence is beginning to emerge that it is the persistent presence of UAVs sitting over remote villages and towns simply looking for ‘targets of opportunity’ that may be leading to civilian casualties.
Beleagured Defence Secretary Liam Fox was in trouble even before the current scandal. Fox was a promoter of increased arms sales to get Britain out of its current troubles. But demand for arms is down in current economic circumstances, and the Arab Spring has made it difficult to license exports to the region’s remaining dictators.
Britain’s Conservative government arms trade promoters were caught trying to flog arms to several of the Middle East’s dictators, just as the democratic movement exploded in several countries. Since then the government has been scrambling to minimise the impact of previous arms sales in the repression of democratic protesters, and the potential impact of sales that stalled at the last moment.
Peace activists in Hastings satirised the ‘blood washing’ activities of a local arms company with some street theatre. Hastings is on England’s south coast.
The arms company they mocked was General Dynamics UK, a branch of the giant General Dynamics arms company, which has a three facilities in Hastings. General Dynamics is one of the largest arms companies in the world. (See overview here). General Dynamics UK was recently embarassed in the public sphere by its sales of military communications equipment to the Qaddafi regime immediately prior to the UK intervention in Libya. (The UK intervened to protect Libyan civilians from being slaughtered by the military of that very regime). The Independent newspaper documented the involvement of General Dynamics, and its government enablers, with the Libyan regime in this article.
The activists held a mock ‘triathalon’ complete with costumes and athletic contests and moved between the three Hastings facilities occupied by General Dynamics. The protest drew attention to General Dynamic’s community involvement programme, which includes sponsoring the Hastings Half Marathon. General Dynamics has a variety of community involvements in Hastings also including supporting the Half Marathon and the local bonfire society. (Editor-this is really a ‘bloodwashing’ activity. See earlier discussions of this practise elsewhere in the blog).
General Dynamics community programmes serve to divert attention away from the real nature of General Dynamics products, which is to conduct warfare. And warfare on a grand scale, since one of General Dynamic’s products is the Trident submarine, each one capable of razing many cities.
In a demonstration earlier in the month, Hastings activists picketed the Castleham Road facility of General Dynamics as part of the national protests against the arms trade. The Hastings Observer quoted a company official as claiming ‘we are not in the arms trade’ (although it is hard to imagine that military communications equipment can not be described as ‘arms’).
(photos to follow)